A Youth Justice Chaplain Bringing Hope to the Fatherless

10 Jul 2023

By Amy Galliford

Lee Beamish spends most of his days in jail. As a youth justice chaplain, his job is to minister hope in what most would consider a hopeless place – Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre, a maximum-security prison near Gosford and the home of anywhere up to 120 young men.

Despite their rough backgrounds and fraught relationships with authority, the boys treat Lee with a distinct respect for his position as a religious figure. They are polite and courteous; they do not swear around him, and if they do, their friends quickly pull them into line. More significantly, they insist on addressing him as ‘Father’ or ‘Father Lee’. While this title has carried over from Lee’s Anglican predecessor, it also points to a reality common to almost all the young detainees – fatherlessness.

Conscious that this is a gap in the boys’ lives that he is partially filling with his chaplaincy, Lee is acutely aware of the gravity of his role. Despite this, the work is ultimately simple.

“It’s just about being consistent, being a person of my word – so many of these boys have been let down by empty promises.”

Upon this foundation of stability, Lee prioritises building a sense of agency in the boys, despite the limitations of their circumstances. As life has stripped them of freedoms and self-worth, it’s crucial for Lee to restore their dignity to them. With his own traumatic story, he is well-placed to do just this.

“Nothing will ever shock me.”

While he is careful not to disclose the harsher details of his personal testimony, his experiences fill him with a unique compassion for the boys’ situations. He can represent Jesus as someone who not only cares for them but understands them.

It is this relational nature of God that Lee makes a point of emphasising.

While he describes religion as something humans have constructed on their own terms, a relationship with God “changes the game.” This view of God is radical for those with deep guilt and shame.

“It’s a big concept for young people to grasp, particularly if they haven’t had good role models – that God is a Heavenly Father who loves you deeply.”

The relational emphasis of Lee’s ministry is significant, considering that stable relationships are precisely what most detainees crave. Just as the lack of community is often the cause of youth delinquency, it is also a common reason for recidivism. With authority figures to look up to and structure to lean on, many youths deliberately re-offend in order to return to the community that prison offers them.

For this reason, Lee’s heart is to establish Christian networks outside the prison so that there are communities to welcome the boys when they are freed. His recent participation in the Northern Rivers Convention served this purpose, as he visited various remote towns to connect with Christian communities.

Brewarrina, near Bourke in northern New South Wales, was a key location in the Northern Rivers Convention. 

One of the conference night sessions, held at the local sports oval, included testimonies, preaching and praise.

A young person came to faith in Christ, and Lee “got the call up” to share a testimony.

In one of these towns, Brewarrina, Lee was introduced to a local man who turned out to be the father of a boy he knew in prison, Daniel. After some time together, Lee asked him if there were anything he would like passed on to his son.

“Just tell my son I love him.”

When Lee returned to prison and met again with Daniel, there was a new intimacy in their relationship. Along with the message of his father’s love, Lee gave Daniel a picture featuring three men – Lee, the local pastor, and a boy Daniel knew from Brewarrina who had turned his life around following Jesus.

“Here are three men that are for you. When you look at this in your cell, just know that we are for you, Daniel. We want to see you become the best person you can be.”

When his sentence ends within the coming month, Daniel will have a place to land within a community. In Lee’s words, “He knows there’s a place for him.”

While Lee continues to marvel at the mystery of God, he is constantly assured of the unfailing nature of His love as it plays out in the lives of the boys he works with.

“He is the God of the second, third, fourth chance – other people may have written you off, but God’s arms are always open towards you.”

He openly acknowledges that, even as the “God man” in his work, he does not know all the answers. His ministry is practical, grounded in the words of James, “True religion is this: to care for the widows and the fatherless.” For the fatherless he encounters every day, he continues to cultivate a nature akin to his own Heavenly Father; to be a man of his word, to be a person of safety, and to be fatherly – to be Father Lee.


Read more stories from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT HERE