A special evening of Reflecting
Monday, February 4, 2002
Sponsored by Creighton University's Collaborative Ministry Office
Maureen McCann Waldron:
Creighton’s President Fr. John Schlegel S.J. is out of town and is unable to be with us tonight, but he asked us to express his gratitude to Greg for coming to be with us, and to share the stories about his ministry. Fr. Schlegel has encouraged us with this series on the Two Standards and our culture, because this is the kind of discussion we should be having at a Jesuit University.
Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. is a member of the California province of the Society of Jesus. He is the founder and director of Jobs For A Future/Homeboy Industries, an employment referral center and economic development program for at-risk and gang-involved youth in East Los Angeles. Until 1992, Fr. Boyle spent six years as pastor of Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The parish is located in public housing developments and has the highest concentration of gang activity in the city.
Fr. Boyle was born in Los Angeles. (We really apologize for bringing him to Nebraska in February! He is wearing every coat he owns tonight to stay warm.) He has received academic degrees from Gonzaga University, Loyola Marymount University, Weston School of Theology, and the Jesuit School of Theology, at Berkeley. He was ordained as priest in 1984. After that he taught high school, before he became pastor at Dolores Mission, he taught high school and spent some time in Christian Base communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and also served as Chaplin of the Islas Marias penal colony in Mexico and in Folsom Prison. So please help us welcome our very special guest, Fr. Greg Boyle.
Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J.:
It’s kind of a daunting task. I am kind of used to speaking about gangs and yet part of the invitation here is to talk about the Two Standards, Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. I have been a Jesuit for thirty years. That doesn’t mean I know anything -- especially when you have Jesuits in the crowd, to say nothing of the provincial of this province, an old friend of mine, Jim Grummer. I am an expert on nothing, but I know my experience to the extent that I can take the Spiritual Exercises and specifically the Two Standards and have it address our culture and talk about what that means. I can only do that by way of speaking about my own experiences working for the last sixteen years in this community of Boyle Heights, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, having the highest concentration of gang activity in the whole city, running, as Maureen mentioned, a program called Jobs For Future and Homeboy Industries. It is sort of a gang rehab, if you will, for gang members who want to redirect their lives.
Of course, the heroes of my life are the young men and women who come into my office looking for work, or to have their tattoos removed for free, or to receive counseling to somehow turn their lives around. The day will never come when I have more courage, or am closer to God or am more noble, then these kids that come in looking for help to navigate the treacherous waters of their lives. Kids like Hector: a 16- year old kid, gang member, kind of a knucklehead, who was into all sorts of things but, through our program, was able to get a job and get back into school. He had dropped out after couple of years. A real earnest kid. He came up to me once as we were having a conversation. I give a lot of talks all over the place, and he said, “I ran into this man who attended one of your talks.” And I said “Really.” He said “Yes, and he found your talk rather 'monotonous'.” I said, “Wow, gosh, is that right?” And he goes, “Well, no, actually that didn’t happen, I just need practice using bigger words.” So I encouraged him to practice on someone else!
One of the reasons we come together is that people share their experiences and talk about what they have come to know, not that it makes them an expert on anything other then their experience. There is an expression in my community, among Latino gang members called cletcha. Cletcha is school. We’ll say, “Hey did you go to cletcha today?” “No I ditched cletcha.” And my community is 99% Latino/Chicano, and there is a whole other language other then Spanish. It is called Cholo. Cletcha is an expression they use all the time. It'is not just a place: “Did you go to cletcha?” It is also an activity. You give cletcha, you school somebody, you educate them, run it down to them, give them cletcha. You’ll hear it all the time on the streets, “Run it down to them. Give them cletcha. Tell him what he needs to know.”
I remember a number of years ago in the housing project, Peoples Gardens. It was ten o’clock at night on a summer night and I was sitting on the back porch with this older guy, a gang member Raphael. Raphael was about in his mid-twenties, been in prison, got a job through our program, was raising his two sons, and was doing a good job, and we’re just talking. As we were sitting there I see this kid Alex, who is an 18 year old gang member, run up to a car and make a sale. He sells crack-cocaine and comes walking into the light, and he's counting his cash. He sees me gets very embarrassed and says, “Dispeninza,” which means "Sorry." I choose not to tell him anything about the drug-selling thing. I say, “What are you doing out here, you know where you should be right now. You should be up in the apartment with your lady, who is nine months pregnant - she's ready to burst! I heard on the grapevine that she had a false alarm last night and went to the hospital. It wasn’t her time, but you need to be there with your girlfriend.”
He said, “Oh, you know, my mother-in-law is up there.” I go, “What do you mean your mother-in-law is there?” So, I choose to be indignant with him, and I say, “Don’t tell me you're not going to be there when this baby is born!” And he goes, “Ya know to tell the truth - I don’t think I can “hang.” And I say, “What do you mean you don’t think you can hang!” I'm getting all worked up. So I turn to Raphael and I say, “Give him cletcha. Run it down to him. School him. Tell him about his responsibilities!” And Raphael is sort of a self-effacing, simple, humble guy. And he says, “Well, I don’t think he wants to hear what happened to me.” I said, “Of course he does. That’s why you’re in this life together, to help each other, school each other.” Then he gets kind of animalios, as they say in Spanish. He perks up and says, “There I was on the day my first son was born, in the waiting room at General Hospital. I’m waiting and waiting and suddenly this nurse comes and she says, 'Come on it’s time!' And we go running down this hall,” he says. “And she puts these gloves on me and this dress on me and this little hat on my head and this mask across my face, and we run down the hall, until and we get to this door. She flings open the door and she pushes me in, and there are these two legs spread wide open with a little head coming out and I have to get out of this room,” he says. “I cannot stay this room and so I go to leave and she pulls me back and I say, ‘but I cannot stay this room.’” And I said, “Why can’t you stay in this room?” And he says, “Because that was not my lady.” I say, “Well thank you Mr. Helpful.”
