The Voice of Those Who Sing

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Carlos looks like he was dipped in ink. Twenty-four years old, just days out of Corcoran State Prison, his arms are covered with tattoos. His neck is blackened by designations of his gang. Head shaved, it is filled with tattooed threats and ominous markings. Most prominent, though, are two pronounced devil's horns situated alarmingly on his forehead. "You know," he says, "I'm having a hard time finding a job." I suggest that we put our heads together on this one, and gently guide him toward our tattoo removal program.

I run the largest gang intervention program in the country. For nearly two decades, many thousands of felons, gang members and those recently released from detention facilities have found jobs, counseling, and community service opportunities through Homeboy Industries, based in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. In addition to our job referral program, we currently have five businesses and a tattoo removal program.

"I've been locked up now since I was fourteen," Carlos continues. "I've never had a job in my life." This was a Monday afternoon, and I tell him, "You begin work tomorrow." I give him directions to our Homeboy Silkscreen factory and wish him luck.

On Wednesday, I call the Silkscreen plant and have the receptionist bring the new-hire to the phone. I ask Carlos how working makes him feel. "It feels proper. I'm holdin' my head up high. In fact, I'm like that vato on the commercial, you know the one. The guy who walks up to total strangers and says, ‘I lowered my cholesterol'-well, that's me." He loses me here. "I mean," he explains, "yesterday, after work, I'm tired and on the bus-and I just couldn't help myself. I kept turning to total strangers and telling ‘em, ‘I'm just coming back from my first day at work. Just got off my first day on the job.'"

My mind races to see the folks on the bus. Maybe people smile and greet the news warmly. Perhaps mothers clutch their kids more closely to themselves. Maybe, someone thinks: "Who the hell would hire this guy?" After all, a second chance for the once-felon is often seen as a waste of our collective time.

The prophet Isaiah writes, "In this place of which you say, it is a waste, there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voices of those who sing." Carlos, of the "lowered cholesterol," finds his voice in the dignity of work and in the sure promise of belonging.

Mother Teresa diagnosed correctly, I think, the ills of our modern world: "Our problem," she says, "is that we've just forgotten that we belong to each other." The kingdom of God, it seems to me, is less about membership or card-carrying elitism than it is an invitation to kinship and belonging. Jesus announces his formal ministry in Luke by echoing the words of the prophet and signals liberation for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and freedom for the prisoner. He promises the poor that their voice of "mirth and gladness" will be heard again. On top of it all, he declares that "today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." His audience is impressed. Yet before you know it, he's being given the bum's rush to the edge of a cliff and the mob nearly hurls him over it. Their opposition was fueled, I suspect, not by the prospects of liberation, sight, freedom or good news. Who could be against that? I think the difficulty people have with Jesus is not rooted in his call to liberation, but in his preposterous insistence that kinship be the starting point.

He asserted his connection and deep bond to the poor, the blind, the prisoner, the oppressed. They wanted to fling him over the cliff because he announced that these folks belonged to him and he to them. Jesus, after all, touched lepers before he cured them. He anchored himself with los marginados and stood against forgetting that we belong to each other.

As a Jesuit, I am moderately versed in the Ignatian principles which undergird "our way of proceeding." It has become a Jesuit tenet in our institutions of learning, for example, that at graduation, we hope to have produced "men and women for others." This call to service of others is obviously noble. The problem comes, I think, in setting it as our goal. It is not. Service is but a prelude, the passageway which leads to the Grand Room we are all hoping to enter-a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Jesus was not a man for others, after all. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus stood with the easily despised and the readily left out to announce the good news of belonging.

Jesus, with God, imagined a circle of compassion and imagined no one standing outside of it. Yet many do stand outside the circle. And so, it is outside the circle where Jesus chooses to situate himself, as much geographically as spiritually. He stands with the leper, the outcast, the public sinner, and Carlos until the prevailing culture-which aggressively shames, humiliates and isolates the outcast-welcomes the outsider in. If our goal was to create a community of kinship such that God would recognize it, then we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it. The popular bumper sticker announces: "No justice, No peace." I believe the stance of Jesus announced: "No kinship, No justice." For Jesus seemed to hold no interest in taking the right stand on issues, but wanted to simply stand in the right place. He didn't fight for the rights of the leper, he touched the leper. He didn't seek equality for the tax collector, he ate with him. He didn't insist on improved conditions for the prisoner-he said, simply, "I was in prison."

