Juvenile hall chaplain out to ‘rebuild the kid’

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1995, and the Rev. Charles Tinsley brought films on the civil rights movement to Juvenile Hall to show to the teens in lockup.

The sight of Birmingham police turning dogs and firehoses on peaceful demonstrators enraged a 15-year-old named Darrell Jobe. He lashed out at the white inmates in the audience, blasting them with profanities.

“I took him into another room and I told him, ‘They chose to be here, and that’s very important to me,'” Tinsley recalled. “You’re circumventing the good we’re doing.'”

It was the first time Jobe experienced Tinsley’s transformative support and attention, but it would not be the last.

Today, Jobe is educated, well-spoken and well-paid, a consultant to corporate clients. The Brentwood father of four said lessons from Tinsley have nurtured his own parenting.

Statistically, he shouldn’t even be alive, Jobe said last week.

“I was gang-banging in Richmond,” he said. “He tried to show us another way to go. In custody, everybody dogs you, the counselors. They don’t realize you’re a child and you’re hurting.”

In his 13 years on the job as juvenile justice chaplain, Tinsley has helped send some 200 detainees to college, buried 150 and taken over the rearing of “dozens and dozens.”

Many of his charges call the Presbyterian minister “Rev,” but plenty call him “Dad” or “Pop Tinsley.” He earns a modest salary with no benefits, prays with the youths and tries to point them to a life beyond one that doesn’t seem worth living.

He drives them to look at colleges, helps them find work, and does “a lot of filling in the blanks” for the usually fatherless teens. As an employee of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, he has the freedom to push his program beyond the center’s walls and into the young offenders’ futures.

An average day? There is none. He files papers, goes to court with children, sees them after school. He helps former offenders chart a course for themselves. The telephone is on 24/7. He gets calls from probation officers and from detainees’ relatives with news of a death.

“It might be a grandparent, but more often it’s siblings, cousins, best friends,” he said.

With Tinsley’s prodding, a network of givers helps secure tangibles. The Juvenile Hall Auxiliary pays thousands of dollars for eyeglasses, scholarships and removing gang-related tattoos.

“Churches know when I call I’m calling for money, and they know it’s not for me,” he said, chuckling. He is working to get two teens into boarding schools. Churches provide airfare and care packages.

When he met Jeremiah Huntley, the 13-year-old couldn’t read or write, Tinsley said. “I put him in a Christian school for kids with learning difficulties. He’s come an awful long way.”

Another alumnus, now 30, remembers his first meeting with Tinsley: He was 17, waiting in the nurse’s office for an intake exam. Tinsley came in to get a chair.

“He said, ‘Young man, you look like someone I need to have a conversation with,'” said the Arizona real estate agent. “He’s very Midwestern in that regard; comes straight to the point. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to correct you.’ It was like, ‘You seem a little lost. Maybe I can help you.'”

Where would he be had he never known Tinsley?

He shouted with laughter.

“I shudder to think about that,” he said. “Lost out there in the world.”

Tinsley was going for a Ph.D. in higher education administration when he made a turn into the seminary. Aiming for campus ministry, he angled again, into Juvenile Hall.

Today, “I’m a counselor, social worker, pastor, surrogate parent,” he said.

Tinsley and his wife, software engineer Linda Tinsley — “she’s the unsung hero in our home” — have taken in boys from the hall.

“One kid, his mother was in prison, his father was in prison, his grandmother was schizophrenic and his uncle was an alcoholic,” Tinsley said. “The kid was turned out into the street at 13.”

It’s said there are no atheists in foxholes. Likewise, few appear in juvenile custody. Of the 200 or so at the hall and 100 more at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, most have a Christian background.

But not all. Tinsley helped one boy prepare for his bar mitzvah. Purple paperback Qurans share shelf space with Bibles in his office.

“We get Mormons from time to time,” Tinsley said. “Every now and then Buddhists, and kids who have no background. I’m here to share the idea that God loves them and so do I.

“It’s about comfort and concern,” he said. “This is a juvenile jail. Everything they have is taken away and they are put in a concrete room.”

Survivors say Tinsley gave them the tools for a life beyond the streets. Don’t chew on a toothpick in public. Don’t talk on a cell phone at the table.

“They practice cluelessness with style,” Tinsley said of his wards. “I take people out to eat. I tell them, you don’t sing at the table. You put your napkin in your lap. If the waitperson asks you if you want another Coke, you don’t say, ‘I’m cool,’ or they’ll think you’re saying the air conditioner is on too high. If you want to compete, you don’t do it with ebonics and your pants hanging off.”

Graduates in their 20s and 30s continue to follow Tinsley’s lead. When they trek into a Hometown Buffet in Concord for a reunion dinner, he points them toward the restroom to wash up.

All join hands to say grace before sitting down to plates heaped with breaded chicken, corn muffins, mashed potatoes, salads and weighty desserts.

Terrance Carter explains how attention in his birth family came in the form of a slug or a put-down.

“That’s love,” he roared, pointing at a grinning Tinsley.

With Tinsley’s help, Carter went to Knoxville College in Tennessee. “He paid for school for me out of his own pocket,” he said. “I got a 4.0 for this man.”

Badly injured in an auto accident in 2004, Carter came out of a coma in a Tennessee intensive care unit to find Tinsley at his bedside.

The burly, 6-foot-2 Tinsley wears a cleric’s collar under a light blue short-sleeve shirt. He proffers a gentle shake with a lineman’s hand.

Born in Indiana to a family of attorneys and teachers — including Cincinnati’s first black attorney — he keeps photos of his relatives on his office wall. Among them: his great-great-grandmother, a former slave. His mother’s family founded the African Methodist Episcopal church.

“His mantra has always been ‘rebuild the kid,'” said Lionel Chatman, the county chief of probation. “I’ve seen him come into a situation where a kid had deteriorated psychologically, where he worked closely with that kid and seen him rebound. I think he’s a remarkable man.”

The men around the table say they’ve never heard him raise his voice.

“Rev’s got a lot of patience,” said Edwin Hackett. “When I met him, he wasn’t half that gray. I know we contributed to some of that.”

The mea culpa drew a chuckle from Tinsley.

He loses patience only with the criminal justice system. On principle, he says he never attends ribbon-cuttings for new penal institutions — including Juvenile Hall. The money could be better spent elsewhere, he says.

“I had a problem with their spending $33 million on this building. I could send 550 kids to college on that. But the people here are not a problem. There’s an 800-pound gorilla out there that makes those policy decisions,” he said.

Nonetheless, he celebrates the successes that cooperation brings. He is pleased because instead of scrapping worship services, the probation department agreed to hold a live service with one group at a time, while other wards watch a Webcast.

His adoptive son Leland Johnson has yet to hear Tinsley say he doesn’t have time when someone calls.

“I don’t know how much he sleeps,” Johnson said. “I think four to six (hours).”

In November, a heart problem earned Tinsley six weeks of bed rest.

He turned down a chance to oversee a similar ministry in San Francisco. “The politics,” he said, rolling his eyes and laughing. He also said no to an offer to lead his own church.

Not every kid he helped enroll in college graduated. But they are better people for having gone, he said. They return home, get jobs, see the world differently.

Tinsley keeps a photo spread of his kids in his office. In one, Jeremiah, wearing a light-colored suit, smiles broadly during his appointment to the countywide youth commission.

There’s one of a group Tinsley took to Oroville’s Butte College and another of a group at the gates of Knoxville College.

“This young man in the cap and gown got his diploma at CYA,” he said quietly. “He got murdered.”

Bay Area News Group, March 24, 2008

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