You know the Two Standards is sort of a daunting task, and I’m going to presume you all know it, of course, the Two Standards. Part of the thing is that they talk about the standard of Jesus and the standard of Satan, the enemy of our human nature, as Ignatius calls him. And it is really never about choosing. “Gee, I wonder should I choose Christ today or how about Satan?” It is never about choosing, it is about understanding strategies. It's about embracing the strategy of Christ. And Ignatius is very clear he says, “poverty, humility, humiliations.” This is the strategy of Jesus. You embrace that not so much as a choice, but as a strategy, as a disposition of heart. Of course, the strategy of the enemy of our human nature, is riches, honor, pride. When you hear this, it is kind of, “Umm, you know, thanks but no thanks,” you know. Poverty, humility, humiliations.
It reminds me of this time once when I was saying Mass at this place called Kirby Center. I’m in 22 different detention facilities where I say Mass on a rotating basis. Jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile halls, probation camps, and this place Kirby Center, which is a place for kind of disturbed kids. It's a lockdown facility. I got there a little early for Mass and there was this African-American kid, about 17 years-old, and he was practicing at the podium his part of the Mass, which was he was going to do the Psalms. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing that I shall want.” And as I’m watching him practice this thing, I thought, “That's terrific.” Usually they don’t practice. They just get the cold reading. He really wants to do a good job, and it’s almost Shakespearean, you know, the way that he gets up there. Well Mass comes and it’s his time to do the responsorial Psalm, and there is something about the way he is walking up to the podium, that I know this isn’t going to go right. It appears that he is going to perform this feat without benefit of a net. He has the script there but he wants to optimize and maximize his eye contact, so he decides not to look at the refrain. And with all his confidence, he says, “Our response today is, ‘the Lord is nothing I shall want.’” The whole crowd says, “The Lord is nothing I shall want.” The adults are all trying to get the words back, but that the horse has left the gate.
Who doesn’t feel that way when you read the Two Standards? You look at the strategy of Jesus and you say, in unison, “The Lord is nothing I shall want.” Who would want such a thing? Who would want to embrace this kind of strategy?
There is a common vision that brings us here together, and its’ a vision of trying to create, trying to help make God’s dream come true for each one of us and for the communities in which we live. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “The vision still has it’s time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint, and if it delays, wait for it.” It is a vision of creating God’s dream, becoming a reality in our mist. And in order to talk about the things that I want to underscore, I want to use as a departure point two gang theories, things I believe about gangs, that I think I can talk about the strategy of Jesus in a similar way.
The first thing is that our strategies (let’s just say working with gangs in a city,) our strategies, tactics, approaches, programs, can only be as good as the analysis which undergirds it. If the analysis is wrong-headed, then the strategy won’t work. Now let me give you an example of that.
A number of years ago I was getting ready to say Mass at Dolores Mission. I looked out the window and I saw two police officers and they had three little gang members, little tiny guys, hemmed up. You know what hemmed up means? They're patting them down for drugs, guns, contraband, anything to pop em’, anything to arrest them. And they pat them down and don’t find anything and this pisses off one of the police officers so much that he takes a huge wad of gum out of his mouth and he plunks it in the hair of the tiniest kid, a kid named Ernie. And then he takes the baseball cap, which he has thrown to the ground and he puts the cap on the gum on the hair and smooshes it in real good. So you have ultimate stuckness, and then he sends the three of them on their way.
The next day I went to the captain at Hollenbeck Police Precinct, and I remember asking the captain, “What was that officer's hope in doing that to this kid that day?” The captain said something to me that I'd heard before and I’ve heard many times since, he said, “Father, you know our strategy is a simple one: Make life as miserable as we can for the gang member.” Well, I had to be the one to tell him that that's redundant in our community, and that in fact life is miserable. In fact, gangs are the places kids go when they have encountered their life as a misery, and who doesn’t know that misery loves company? But you would do well to ask yourself, “What's the analysis that undergirded that strategy?” And I think it's this: I think that the officer looked at these kids and said, “You know what's wrong with these three kids is that they are just not scared enough.” And the truth, of course, is that they're just not hopeful enough. Those are two hugely disparate, different analyses that undergird a strategy. If you embrace an analysis that is wrong-headed like that one -- these kids just aren't scared enough -- then you're going to walk down a path that leads to strategies that will ultimately fail, and are guaranteed to fail. That's one thing I wanted to say, strategies about gangs, and I'm to come back to what it means about the Two Standards.
The second thing I want to say about gang theories I have: gang violence is always about something else. It’s not about itself, it’s not about the symptoms that you see manifested. They’re indicators, it’s pointing beyond itself to something greater that you need to address. The analogy here is of 19th century medical history. The greatest, most significant development ever to come on the scene in that period of time in terms of having the greatest impact of benefit to the health of the populace had nothing to do with a doctor or an injection or a serum or a hospital.
But the minute they started to address the water supply and sewer system over here, diseases started to disappear over here. In fact the diseases were about something else, in the same way that gang violence is always about something else. It’s about dispair, about poverty that's still deep and pervasive. It is about a sense of hope; that you just can’t frighten into being hopeful. Gang violence is about something else and your analysis, your strategies are only as good as the analysis which undergirds it.
What is the analysis of the strategy of Jesus? The analysis that undergirds it, is love. Born of relationship of a God whose joy it is to love Him, a God who loves us without measure and without regret. God who is love and in this God there is no darkness at all. That is the analysis that undergirds this strategy, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. The God for whom disappointment is not part of God’s vocabulary, doesn’t know what we are talking about. And in the end we are all doomed to imitate the kind of God we believe in. If our god is tiny-spirited and mean, quick to be judgmental, easily disappointed, we have no choice but to be the same. If there is a no-matter-whatness to your love, and if that is how your God is, then you have no choice but to be that way with each other.