The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. Can we stand with them, and Jesus, outside the circle, until they are allowed in? Mother Teresa's diagnosis was quite correct-we just seem to have forgotten that we belong to each other. And so it is that:

•  Six hundred and twenty-two human beings sit on death row in California because we don't believe that they are our sisters and brothers.
•  200,000 children pass through our adult criminal justice system each year in this country. We can throw them away only because we do not believe they are ours.
•  The undocumented won't get drivers' licenses in California because they don't appear on the radar of our concern.

And Carlos won't ever find a job elsewhere, until some employer can look him in the eye and say, "Come on in. ‘Course you are one of us."

Of course, there's no "us" and "them"-just us. I suspect that Jesus was executed, in the end, for suggesting this very thing. Still today there remains some distance when we speak of service to others. "They" receive "our" help. But there is no daylight in kinship. There was no "other" for Jesus, just as there is no distance in the oneness God imagines for us. The unitive moment we seek with our God in prayer is meant to move to a oneness with each other, which knows not distance, division, nor separation. No one is left behind. There is no hierarchy of value, no pecking order of worth. No one's presence among us is a waste.

If you locate one job for one homie from one barrio, be assured that eight other homies from that same gang will call you asking for a job. It was in late May that Chico called: "This is Chico from White Fence. Kick me down with a jale," he blurts out with what I think is a fair amount of nerve. This can be translated roughly as: "Do you think you'd be able to locate gainful employment for me?" "Well, I don't even know you, dog," I tell him. "How ‘bout we meet first?"

I schedule to go to his house, which is not far from my office, and situated on a steep, hilly street behind Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. Chico is 16 and from a gang whose roots reach back to the forties and the Pachuco (Zoot Suit) era. I meet Chico's mom, a sweet diminutive woman, named Rosa, who clearly delights in her children and maintains, at the same time, an evident dread at the path her bald-headed, cholo son has chosen. Her appreciation at my arrival this day is palpable.

Chico and I sit on the front porch. He is a lanky, funny-looking kid, really. As with most homies, his pelón haircut has pointed huge arrows at his overly large ears. They are more pronounced than most. His smile is ready and willing, always hanging out on the surface and quick to appear at the slightest urging. Chico is shy and jittery, and yet will leap into areas of conversation that would normally take more time with other homies. We talk of his lady and family, and the current status of his gang with neighboring enemies. A most likeable kid, made all the more winning to me by his nervy request for a job, sight unseen.

"If I got you a job, mijo, is there some skill you always wanted to learn or pick up?" Chico is quick, needing no time to really consider my question. "Oh yeah," he says. "Computers. I really want to learn and know computers." I assure him that I will work on this, promising only that I'll do my best.

Some days later, I call Chico. My investigation of a computer job led me to the Chrysalis Center, a non-profit homeless resource center. I knew that they had recently received a bank of many computers. So, I made them an offer. I told them that I knew this kid, Chico, who wanted to learn everything there was to know about computers. He goes to school in the morning, I tell them, and could work at the center from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. "I will (gasp) pay his salary each week," I say, knowing that somehow I will have to find the money somewhere and "you folks will supervise him, teaching him everything you know. We will call it a job." They agree.

"Now, mijo, you start at 1:00 p.m.," I tell Chico over the phone, laying down our ground rules. "If you don't go to school that morning, please don't bother to go to work either. And I'll know if you ditch school. A job is a privilege. You will have two bosses. One of them, you'll meet on Monday, and the other, you're talking to right now. So, if I find out you're hanging (kicking it with his friends), banging (gang-banging/writing on walls), or slanging (selling drugs)-and I'll know-then I'll fire your ass. Got it, dog?" "I understand, G. Thanks a lot. I promise I won't let you down." I finish our conversation. "You know, dog, that I know thousands of homies. But I chose you for this job. I'm proud to know you and I'm sure you'll do just great. Good luck."

