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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Sister of Mercy

Janet Harris plants the seeds of faith and reform within juvenile offenders and prays they do not fall upon hard ground. But it is a mission filled with pain.

August 04, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The teenager whose lifeless hand she held had once received a standing ovation in a play Sister Janet helped put on. The play was called "My Brother's Shoes." And in real life, it was his brother he was trying to save when both were killed.

The pressures, the losses cut deep, and Sister Janet grew weary. In 1980, she transferred to the Bay Area to work in a retreat house. It was an oasis, but it didn't last. "I thought it was too easy and too cushy," she says. "It was like being in warm water all the time."

She left in 1985 to become pastoral associate at a cathedral in San Bernardino, then was hired as coordinator of detention ministry there. "I think the bishop found that I was a little more creative than he wanted me to be," she says. In the midst of financial cutbacks, the ministry was eliminated in 1989, when she was hired at Central Juvenile Hall.

"Sister Janet is probably the most high-spirited nun I've ever known," says William Burkert, senior director at Central. "As far as being at the edge, the leading edge of how we do our job, she's probably out there. In fact, sometimes she's over the edge."

Burkert says she has been able to connect with young people of all or no faiths: "A lot of them aren't Catholic, but they attach themselves to Sister Janet. There's something that transcends whatever religion a person is. It has to do with your attitude about how to deal with kids."

His feelings about her are not shared by some staff.

"Sister Janet? You mean the one I can't stand?" asks Joe Sills, a senior detention officer in the KL unit, where those charged with murder are housed. He says it with a smile.

"When she gets upset, she'll think she can do anything in this building. Some of these guys are murderers, not all of them, but some of them, and man you can't give them that much love. I basically like all of them, but I'm not giving them that much love."

Sills remembers an incident in which one of the inmates was not being allowed to attend Mass. Luis Gomez had caused a ruckus on Christmas Day when he sat in the pews behind a member of a gang that had killed his brother.

When Sister Janet found out months later that Gomez was still banned from Mass, she went to get him and confronted Sills. "I should have done it in private," she says. "I said some things I shouldn't have said. I was in the wrong."

Gomez made his first communion at Central, and Sister Janet felt that a seed had been planted. That is the nature of her work, she says, to plant seeds and hope they do not fall upon hard ground.

At the entrance to Huntington's Zen garden is a zigzag bridge. It is believed that evil spirits travel in straight lines and cannot follow those who enter. It is a place of peace and goodness. Of course, once you leave the garden, and pass over the bridge, evil spirits await.

*

The night before he is to be sentenced, Luis Gomez is visited by Javier Stauring, 34, one of Sister Janet's 50 or so volunteers. On Wednesday nights, the volunteers talk one-on-one with the youths. After Sunday Mass, there are group discussions.

Stauring trains the new volunteers. "I tell them that the main reason we're here is to accompany the kids through these rough times, be there for them, show them unconditional love on a consistent basis, which really the great majority of these kids have never felt."

Stauring and Gomez sit on plastic chairs facing each other in a small interview room.

"How much time you facin'?" Stauring asks Gomez.

"A lot, I don't really know," he replies.

"Was it first-degree?"

"First."

"Was a gun involved?"

"Yeah."

Gomez says he is not scared: "I already know what they're going to do. I already know what's comin' so it ain't no surprise."

Stauring attends Gomez's sentencing the following day at Superior Court in Norwalk. Gomez sits with his eyes lowered as a woman, the wife of the victim, sobs and asks the judge to give Gomez the death penalty. "My son asked me, 'Why don't we just commit suicide?' " she tells the court. Their sentence is a lifetime without a loved one, a man gunned down while earning a living. Young Bu Lee was well liked in the community. He was 52 years old.

It was the second robbery Gomez was involved in during a 20-minute stretch. He has no previous felony convictions, but the judge gives Gomez the presumptive sentence, life with no possibility of parole--plus seven years.

Gomez shows no emotion and doesn't look back at family members as the bailiff leads him away.

That night, Stauring again visits Gomez at Juvenile Hall.

"I talked to your mom," Stauring says. "She told me to not let you do anything to yourself."

"I'm all right."

Gomez throws out his right hand and Stauring grabs it hard and holds it. The two men lean forward in their chairs, their heads next to each other. Both cry.

"Those who love you are still going to be there for you," Stauring says. "You gotta be strong. A lot of people love you. Ask God to make you strong, man. Put it in his hands. It's too much for one person."

*

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