My prevailing image at the moment -- of the kind of God I think we have, which in fact undergirds this kind of strategy of Jesus -- comes by way of a Jesuit with whom I live, Bill Kane, who is from the New York Province, a writer. I don’t know if you ever saw a TV show called, "Nothing Sacred." He wrote that and writes a bunch of other things. I live in a community of seven Jesuits. Bill and I live in the garage - you know, he is where one car should be, and I’m where another car should be. We call it the two seasons.
Bill, at some point in his life, stopped doing what he was doing in order to be there for his father who was dying of cancer. His father still had his mental facilities and all, but was dying; had shriveled because of the ravages of cancer to about 90 pounds. Bill, in the last weeks of his father's life, was doing everything: bathing him, clothing him, feeding him, carrying him to bed at night. At the end of every day (in the role reversal that sort of happens to those who have ever taken care of ailing parents - all of the sudden you become the parent at a lot of levels) Bill would read his father to sleep at night, just as his father would have read him to sleep when Bill was a little kid. He put his father in bed, his father was very alert, very mentally alive. Bill would start to read, and he was usually very tired every night because this was an exhausting task. And he would be reading and his father would just be staring at him, wouldn’t take his eyes off him, big smile, big huge eyes, almost afraid to blink for fear he'd miss seeing, catching this glimpse of his son. And Bill would be reading and he'd look up and he would see his father’s look, and say, “Hey come on. Let’s have a little cooperation here. I read. You fall asleep. That's the idea.”
And his father would sort of whisper, “Okay sorry,” closed his eyes, and Bill would start to read. All of a sudden BING, one eye would open, because he couldn’t take his eye off his kid. And Bill would see him again, and he would say, “Hey come on, please. I want to go to bed.” “Oh, I'm sorry.” So he would close one eye and BING, other eye, and he would try to catch another glimpse of his kid. And his father died and he recalled this and it was undeniable, absolute, unconditional acceptance. Ours is a God that can’t take his eyes off of you. Doesn’t think about how you screwed up, doesn’t think about how you’ve gone wrong, doesn’t know what your talking about when you talk about how you have disappointed. Ours is a God that can’t close God’s eyes, for fear he’ll miss something.
This doesn’t make sense unless that’s the analysis which undergirds the strategy of Jesus. It was love, after all, that made the cross salvific and not the sheer terror of it. We are so used to thinking that the harder thing is the better thing. Howard Grey used to always say this to us in Theology: “The harder thing is the harder thing -- it’s not the better thing.” So Jesus doesn’t embrace the strategy of poverty, humility, humiliations because it's the harder thing. That has nothing to do with it. For God is love and in our God there is no darkness at all. This strategy of Jesus is about something else just as gang violence is about something else. This too is about something else, it’s not about itself, it’s not an end in itself, it’s about building the kingdom of God. This kingdom of God is a community that really has no outcasts. Everybody is welcome to this table fellowship. It is what Dean Brackley talks about in his own reflection on the Two Standards, a downward mobility. It’s about building the Kingdom of God, it’s not about being stuck in a sense of poverty, humility, and humiliation. It is about, in the end, building the Kingdom of God such that God might recognize it.
One of the places I say Mass is a place called the Southern Reception Center. It’s a Youth Authority Reception Center for the south of the state of California. Youth Authority is like a prison for younger folks, and it's a really strict, horrible, terrible place. And the California prison system the races are very much separated. You're not supposed to have contact -- that's sort of an internal thing. Mexicans talk with Mexicans, blacks with blacks, whites with whites -- you stay separate. When I first went to this place, I’ll just call it Norwalk. I remember there were three guys there, Jerome, who is African-American, Larry who is a white kid, and Jose who is Chicano/Mexican-American. And the three of them helped set up for Mass, which the first thing I noticed: here were the three races working together, which is extraordinary in the prison system in California, at any level. They just can’t mix or talk.
I remember the first time I went to Mass there, it wasn't like it was my first Mass there. It was like my first Mass ever. They came up to me and were telling me all the things I needed to know about Mass. And they talked to me like they were Mr. Rogers. It was like: “And then we will bring the gifts up. The gifts are the bread and the wine.” I’m pretending I’m taking mental notes: “Gifts. Bread. Wine. Tell me more.” Finally Larry says to me, very slowly and deliberately like Mr. Rogers, “And then I will bring you a bowl with a towel and some water.... So you can wash your iniquities.” And I don’t know where he got this from. I said, “Just before I came here I scrubbed the heck out of my iniquities. I think I’ll be okay there.”
Well, many months later I came to do Mass and the Masses are back-to-back. There is one Mass at 6:00 and one at 7:00. These three kids help at both Masses. Tom, who is the lay chaplain there, comes up to me before the first Mass and says, “Oh, by the way, Jose (one of the three guys,) is going to sing a song during the post-communion time.” And I said, “That’s great. He's never done this before. That’s terrific.” Communion time comes. Jose gets up, a cappella. It is so terrible that you can’t even believe it. It is like a cat is being tortured somewhere. All I can see is the look of the inmates, filled gym, and they're just awestruck at how awful this is.
A second Mass comes and I see him get up to do it again and I look at Tom the chaplain.[groans.] He gets up and does it again, and he achieves what I would not think possible: it was worse then the first time. Afterwards I knew I had to affirm him somehow, and so I walked up to the three of them and I said, “Hey, Jose it takes a lot of courage to get up and read in front of people, but it takes even more courage to get up and sing in front of people.” And Jerome puts his arm around him and says, “And it takes even more courage to get up and sing when yo’ ass can’t sing!” Well, we dissolved in laughter, we just laughed, laughed, laughed and nobody harder then Jose. And it was the Kingdom of God, such that God would recognize it. There is no point to any strategy unless it leads us to a place where you have a community where there are no outcasts. Where everybody is in on the Joke.