Monday comes, and I wait after office hours for a call from Chico. Nothing. I repeat the vigil beyond 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Still no word. Tuesday turns into Wednesday, and Wednesday into Thursday-and still I have not heard from Chico. I start to think that maybe he's flaked out on me. Maybe my directions were bad and he never found the place. Perhaps something happened and he couldn't make it, and he was too embarrassed to call me. I'm scratching my head and pondering Chico's failure to communicate, when a message starts to spit out from the fax machine next to my desk. I can spot at the top of the paper, the letterhead announces: "Chrysalis Center." The fax is a missive from our man, Chico, written in large, clumsy, handwritten script:

DEAR G

I AM LEARNING HOW TO USE A FAX MACHINE.

I AM LEARNING A GANG A SHIT HERE.

LOVE,

CHICO

P.S. I LOVE THIS JOB. THANKS FOR GETTING IT FOR ME.

About two months later, I receive a call at 7:30 a.m. from Chico's mom, Rosa. She tells me that the night before, Chico was standing with some friends, not far from his front porch. A car had slowly crept up. Windows were rolled down, maddogging glances were exchanged, words were volleyed back and forth, and finally, bullets began to fly from within the car. One had lodged very high up on the back of Chico's neck, and he was now in the intensive care unit at General Hospital.

I leave immediately.

I walk into the unit and I see Chico lying there, skinny and tattooed, heavily tubed up-naked, but for an oversized diaper, with all the requisite I.V's. He is staring, wide-eyed and unblinking, at the ceiling, eyes riveted to the acoustic tiles. There is a doctor at the foot of his bed, scribbling notes onto a clipboard. I go to him first to assess Chico's condition. "You know, Father," he says, shaking his head, "I've never seen a paralysis this high." The doctor points to the back of his own neck. "It is so high on the stem, that we suspect brain damage, though we're not certain." The doctor leaves and I walk closer to Chico. His eyes don't even register that I'm approaching. They remain transfixed on the ceiling and unblinking, stretched, it would seem beyond their capacity, like toothpicks were holding them open. I lean in. "Chico." No movement, no acknowledgement at all. I anoint him in the Church's unción de los enfermos. I rub a generous swath of oil, hoping against hope that the balm will penetrate his frozen state, hoping it will lead us both to some divine compensation for this mad, mindless, waste of life. No such penetration happens. I am left thinking only, "Menos mal." At least he doesn't know what's going on.

Truth be told, this was indeed a hard kid to visit the next day. Excruciating, really. A rush of memory kept at me in the hours after my hospital visit and it placed in bold relief the enormity of the loss. I can still see Chico waiting for me on his front porch every Friday afternoon. Unlike other homies, waiting for their paychecks, I never had to honk my horn, nor leave my car in search of Chico. He was always there, seated on his porch, and I was almost always late. He would catch sight of my red car coming up the narrow, steep hill and would hurriedly head for my car, running in this goofy, gangly way, all decidedly uncool (homies don't run, unless law enforcement is chasing them). Chico just didn't care-he ran anyway. He would hop in the passenger side of my car and there was no extricating him. There, he'd sit and talk and talk. Gone, long ago, was the reticence and shyness. He would just launch into it. He was, as we say, bien preguntón-a man of many questions. He'd ask a grip of questions, mainly about God (like I would know): "Is God pissed off if I have sex with my lady?" "What do you think heaven is like?" "Do you think God listens to us?" And, clearly, far more valuable than the measly paycheck I'd hand him every Friday afternoon, were the times I was able to spend with him, in that car, wondering what was on God's mind. And, to this day, I regret I didn't spend more time.

Of course, I did go back to the hospital the next day. I walked in and found Chico just as I had caught him the day before, with eyes pulled wide open, epoxied to the same spot on the ceiling. I approached, fully expecting the response from the day before. But I made the attempt anyway. "Chico," I say, not far from his ear. His frozen eyes thaw in an instant and they dart to my own, and they lock onto me, and will not let go. I'm stunned by this, and speechless. Chico's eyes become intense puddles. Mine do as well. "Do you know who this is, mijito?" And to the extent that he can nod affirmatively, he does so. He can only move his eyes. I don't know what to say. Finally, I tell him, "Do you know, mijo, that we all love you very much?" This last statement sets him off and he cries and he cries. He can't stop sobbing. And his face says to me, in a most unmistakable way, "Please get me out of this body!"

