September 6, 2013

Faith conquers fear

Young woman strives to touch the hearts of youths in trouble around the world

While Jenna Knapp, center of back row, visited gang members in jail and wrote down their stories during her three years in El Salvador, she also volunteered to help younger children avoid that future, teaching them life skills and vocational skills. Here, the 2010 graduate of the University of Notre Dame is pictured on the front steps of the home in the Dolores Medina community where she lived with a family of five headed by a single mother. The house is also where she met with the youths she helped every week. (Submitted photo)

While Jenna Knapp, center of back row, visited gang members in jail and wrote down their stories during her three years in El Salvador, she also volunteered to help younger children avoid that future, teaching them life skills and vocational skills. Here, the 2010 graduate of the University of Notre Dame is pictured on the front steps of the home in the Dolores Medina community where she lived with a family of five headed by a single mother. The house is also where she met with the youths she helped every week. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Jenna Knapp never considered herself in danger as she walked into prisons in El Salvador where she routinely met with male and female youths who were serving sentences for crimes that included extortion and murder.

Instead, the 25-year-old Indianapolis resident always felt she was following Christ’s call and her Catholic faith as she spent the past three years listening to and writing down the life stories of gang members locked behind bars—stories filled with horror, heartbreak, humanity and a glimmer of hope.

“There’s one girl, Veronica,” Knapp says, beginning a story. “She just had a very hard façade and never let anyone in. She approached me about a year into my time in the detention center, wishing to share something with me.

“In our second session, sitting under a tree, she shared with me the time she was gang-raped by five of her fellow gang members. That day, we just cried together. As I left, she stopped me and told me she was grateful to me because I was one of the people in her life who was trying to help her discover who she truly was.

“That was crucial because that was the nature of our work. We were trying to provide a space for people to discover their authentic selves—which I believe are always good.”

A year later, Veronica’s story drew the attention of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), which shared her story through an international podcast.

“It was a chance to break the silence for other women who were trapped in similar situations,” Knapp says.

Listening with the heart

As Knapp shares that story, she sits at the kitchen table in her family’s north side Indianapolis home.

A graduate of St. Pius X School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, she is in the waning days of a summer at home before she leaves for Uganda on Sept. 8 to work in a home where she will take care of street children for the next 10 months.

During her time in Indianapolis, Knapp has visited Miracle Place, the inner-city, multi-service center run by the Sisters of Providence.

“I’ve known those kids since the eighth grade when I started volunteering there,” she says with a smile. “I just love reconnecting with the families that I’ve known for many years.”

She has also been working on the English translations of the two books of stories that have been produced from visits with imprisoned youths in El Salvador—Beneath the Mask of A Gang Member and Tough Lessons 2.

El Salvador is the country where she has traveled seven times for service work since she was 16, including a college semester where she studied theology at a university there and taught English to children in a poor mountain village.

“I feel I’m more alive when I’m living in service and not removed from it,” she said after that experience. “With what I’ve been given in life, I feel I owe so much back. I want to listen and love in a way that I hope I can sustain all through my life.”

Listening became the heart of her life in the past three years in El Salvador. In 2010, she was named a Fulbright Scholar, a prestigious award that includes a yearlong grant for international study and research that increases mutual understanding between the United States and other countries.

Knapp joined two other Fulbright Scholars—Maria Hoisington and Olivia Holdsworth—for the project with imprisoned gang members that they called “Tell Me.”

“The majority of the youth were actively involved in the two gangs in El Salvador,” says Knapp, who visited the jails four to five times a week. “The project used creative writing as a process in which they could tell their stories in a safe space. As they would speak, I would write down what they said. Later, I would bring it back to them and start the process of digging deeper.

“They were able to speak outside the system—where they wouldn’t be judged. Beneath the layers of violence and years of abuse and attention-seeking crimes are good people that have much to teach the rest of us.”

One of Knapp’s hopes is that the gang members’ stories will serve as a deterrent to future youth violence in the country.

“When youth on the outside of prison see that this life has only brought them suffering, it will discourage them from joining the gangs.”

Knapp also took an active role toward that goal during her time in El Salvador. She volunteered with an organization associated with Catholic Relief Services that worked with youth groups in communities controlled by gangs.

“We led six-month programs for vulnerable youths, doing workshops on life skills and vocational skills.”

A response to Christ’s call

Knapp views her work with the youths in jail as a response to Christ’s words in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these my brethren”—a call that includes visiting people in prison.

The effort became so important to her, Hoisington and Holdsworth that they extended their initial year on the project to another two years—a commitment made possible by a stipend from the group, Christians for Peace in El Salvador.

That commitment also led her into the tragic and terrifying world of a youth named Daniel.

In their meetings, Daniel told Knapp that he was conceived in a prison while his father served a jail sentence for a killing. When his father was released, he beat Daniel every day, a cycle of violence that continued when Daniel joined a gang.

“He said he was the best gang member they could ever have because he didn’t care if he lived or died,” Knapp says. “He said he wanted to be the worst bad person he could be.”

Yet Daniel had a change of heart in jail.

“He had this change of heart because his girlfriend was pregnant with his first daughter, and she was behind bars because of her affiliation with him,” Knapp says. “In his change of heart, he said he wanted to be the best person he could be.

“It shows the way cycles of poverty and violence lead generations of people to begin their lives from a place of violence and desperation.”

Being immersed in such stories for three years hasn’t hardened Knapp’s heart.

“I feel privileged to have an insight into their world that so few try to encounter and so few try to understand,” she says. “The books are filled with hundreds of stories of the suffering and the incredible resilience and strong faith of these youths.

“It’s necessary for people to have an outlet for their stories, but at the end of the day, it’s just a Band-Aid for the cycle of poverty that leads to so many of these incidents of violence. If I was able to make some youths who were deemed unlovable to feel they were worthy of love or to better understand themselves, then I was making a difference.”

A different cycle—of goodness

That desire to make a difference fits Knapp’s plan to attend graduate school in the fall of 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies with an emphasis on restorative justice.

“Rather than looking at a wrongdoing as a crime that you have to serve time for, you look at it as something that damaged a human relationship, and that relationship has to be repaired,” says Knapp about an approach that considers the needs of the victims, the complexity of the perpetrator’s life and the involvement of the community.

Yet for the next 10 months, she will live in Uganda, a country where she volunteered for six months in 2008.

Her return to Uganda represents a different “cycle”—a cycle of goodness.

“I was teaching a class at a public high school in South Bend while I was a student at Notre Dame,” she recalls. “I mentioned to the Spanish teacher that I had spent time in Uganda. When she expressed interest, I put her in touch with the people I worked with there.

“She soon quit her job and moved to Uganda to start this group called ‘LOT 2545.’ LOT stands for ‘Least of These,’ and the numbers are for Matthew 25:45. It’s a home that focuses on the holistic rehabilitation of boys who have lived on the streets for a number of years.”

Knapp is interested in the model of LOT 2545 because she sees its potential for the youths of El Salvador.

“It’s something lacking in El Salvador,” she says. “Youths coming out of the justice system have no support to change their lives around if they want to do so.”

Changing lives is Knapp’s mission. She sees a kindred spirit in the teacher who moved to Uganda to start LOT 2545.

“She invited me to move into the home she started in Uganda. It was really the Holy Spirit at work. Both of us said yes to invitations that can lead us to remarkable things.”

The opportunity to change a life in some way is open to everyone, Knapp believes.

“We just have to let go of the limitations holding us back.” †

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