Humility is that downward mobility and it leads to a place of solidarity. It’s solidarity with the poor and the outcasts, there is no distance, it’s a one-ness. Matthew 25 is helpful here because its sort of essential. In fact a group of women from the housing project, for some reason, on my birthday or something, gave me a little plaque, and it just has the Matthew 25: “I was just hungry and you gave me the eat; I was thirsty and you gave me the drink....” It is hanging on my wall. Once I was on the phone and a homie came in, and kid named T-bone. I’m on the phone, and I watch him. He goes to this and he was reading it. I hang up the phone and say, “Do you like that?” and he goes, “Yeah, it’s feardme,” which is a good thing. Feardme, is good. “Especially this line right here, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me in naked.’” So I had to fill him in on the point of punctuation. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, semicolon, naked and you clothed me.
But it's a very significant thing because Jesus does not say, “He was in jail and you visited him.” He said, “I was in jail and you visited me.” Nothing captures better the downward mobility and the humility of Jesus that never wants to have the distance that says, "He was in jail and you visited him." It’s fuller than that.
Mike Kennedy, the pastor at Dolores Mission and my superior (in every way), used to always talk about friendship with the poor. He would ask, "Who are your Friends?" That is the question, he says. Who are your friends? Are you friends with the poor -- not in some condescending way, even if it's relational, even if it’s “How can I help them, and how can they benefit from me?”
Are you friends with the poor where you receive from them, you allow yourself to be broken, and you receive the wisdom that's found there. You receive the nobility that can't be located really anyplace else.
I remember at eight o'clock one night, I had closed my office and I was driving past White Memorial Hospital and there's a kid named Mike who is waiting at the bus stop. He is wearing one of these pastel blue hospital shirts. He's a messenger. We got him a job there. He has his lady and two kids. He's only nineteen. He raised himself, lived in housing projects, and he was a knucklehead -- in and out of being locked up. He used to "hang, bang, and slang." Hang with the homies, sell crack, write on the walls, do terrible things. And he got a job, he had been working there for about a year, so I see him obviously waiting to get the bus to go to Highland Park, which is some distance from his barrio, from his neighborhood, where his gang kicks it so he's moved away even. It's not convenient from him to take the bus to get there, and so I happen to see him and I know that that is where he is headed, his shift has ended. So I say, "Get in I'll take you home." "How are you doing, staying on top of your rent and everything?" And he says, "I'm okay this month" You know, a lot of times he gets short and he comes to me: "I just need a hundred dollars more and I can finish my rent."
Bill Clinton used to talk about people who played by the rules and did everything right, and they are still poor, and that's the case with somebody like Mike. Doing all the right things and yet society doesn't reward that very well. Surely he would do better, he would never have to come to me for rent money if he sold crack. But we're driving home and he kind of changes the subject. He's looking out the window and he says, "Ya know what I'm going to do when I get home right now?" and I say "No, what's that?" "Well the four of us, we sit down to eat, my lady and my two moritos, my two sons. But I don't eat. I watch them eat. Oh my lady, she gets crazy with me and yells at me, and I don't care. I watch them eat, and I watch, and I am so grateful to God that they're in my life. And when they are done and I know they are finished, then and only then, do I eat. And the truth is, sometimes there is food left, and sometimes there isn't. You know, it's a father thing"
Friendship with the poor is about receiving what they have to give you: wisdom and nobility. Not in some romantic Pollyanna sense, but it's stuff you can't get any other way. It's true from scripture and has been true ever since, that the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It's a toxic shame. It's a global sense of failure of the whole self, where the outcast has internalized the disparagement of the prevailing culture, and Jesus chose to be with that person, the person who is filled with shame and a sense of disgrace.
I've been in that community for a long time and I know everyone and
his mother. When I come back from Masses at the probation camps and detention
facilities on Saturday, they all have me do weddings, baptisms. I got them
lined up and it's a little too much and I don't really have a lot of breathing
room in-between. I remember this one Saturday, I had fifteen minutes
between a baptism and a Quincinera - you know when a girl turns fifteen.
I had fifteen minutes, so I race to my office I think maybe I can get the
Saturday's mail. So I open my office and the security grate and I go in
and flip through my mail and in walks a woman -- I found out later her
name is Lisa. And she has never set foot in my office until this day. She
is kind of a famous heroin addict and prostitute on First Street. Lot of
folks come into my office, get some water, sit on the couch, but she's
never set foot in, until this moment. I'v seen her on the street, dentolienaira,--
she is always fighting with people and yelling at people and getting crazy
with people. And she comes into the office and she plunks herself down
without any introduction and she just says, "I can't take it anymore. I
gotta stop. Oh, I've been to fifty rehabs. I'm known all over, nationwide,"
she says. “I went to private Catholic schools, graduated from a Catholic
girls' school. I've been using heroin since I was 18, right after I graduated.
I've been trying to stop since the moment I began." She leans her head
back in her chair and I watch as her eyes become these two ponds that fill,
water rising to meet its edges. And then I watch the water burst its edges
and she cries and cries for some time. Finally she tilts down and levels
her gaze at me, and she says with great deliberation. "I am a disgrace."
And her shame meets mine because when I saw her walk through that door
I had mistaken her for an interruption.
Beldon Lane writes, "Divine love is incessantly restless, until it turns all woundedness into help, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter." This is how God is with us and so we are invited to go with this love where love has not yet arrived. And our task is to dismantle messages of shame and disgrace. That's part of the strategy of Jesus and this downward mobility, to dismantle these messages.
There's a kid in my office. I called there today -- they always joke about how many times I call there, I only did it twice today -- a kid named Philly, Philly Verto. And Philly is in a wheelchair because he was shot and paralyzed. But he was paralyzed by a lot more then just a bullet. He is a kid who has an extremely low sense of who he and sense of esteem. I remember once he said to me, “You know I am the black sheet in my family.” I decided not to get into a discussion of farm animals with him. I remember once he met my older brother and my sister-in-law and they left the office and afterwards he said, "What's your brother do?" and I said, "Well, he's a principal at a middle school." "And your cunjata?" (sister in law) "Well she's a nurse in an intensive care unit at a hospital." "Damn, G, everybody in your family is somebody." Which meant of course, he was nobody and it meant everybody in his family, likewise, nobody.