I anoint him as I had the day before, and I think to myself, "The good news is he's alive, and the bad news now is that he knows enough to wish that he weren't." Our eyes tenaciously cling to each other as I back out of the intensive care unit. His eyes want to leap out of their sockets. They long to be transported anywhere else. The door closes behind me, but its closing is unsuccessful in shutting out Chico's desperately haunted eyes.

One week later, Chico's heart stops, unable to carry what he had been given.

And as I blessed the gold cross resting on his coffin and handed it to Rosa with a long embrace, a thought came to me. I tell myself that I really must let this grief in. Too long had I suspended my own profound sense of loss and dutifully placed it on my emotional back burner. I needed to be there for Chico's family, his girlfriend, his homies. I gave myself permission, then, at this graveside, to allow this pain into some cherished, readied place in my heart. Every homie's death recalls all the previous ones and they all arrive at once, in a rush. I'm caught off guard, as well, by the sudden realization that Chico's burial is my eighth gang burial in a three-week period. Remarkably, this thought does not become conscious until this very moment.

I decide to walk away from the coffin and spot a lonely tree, not too far from the crowd. I stand there alone and allow myself to feel this great loss and I cry. Before too long, the mortician appears at my side. He is more acquaintance than friend. Now, he has broken the spell of my grief and unknowingly invaded the space I had carved out for myself. I am overwhelmingly annoyed that he has done so. Then, I'm annoyed that I'm annoyed. There is an obligation on me, clear and immediate, to break the silence, to make the mortician welcome in my space, uninvited though he may be. I remove my glasses and wipe away my tears. I point feebly at Chico's coffin, and I know that I need to find some words to fill the blank air.

"Now that," I whisper to the intruder, "was a terrific kid." And the mortician, with a voice so loud it turns the heads of most of the gathered mourners, bellows, "HE WAS?" My heart sinks. I know exactly what he means. There is some severe disconnect here for him. He's incredulous, and something doesn't fit well. How is it possible that a 16-year-old cholo, gunned down, not far from his home . . . how could it be possible that this was a terrific kid?

Nothing, however, nothing can alter this fact: Chico was a son any parents would be proud to claim as their own. The mortician would know this if he knew him. Just too few opportunities place us all in the vicinity of the knowledge that leads to kinship. The expanse that separates and divides us forces the judgment: this life was a waste. And yet, "in this place of which you say it is a waste, there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness. The voices of those who sing." (Jer 33:10-11).

There is perfect pitch and oneness in the kinship God longs for us. The gulf narrows and we're taken up in the largeness of God's own compassionate heart. And justice will be ushered in. For Jesus only sees a circle of compassion and wants no one outside of it. Not a gang member. Not a mortician. Everybody belongs. No kinship, no justice. We begin here.

This article was previously published in Spiritus. Baltimore vol. 5, 2005, (79-87).

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Curriculum Questions

1. Boyle writes, “Jesus was not a man for others, after all. He was one with others.” What does he mean by this differentiation? What are some examples he uses from the life of Jesus to illustrate this point? Do you agree or disagree with his interpretation?

2. In “Companionship,” Jack Brace makes a similar argument. In your opinion or experience, is it more difficult to be “with” others in a short-term service situation like Brace describes, or in a long-term situation like Boyle’s? What unique challenges do both situations raise for workers and/ or those they hope serve?

3. At Chico’s graveside, Boyle recalls, “I tell myself that I really must let this grief in. Too long had I suspended my own profound sense of loss and dutifully placed it on my emotional back burner.” In a service situation, how do you decide when to “let grief in” and when to suspend it?

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Father Gregory Boyle grew up in Los Angeles as one of eight children. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1984. He received a BA from Gonzaga University; an MA in English from Loyola Marymount; a Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology; and a Sacred Theology Masters degree from the Jesuit School of Theology. Fr. Greg is best known for his leadership of Homeboy Industries, which traces its roots to “Jobs For A Future” (JFF) in 1988. To address the escalating problems and unmet needs of gang-involved youth, he and the community developed positive alternatives by establishing a school and day care program, and finding legitimate employment for young people. He has received numerous recognitions, including the California Peace Prize and “Humanitarian of the Year Award” from Bon Appétit magazine.



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