This morning I had the opportunity to hear some inspiring words for the path I am on. Jesuit Fr. Gregory Boyle founded HomeBoy and HomeGirl Industries 27 years ago in Los Angeles to create a kinship between rival gang members and provide them with a place to work on issues as well as job training as an alternative to the violent lifestyles they were leading. As he spoke to the group of us gathered to discuss supporting people with former gang ties or who had been incarcerated, I found myself being given a light for my own dark spaces.
Fr. G, as he is called by the homies, made sense in all kinds of ways as he spoke today. We are all in need of healing; we can’t despise the wounded. In a world where it is easy to throw broken people into yet another prison, he provides a place were people can do the healing work they need to. He shared that one trainee explained that he worked at the diner but mostly he worked on himself. How insightful is that! Fr. Greg and his companions choose to work with those who deserve second chances and who are not so easily integrated back into society. The staff and the trainees are all on the path to wholeness. The sense one got listening is a healthy but hard road of equality where everyone learns from the other. Those gathered laughed when he said that when he hears the words I have a message for…., he thinks Call me when you lose the message. The relationship is mutual, neither a hand out or a hand up, but simply a hand that says I am with you. The goal is not to reach out to them but to merely receive those who come.
The work that most of us in the room do is the slow work of God in which healing happens incrementally. The big issues cannot change overnight, having lurked in the darkness for decades and even centuries. Fr. Greg believes that healing will decrease crime. We do not need more prisons to house bad people. We need more compassion and understanding. He used the recent shooting in the USA as a caution about how we continue to alienate and despise the wounded when we do not name the shooter as if that person’s life matters less than other lives. It is a controversial stance, one I have taken in the past too. We do not know what brings those who commit violence to the place of doing it and they need our understanding. Mental illness is still stigmatized. There will be no progress in civilization if we paint people with the evil brush. Healing is key to moving forward.
Fr. Greg also spoke to the myth that people join gangs to belong. No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang. People join gangs, he stated, because they are fleeing something. Not everyone can make good choices because not all choices are equal. This was an eye-opening statement for me. He shared a heart-wrenching story of a man who as a young boy had his mother blame him for making her slit her wrists–he carried the guilt and shame for years until he discovered that this was the essential wound that had derailed him. Most gang members prefer rage to shame but those who can do the work can break the bondage. When people can come to terms with what they have done and what has been done to them, there is hope for healing. What we need to work on is to stand in awe of what these people have had to carry rather than in judgment of how they have carried it. We need to allow ourselves to be transformed by the poor and those on the margins.
Fr. Greg closed with a beautiful story that struck to the heart of the matter for those of us in the room. One of the homies was picked up en route to his brother’s funeral by Fr. Greg. He had had a dream the night before. He was in total darkness but he knew that Fr. Greg was in the room with him. Suddenly, Fr. Greg pulled out a flashlight and pointed it to the light switch on the wall. He held it there while the man got up, walked across the room and turned on the light. The room was flooded with light. Not only are we not to stand in judgment but we are not supposed to be running to turn on the lights in the darkness. We are there to share the pain, point the way, and to listen. This story will be what I am taking away for my own personal life as well as the prison ministry I do. I am not to rescue but to quietly be with, stand in awe, and point the way. This is all about the slow work of God.
What are the attitudes you bring to the ministries in which you serve?
Where do you need to bring a flashlight to assist in the slow work of God?
You are patient and merciful.
You wait for us to discard our
judgments and open our hearts.
You alone are Light in the darkness;
we are merely candles that you illuminate.
May we shine brightly for you and wait with you.