Once he came into my office, just out of the blue like a non-sequitor, and said, "Hey, ya know, the other day I found this little picture of me when I was a kid, maybe ten years old." I said, "Really? Wow," and I'm thinking and you point would be…. and nothing. Two days later he goes, "Gosh you know I can't get over that little picture I found of myself." I said "Yeah, you mentioned that the other day." About three days later he wheels himself into my office right in front of my desk and at the tip of his finger there is this little postage stamp size photograph, and he hands it to me, doesn't say a word. And its obviously Philly, you can tell even though it's ten years old. Gang members in my community shave there heads but he's got big bushy hair. "Philly you have hair! Look at that, wow," and I'm thinking to myself, “Is he gifting this to me?” The only way to know whether he is or not is to offer it back, and so I reach out to give it to him and he doesn't take it back. He says, "Do you think there is any way we could make it big?" So I go to the mall, one of those camera places and the guy says, "Yes sir, how can I help you?" "Can you make this big?" And it was too small to make big. And I said, "You really have to do this." "Well, the grain, it will be all…." "I don't care, You have to do this." And they were able to make it like 4 x 6, or something.
And this is not a story about a photograph, but of the self made to feel small from bombardments of messages of shame and disgrace. And it's our task as human beings is to hold the mirror up and give kids back to themselves. To tell them the truth, to tell them the same truth that is true of each one of us in this room: that we are all exactly what God had in mind when God made us. And once anyone knows that to be true then you become that truth and then you inhabit that truth, and nothing stays the same again. It is what the child psychologist, Alice Miller, talks about, Enlightened Witnesses. People who through attention and care and a focused laser-beam love not unlike our God's, return kids to themselves. And in the same way that's part of what this strategy of Jesus is in the downward mobility. It's about holding mirrors up, not showing a portrait of who you think the person is, but holding the mirror up and returning people to themselves.
It occurs to people sometimes that I've been doing this a long time and other non-profit organizations will call me and say, "Can you come to our fund raiser, we would like to give you an award." Well what they really want is my mailing list. They thinks that's going to be a big deal, you know, and they're always unpleasantly surprised that it's not a big deal. But they will say they want to give me this plaque or this crystal thing or this bronze lion. Once I got a bronze lion, and I have never once kept any one of these things. I'll keep the plaque for the women in the projects with Matthew 25 on it, but I don't keep anything else. I always use it as an occasion to give it to a kid in our Homeboy Industries. We have five businesses, about 60 people who work there, and many, many hundreds who have come through there, enemies working side by side with each other. I always use it as an opportunity to give them this award and it is typically the same thing. I'll fill the church van with half women from the housing project, you know in their Sunday Best, and half Homies, also in their Sunday Best, size 85 waist Dickies, but really ironed nicely. We go the "Beverly She-she Foo-foo Hotel" and some corporate sponsor has bought a table and there are about ten people. They sit there, and they're a fish out of water. Ten forks and nine spoons, and "What am I supposed to with this?" The fancy gourmet salad with the Balsamic foo-foo vinaigrette comes, and they start to eat it and they go, "This shit tastes nasty." I remember this one kid leaned over to me and said, "Is this the way rich people eat?" "Yeah I suppose" "I'm glad I'm poor" he said.
So the time comes and I go up and get this thing and it gives me a chance to say something. Afterwards I drop everybody off and I save the homie for whom I want to give this thing to, the last one, and we get up there to the projects and I say, "Hey before you go, you're my hero. You're taking care of business. You're doing all the right things. Look where you were and look where you are, where you've come. So I'd like you to have this bronze lion." Typically their eyes mist over and they say, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" "I don't know, hold your door open with it or something."
One time, Ellen wanted to give me something and I couldn't go. I was up at Santa Clara giving a talk, so I said, "Could I send a kid to accept this on my behalf?" And they say "Sure." So I go to a kid Pasquale Pena who is 16 years old, works in our Homeboy silk screen where we print shirts and do embroidery, and that's our biggest venture, many many workers. Nearly 300 kids have gone through there. Trained workers, where they learn how to work, show up on time, take orders from disagreeable supervisors and stuff. So I ask Pasquale, "Can you accept this award on my behalf?" And "Oh gosh, I'd be honored." I start to leave and I go, "Ahh, I almost forgot, you got to give a little speech." "Whaaaat? I can't speak!" "You'll be fine just write it out." So I tell Cara who works with me there, I said "She'll take you." And she fills me in on this later on when I get back from Santa Clara.
She's driving him to [Loyola Marymount University] LMU, he's just scared poop-less to get up and speak in front of these people, "I can't do this." And he's got his little yellow lined paper and he's just trembling. "I just can't do it!" And she says, "Oh just relax you'll be fine" "But I can't I'll be too scared, speaking in front of people." And she goes, "look here's a tip," and I swear to you that I had never heard this tip until that moment, maybe you've all heard of this. She said, "They say that if your nervous speaking in front of a large group of people, just imagine that every member of the audience is stark naked." (I've never heard of this and trust me that this is not a tactic that I'm using at the moment.) So she says, "just imagine everybody in the audience is naked." And he goes, "I can't do that! I'd be staring the whole time."
So they go to LMU and it goes from bad to worse and the place is packed, standing room only. And bla-bla-bla, Fr. Greg Boyle, Pasquale Pena. So he comes up the podium he's got his little speech, he's reading it trembling. He gave me the speech when I came back, and this is the last line, the only thing I can remember; "Because Fr. Greg and Homeboy Industries decided to believe in me, I decided to believe in myself and the best way I can think of paying them back is by changing my life, and that is exactly what I have decided to do. Thank you very much." He goes to sit down. Well, the crowd goes nuts! It's standing ovation and applause that won't end. He's sitting there, he looks up Cara is sobbing, but the man on the other side of him, perfect stranger is totally sobbing. People are handing out handkerchiefs. They won't stop clapping. They won't sit down, and he is oblivious. Finally he turns to Cara and says, "Damn, they are sure clapping a lot for Fr. Greg." And she goes, "Menso, they are not clapping for G, they are clapping for you." And like an alarm, "Na-uhh" and she said, "Yah-huh," which I believe is the correct response to that. "They're clapping for you." And it was like this audience of total strangers chose in unison to hold the mirror up and give this kid back to himself.
