Building Faith from Barbed Wire

Pepperdine Law Students and alumni team to teach Bible study classes at local youth correctional facilities.

The story made the evening news that day. Eighteen-year-old Marvin Laguan had been shot more than six times while talking to his girlfriend in the 400 block of North Mar Vista Avenue in Pasadena, California. He died almost instantly.

Friends, some former gang members, gathered around a candlelit memorial for the next several days. Young men who would otherwise play the tough guy role embraced and sobbed over the site of Laguan’s murder.

About 42 miles away at the Pepperdine School of Law, then second-year law student Tracey Brown Fouché (JD ’12) heard the news. A somewhat unlikely friendship had blossomed between Fouché and Laguan after the two met when Fouché taught a Bible Study course at Camp David Gonzales in Calabasas. It was the youth correctional facility Laguan once called home for a criminal sentence he received as a minor.

The news brought tears to Fouché’s eyes. Memories of her time with Laguan immediately rushed through her mind. First his reluctance to even attend Bible study in the first place. Then the walls he put up that made it hard to communicate with him. Then the transformation Fouché witnessed over the course of several months—a transformation that allowed Laguan to open up and want to better his life.

When Laguan was released from Camp Gonzales in the spring of 2011, Fouché promised to keep in touch. She kept that promise, occasionally checking in and getting updates about how Laguan had moved away from the gang-infested neighborhood he was living in and found work with Homeboy Industries, a job training program in Los Angeles led by Father Greg Boyle. He seemed to be on the right track. Then came that day in Pasadena in August 2011. A life on the mend ended in an instant.

“Marvin’s story gives urgency to our message,” Fouché said of her work in teaching the Bible study course at Camp Gonzales.

It Started with a Flyer

Camp Gonzales and Camp Kilpatrick were never really on Fouché’s radar. But in the fall of 2010 she was approached by classmate Jessie Johnston (JD ’11) who read a flyer that was hanging in the atrium of the School of Law. That flyer had been posted by Peter Depew, now a third-year law student, who was searching for student volunteers at both locations.

A Bible study course, specifically at a juvenile detention facility, was an ironic choice for the then 30-year-old Depew. As a teenager growing up in Sylmar, California, Depew used to race his souped-up cars in front of the city’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Facility, one of the largest of its kind in the United States.

“When you’re young, sometimes that kind of recklessness—taking chances—is tempting,” Depew said.

The reality of it was that some of the faces in Nidorf were familiar to Depew—friends and acquaintances he knew from his childhood.

“I had one friend in jail, one with warrants, and one dead,” he said.

But Depew’s life had turned out differently. His parents made the conscious decision to send him to Los Angeles Baptist High School to keep him away from the gangs at his district’s public school. After graduating, he immediately enrolled in courses at California State University Northridge, completed his bachelor’s degree, then joined the U.S. Army in 2002 where he served as a field artillery officer. He spent four years serving stateside and in Korea before he was honorably discharged as a lieutenant. His experiences in the military gave Depew a chance to reflect on his youth and how he felt when he returned home to find that some of his friends’ lives were still shadowed by crime.

He returned to CSU Northridge to begin working toward his master’s degree, and eventually started his own business working with antique arcade games. It was during that time he got the idea of reaching out to some of the youth at Nidorf— youth that reminded him of his high school friends. He approached administrators at the facility about starting a Bible study program. The proposal was accepted, and Depew began teaching one evening a week.

“I am by no means a saint,” he said. “But I thought if these kids could lean on the word of the Almighty, maybe they’d have a chance at changing the way they lived their lives.”

One Scripture at a Time

When he decided to attend law school at Pepperdine, it was no longer feasible to drive to Nidorf every week, so Depew came up with the idea of bringing the program to juvenile facilities within range of the Malibu campus. With the support of School of Law deans and faculty, Depew hung the flyer in the atrium and made an announcement at a meeting of the Christian Legal Society, hoping for at least a few bites. Almost instantly he heard from Bryan Pereboom (JD ’12) and Johnston. Fouché and her husband Tyler soon followed. They had received permission to teach at both Camp Gonzales and Camp Kilpatrick. Every Thursday night at 6 p.m., they’d travel to the camps, Bibles in hand.

It didn’t take long for other law students to join. The class was optional for the young men detained in the facilities. They had one hour a night of “free time” when they also had the option to simply watch television. Some weeks only about five of the youth would show up. Other weeks the room would be filled. Interacting with the law students seemed to offer a look into the world outside of the barbed wire fences of the camps—a world that was better than what they left behind.

The immediate challenges became evident on the first day of class. Many of the youth had never seen a Bible, much less read any of its content. Those that could read were often at least six years behind the ideal reading level. But the group of law students saw the challenges as proof of the importance of their role as teachers. The well-being of each youth they served quickly became part of their professional missions.

“I worked for the Los Angeles County Public Defender as a law clerk during law school, specifically in the Inglewood Juvenile Division, with many of the same young men that were in my Bible study class as clients,” Johnston said. “There, I developed a heart for all of my juvenile clients and wanted to help them succeed in staying out of trouble. I also identify with the young men because I had a tough time in my family situation when I was a teenager, and I feel a desire to help them work through some of the same issues I faced.”

“I am more convinced than ever that God was not kidding when he told us to personally and relationally invest in the lives of people who can’t pay us back,” Pereboom said. “It’s awesome to see God show up in that context.”

Even as recent alumni of the School of Law, Pereboom, Fouché, and Johnston continue to offer their teachings to the youth at each facility, showing up every Thursday night to teach the word of God, one scripture at a time. Depew, who began his third year of law school this fall, intends to continue the program after he graduates. His goal is to bring in new law students to join in the effort, and eventually expand to other area facilities.

Though there is the daunting possibility that some of the young men might either return to the facility or become victims of gang violence, the rewards of getting know teens like Marvin seem to make it all worthwhile.

“Marvin was one of the brightest lights I’ve ever met,” Johnston said. “And when I found out he died, I was standing in a group of about 20 young men at the camp. I started sobbing as one young man came up to tell me that it would all be okay and not to worry about his safety as he was to be released that week. I looked in his eyes and told him that, considering the circumstances, he could not promise that it would. I still do not have that assurance, but I now consider that young man my own son. I stay in touch with him, pray for him, and hope to continue my mentorship for the rest of our lives. I know my prayers of protection over him have power.”

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