Enlightened witnesses all, choosing to have this kind of focused, caring attentive love, not unlike our God's, to a kid for whom that kind of acceptance and unconditional love was foreign. A kid for whom the dismantling of the messages of shame was certainly in order.
You bring the text of the Spiritual Exercises out for an event like this so I can quote exactly one half of a sentence. "Consider Christ our Lord, standing in a lowly place." It's a key thing, it seems to me. Ignatius in his La Storta visions says, "Place me with your son." It's about place. Consider Jesus standing in a lowly place. It's a choice but it's about location.
In my bedroom, I have this big poster that has the martyrs of Salvador, the Jesuits and the co-workers. And it has in Spanish, "What does it mean to be a Jesuit?" "Contro me terse vajho el les darnte de la cruz": To commit yourself to stand under the banner of the cross.
See Christ standing in a lowly place. Where is Jesus standing? He is standing with those on the margins, with those whose dignity has been denied, with those who are voiceless and powerless, with those whose burdens are more then they can bear. This is where Jesus is standing. It's not where he is asking you to stand -- that's just where he is standing. Jesus doesn't call and drawn us to come over here to stand with him. He doesn't say, "Would you get over there please? Get up where you are - would you get over and stand over there please?"
He doesn't say that. He says, "Come on in the water is fine."
It's where he's standing. You don't morally herniate yourself trying to
embrace the strategy of Jesus; poverty, humility, and humiliations.
It's just standing where Jesus has chosen to stand. And Jesus stands with
the poor. In the lowly places and so we too must allow our hearts
to be broken by the very things that break the heart of God.
There is a story about Lawrence the Deacon, I guess he was a saint. It was in the early centuries of the church, and the Roman authorities dragged him in along with nine others and they are going to execute the ten of them, but they spare Lawrence because they know he is the treasurer of the church. They thought maybe he had some money. Of course this is centuries before the church was fabulously wealthy. And so they said, “Bring us the treasures of the church!” And Lawrence says, “I’ll need two to three days.” So they send him on his way, he comes back three days later, and the Roman authorities say, “Where is the treasure of the church?” He said, “Come with me.” And they walk down this hallway and he opens up the doors to a large courtyard, and who is there, of course: the poor, the halt, the lame. It’s a Who's Who of everybody who is nobody is there. And he says, “There is the treasure of the church.” Of course they roasted him alive, you know, smart-ass.
But it is really about taking seriously what Jesus took seriously. And so we touch lepers and we touch those who we thought we safely could despise. We don’t cast out demons -- we cast out demonizing. There is no us and them, the downward mobility eliminates that. That’s why the strategy is so key.
Ched Myers talks about Mark 14, “The poor you always have with you.” We always think that it justifies the existence of the poor, and Jesus does not stipulate its inevitability. He’s not talking about that, its an expectation. “I expect the poor will be with you.” Its an expectation of where we ought to locate ourselves. Its talking about social location, its not talking about the inevitability of the poor. “I expect the poor to be with you, because is where I will be standing.” Not in some moral, kind of thinking, the harder thing is the better thing, but that’s where Jesus is and so we humbly walk in his direction.
Yesterday the Gospel was the list of the Beatitudes; “Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the single hearted; Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for justice.” You say blessed but sometimes the translations will say "happy." In Spanish, Beindiavos or they will say felices. Scripture scholars, I understand, say that the more exact translation if you were to be really precise -- more cumbersome but more precise -- it wouldn’t be "blessed" or "happy," it would be, "You're in the right place." You are in the right place if you are merciful. You are in the right place if you struggle for justice. You are in fact in the right place if they persecute you, or insult you, you're in the right place. It’s about social location. It's about where we choose to stand. The Beatitudes is not a spirituality, it’s a geography. It tells us where to stand. And now the Christian broadcasting network would have us believe that if we live the Gospel it will make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. But we know that if you live the Gospel it will lead to crucifixion, and that’s more then a little okay, because that is where the joy is. Not is some masochistic sense. That’s where the joy is. That’s where Jesus is.
These values of Christ articulated here in the strategy; poverty, humility, and humiliation, are not intrusions upon our humanity, but the fullest expression of our humanity. They are not external but they're really dispositions of our hearts. And so we seek to dwell in that strategy of Jesus and to be drawn into his companionship, to stand exactly where he stands. And we always talk about wanting to speak boldly to our culture and, of course, we want to comfort the afflicted. Of course we want to afflict the comfortable. We want to announce the Kingdom of God, so that God might recognize it. And we want to promote a community where there are no outcasts, and we want to proclaim that message to our prevailing culture, which aggressively shames, humiliates, and excludes.
The culture is tricky when we try to address it, it can be vexing and a deceitful thing, because the culture has appropriated at our words. The words of Jesus. When George W. Bush at his inaugural address says; “There is no human being that comes into this world without value and worth.” Everybody agrees with those words. But we want to say, "Including Osama Bin Laden. Including Timothy McVey. Including every single man and women executed while he was governor. Words are a tricky thing for the culture has taken them on. They are just words after all, and I think more and more we become convinced as people of faith that it is not enough. We need to stop addressing the culture with words. St. Francis was completely right of course when he said, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.” It is really a back up. If we are called to speak boldly, it's by living as though the truth were true, not just by multiplying our words.
The poet writes (the American poet Emily Dickinson -- one time I gave
a talk and I said; “As the poet Angie Dickinson writes...”
And I couldn’t believe it, and ever since then I've been a little traumatized,
so I don’t say it, but it’s Emily Dickinson). She writes,
That is a little bit about what this is like.
I remember my father telling me this story once when he was a little kid, riding in this milk truck with my grandfather, who was a milkman (and my father became a milk man). He was like ten years old and he was eating this candy bar and my grandfather was man of few words, and he is driving the truck, and my father finished his candy bar, rolled down the window and tossed it out, and my grandfather catches it and kind of slowly pulls over puts it in park, goes out, and my father is a little ten year old looking through the rear view mirror, “What the hell is this guy doing?” And he sees my grandfather rummaging through the road-side until he finds the candy wrapper and puts it in his pocket. He gets in the car puts it in drive, never says a word. And my father used to punctuate this story by saying, “ I never littered again.”
And what I am talking about sort of rhymes with that: it is the power of not speaking. People are tired of hearing the message. Our culture is eager, I think, to find people who have become the message. Richard Rohr always says, “ We don’t think our way into a new way of living, We live our way into a new way of thinking.” And I think that is a choice that people want to make, I think. When Jesus says, “Don’t worry about what you will say,” yes, he means he will give you the words, but what he really means is that it’s not about words. It is about showing up. It is about living as though the truth were true.
I met a kid a number of years ago named Danny, who was living in a car, his parents were heroin addicts, and had abandoned him, and was selling drugs to stay alive. I asked him, “If I got you a job, what kind of job would you like?” And he said, “I would like to be a mechanic.” And so I went to my mechanic, who is an older guy, Japanese-American fellow. Not a man of few words, a man of no damn words at all. This guy just didn’t speak. He just chained smoked. He would light one smoke after another. You would give him the keys to your car, and he would take the keys, you would come back the next day, hand them to you. No words are exchanged at any point in this contact. So I set him down in his office and I say, “Hey Dennis, I got this kid Danny, he really wants to a mechanic. Hire him. You know, this isn’t just one job for one gang member. This would have a ripple effect. It will change the world. Nobel peace prize." I'm getting my shovel out.
And Dennis is taking long drags. He’s not saying a damn word, you know. And I double my efforts, “See you don’t understand. It will be transformative, and Danny, and the thing.. and the life... and the barrio...” He just is taking long drags, I give up. Finally I just shut up, I go, “I’m not getting anywhere.” And finally Dennis takes one last long mean drag on the cigarette, smoke billowing in front of his face, and this is the only thing he said to me that day: “I’ll teach him everything I know.”
During tertianship some time later, Danny would write me periodic letters, “This is what I learned today, I learned how to do a tune-up," or "I learned how to do a lube job," or something. And someone sent a photograph, and there is a picture of Danny in his blue work shirt, "Danny" embroidered on the chest, face covered in axle grease, smile from ear to ear, no doubt in anybody's mind, that giving this kid a job, has changed this kid's life. But standing next to Danny, with his arm around him and his cigarette hanging out of his mouth was Dennis, equally certain that giving this kid a job had changed his life.
So we decide, not to proclaim the message, but to become the message. Try and be what we want to see, to stand with God in God’s vulnerability, and to love as God loves.
Last story: It's an occupational hazard in my business, that if you hire one kid from one gang, you'll get eight phone calls the next day from kids, in the same gang, who want a job. One day I hired a kid from a gang called White Fence, which goes back to the forties. It is an old traditional gang on the east side of town. So I get this call from a kid named Chico, a kid I have never met before, seventeen years old. And he says, “Hey this is Chico from White Fence. Kick me down with a halle" - which roughly translates, “Do you think you could locate gainful employment for me?” So I said, “I don’t even know you, let me meet you first.” So I go to his house, I met Chico, big tall lanky guy, with big ears, tattoos on his neck. I meet his mother, Rosa, a great women. Chico and I sit on the front porch and we talk about life and I ask him, as I always ask kids, “What is your dream job, what would you like to do?” And he goes, “I want to learn computers.” So I said, “Let me see what I can do.” So I go to my staff, and long story short I find a place for him at this homeless resource center called the Chrysalis Center, downtown. I heard on the grapevine that they have been donated a whole bank of computers. So I call the director, a women I know, and I say, “Here is the deal, hire this kid, Chico. I will pay his salary every Friday, somehow, hold up an ATM machine or something. You teach him everything that there is to know about computers and we will call it a job.” And the woman says, “Great.”
So I call up Chico and I say, “Micco, your lucky day begins Monday, here is where you go, here is who you meet. Good Luck.” And Chico says, “I won’t let you down.” Monday comes and goes. And Tuesday comes and goes, and Tuesday turns into Wednesday, and Wednesday turns into Thursday. Here is another occupational hazard: you think the worst when something like this happens. "Oh God he flaked out, my directions were bad, he got arrested, he changed his mind...". And just as I’m thinking these terrible thoughts, a fax comes through our fax machine with Chrysalis Center letterhead on the top, and it is from our pal Chico, and in big huge letters, “Dear G, I am learning how to use a fax machine. I am learning a gang of shit here. Love Chico. P.S. I really love this job.”
[Chico gets shot in a drive by shooting, Greg visits him in the hospital.)
It is notable for the fact that his eyes are wide open, staring at the ceiling, unblinking like he had toothpicks holding them open. There is a doctor at the foot of his bed, scribbling notes on his clipboard so I go over to the doctor to assess his condition. The doctor shakes his head and says. “You know Father, in all my years, I have just never seen a paralysis so high. It is just so high we suspect there is brain damage, though we're not certain.” And the doctor leaves, and I walk over to Chico, still his eyes are just glued to that acoustical tile, unblinking. I lean into his ear, and I say, “Chico.” And his eyes don’t move. He doesn’t seem to register in anyway that I am even there. And I say a prayer over him, and I anoint him with oil. And I think to myself, "It is just as well that he not know what's going on."
The truth be told, this was a hard kid to visit the next day. Great, terrific kid. I can still see him in my mind's eye, sitting on the front porch, waiting for me to deliver this little miseria of a paycheck. All the other kids, you have to honk, or get out of the car. Not Chico. He would be waiting on the front porch, always, I would always be late. As soon as he saw my car pull up, he would run this gangly goofy run to my car, which is decidedly uncool because gang members only run if law enforcement is chasing them. He just didn’t care, he would just run to my car, sit in the passenger side and would not leave, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. He would ask me a bunch of questions always, often enough about God. Like I would know. “Is God pissed off about this?” And, “What does God think about that?” And far more valuable then this little paycheck I would hand him on a Friday, was the time I sometimes had to spend with him. And I regret even to this very moment that is wasn’t more time.
But of course, I went back the next day, and I found Chico much the same as I had the day before, lying on his back, all tubed up, staring at the ceiling. And I walked closer to him fully expecting the response from the day before, and I leaned in and I said, “Chico.” But this time his eyes dart to my eyes and they lock onto my eyes and they will not let go of me. And I am a little startled by this. His eyes fill up with tears and so do mine. “Do you know who this is, mikko?” I ask him. And to this extent that he can nod affirmatively, he does. And then I really don’t know what to say. So I look at him and I say, “Do you know that we all love you very, very much?” And this makes him cry a great deal. He cries and cries. He sobs really. And his face says to me in a most unmistakable way, “Please get me out of this body!” And so I bless him as I had the day before, and I think to myself, "The good news is that he knows that he is alive, and the bad news now is that he know enough to wish that he weren’t."
A week passed and his heart stopped and I buried him. On most days he knew the truth of who he was, that he was exactly what God had in mind when God made him. On most days he became that truth, he inhabited that truth.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to embrace his strategy because it is harder, but because he knows that's where the joy is. Dorothy Day writes, “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart. A revolution that has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our sisters and brothers with that burning love, that passion which led to the cross, then we can truly say, now I have begun. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint, and if it delays, we wait for it.”
Thank you very much.
If it were burying kids every day maybe you couldn’t do it. The poet William Carlos Williams says of poetry what I think is true of ministry, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” The pleasure is sort of, that is why I say joy, joy, joy, that is where the joy is. The people who work with the poor are not there because they are heroic and noble, their there because they are selfish. Because they know that is where the joy is. A delight upon delight, upon engagement upon having your heart broken, and being doubled over in high hilarity. It is the stuff of everyday, but it is also the stuff of being in the vicinity when it happens.
Woody Allen used to say, “It is not that I am afraid of dying, it is just I don’t want to be there when it happens.” And that is part of the problem, a lot of us don’t want to be there when it happens, and yet that is the point, that is the strategy of Jesus, embracing poverty, humility, humiliations. It is a choice to be there when it happens. Not because it is harder, more daunting and more difficult, but because it is joyful! That's the secret here.
I flew to Sacramento on Tuesday to give a talk, and I was in a rush, and it had all these homies coming in, one homey after another. A kid named Thumper, a big huge guy, simple guy, and I just didn’t have time, I just said Milo, I am going to miss my flight. I really have to leave now, I kept telling people, “I got to go, I got to go.” And he goes, “Where are you flying?” I go, “Sacramento.” And he goes, “Sacramento! Wow, the big apple.” Well, we just die laughing, not at his expense, he didn’t know, you know. That is sort of the daily stuff of everyday.
It doesn’t get better than having somebody who has been bombarded with messages of shame and disgrace, discover the truth of who he is, of she is. It doesn’t get better then that. When somebody says, really feels and inhabits a sense of being exactly what God had in mind. I don’t believe in measurement. I don’t believe in: "Here is the bar. And here are inner city, poor, troubled, at-risk youth. No, you can do better then that. No, raise the bar."
It is not about bar and measuring up. It is not about earning anything. It is about seeing your reflection in the mirror that comes to you by way of an enlightened witness, somebody you hope can reflect that back and return them to themselves. And boy, I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody.
This is a very complex question you raise. Two things, one is anger never gets us anywhere. They talk about it like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. It always does us damage. It doesn’t do anyone else damage. The second thing is, that one of the things that I think we need to understand about the poor is the great burden of the poor. To understand the high degree of difficulty there is in the poor, especially the young, in reaching adulthood. I grew up in the gang capital of the world, but there was no chance I would’ve joined a gang, because of my family and where I lived. And I wouldn’t have known where a gang was if you sent me on a scavenger hunt. But I grew up in the gang capital of the world and I can state with certainty that there was no way I would’ve joined a gang as an adolescent in L.A. That is a fact, but that fact doesn’t make me morally superior to the kids who grow up in the housing projects where I am privileged to work, and that seems important to me.
The day will never come where I have more courage or am more noble, because I watch the obstacles that the kids in my community are faced with every single day and know that at no moment has my life been faced with similar obstacles. So it is not to romanticize the poor or put them on any sort of pedestal that is unreal. It is to have a high degree of reverence for the complexity of this. And then to understand that the burden of the poor is always great. Nobody can push my buttons more then somebody who says to me, “Don’t they know the difference between right and wrong?” I once sat on a dias at a big huge St. Patrick's Day "foo-foo" thing at a big hotel with a Republican candidate for congress. He found out that I worked gangs, and he said the dreaded question, “Don’t they know they difference between right and wrong?” Well, you know, I am like the cartoon with the bull, with the steam coming out of the ears.
(And parenthesis, a month later this man who was running for congress -- mysteriously all his opponents' signs kept coming down or had been slashed or defaced. So they set up cameras, and found out that it was this guy, the candidate who was actually defacing his opponents signs, you know, “Don’t they know the difference between right and wrong?”) He lost, fortunately, I think he got one vote. But again it is that high moral distance we strike between us and them, and I am not saying that you are doing this, “Can’t they get their act together?” That is what the solidarity is about, that is what the downward mobility, movement, of the strategy of Jesus is about, where you get to a place where it is not, “He was in jail and you visited him", but "I was in jail and you visited me.” It is a oneness of solidarity that understands the complexities so fully that you don’t judge it. In fact you stand in awe of the obstacles that are so numerous.
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