Tattoos on the Heart: Our Names

Another story from Father Gregory Boyle on working with gang-affiliated youth in LA, from his book “Tattoos on the Heart”:
Often after Mass at the camps, kids will line up to talk one on one. The volunteers sometimes invite the minors to confession, but usually the kids just want to talk, be heard, get a blessing. At Camp Afflerbaugh, I’m seated on a bench outside in a baseball field and one by one, the homies come over to talk briefly. This day, there’s quite a line up. The next kid approaching, I can tell, is all swagger and pose. His walk is chingon in its highest gear. His head bobs, side to side, to make sure all eyes are riveted. He sits down, we shake hands, but he seems unable to shake the scowl etched across his face.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Sniper”, he sneers.
“Okay, look (I had been down this block before), I have a feeling you didn’t pop outta your mom and she took one look at your ass and said ‘Sniper’. So come on, dog, what’s your name?”
“Gonzales.” he relents a little.
“Okay now, son. I know the staff here will call you by your last name. I’m not down with that. Tell me, mijo, what’s your mom call you?”
“Cabron” (roughly translated, “bastard”).There is not even the slightest flicker of innocence in his answer.
“Oye, no cabe duda. But son, I’m looking for a birth certificate here.
”The kid softens. I can tell it’s happening. But there is embarrassment and a newfound vulnerability.
“Napoleon,” he manages to squeak out, pronouncing it in Spanish.
“Wow,” I say. “That’s a fine, noble, historic name. But I’m almost positive that when your jefita calls you, she doesn’t use the whole nine yardas. Come on mijito, do you have an apoda? What’s your mom call you?”
Then I watch him go to some far, distant place—a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape—right before my eyes. “Sometimes,”—his voice so quiet I lean in—“Sometimes…when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”
I watch this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzales, to Cabron, to Napoleon, to Napito. We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she is not pissed off at us.

How to be bigoted

Someone once accused me of bigotry.

It wasn’t someone I knew. A friend had posted a question on Facebook. She asked whether it was a good idea for people of different religions to marry. I responded that while I would never condemn someone for doing so, it seemed to be not ideal. For those who find a specific expression of faith central to their lives, companionship with another who does not share that same faith can be difficult. Another way to put it is that either that person will start drifting away from their faith or will start drifting away from their spouse.

This other commentator responded by decrying my bigoted response. He said that while people of different political views may find marriage difficult, since the various religions are ultimately not that different, an interfaith relationship is viable. Any misgivings of such unions can only be animated by simple bigotry. I explained that I would not condemn anyone for marrying someone of another faith, but that it did not strike me as wise. We left it at that.

I do wonder what he was trying to do by calling me a bigot. Was he trying to get me to change my mind? I certainly don’t think it was an effective approach to accomplish that goal. That sort of shaming technique isn’t particularly useful, especially with complete strangers.

But for my own part, I needed to decide how I would respond. I confess that I was somewhat cheesed off with his comment. But I’ve learned that it’s important to listen to what the other says. If I’m too busy feeling offended, I’m not listening. If I’m too busy trying to defend myself, I’m not listening. Rather than focus on my own angry heart, I needed to focus on his words and what he was trying to communicate.

Where is safe?

I was reflecting on the tragedy that occurred yesterday. A gunman opened fire at a beach resort in the Tunisian coastal city of Sousse, killing at least 38 people before security forces killed him. The victims were workers and foreign tourists. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as for attacks at a mosque in Kuwait and a factory in France that occurred within hours of each other.

Something a coworker said yesterday got me thinking about this event. She said “It’s supposed to be a happy day, with the gay marriage decision, but did you hear about the shooting in Tunisia? It’s terrible. I wanted to go to Tunisia someday, but I can’t go now because it’s not safe.”

I did find it odd that evidently her first thought was not sympathy for the victims or concern for instability in a fledgling democracy, but how this event hinders her travel plans, but that’s a topic for another time. I started reflecting on how safety is a relative term. Are we not living in a country where just a week ago, nine people were killed in a church? There are people in this country that feel unsafe in their own communities or with their own government. There are people that feel unsafe with each other.

But no place is truly safe. In recent memory, we have seen a bombing in Boston, a shooting in Ottawa, a stabbing in Kunming. Schools, movie theaters, embassies, places of worship have all been targeted. Wars abound and innocent people die. For some, unfortunately, safety is a luxury. Even bearing in mind yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, there are couples that are afraid to hold hands in some places in this country out of fear of violent reprisal.

I am thankful to live without fear of instability or danger. I am thankful for the work and sacrifices of those who help guard this safety. But I am mindful that there are many others who do not feel the same. But what do I do?

It is written that Jesus said that those who try to secure their own lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. I can go through life trying to fortify my own safety, to no avail, for no place is truly safe. But I believe that if I give my life for his charity, his mercy, his work, I will find true life. A life beyond meager self-preservation, given not for glory, riches, or renown, but an expression of his love for all.

Embracing the expansive heart

A couple years ago, I was at my church’s Sunday worship service when I noticed a man walk in. He was an older man, with shabby clothes, a patchy white beard, and several grocery bags full of papers. He stayed in the back of the church, swaying with the music with his eyes closed. He looked at peace.

After the service ended, people started walking out. As one of my friends headed out the door, he quipped “Dude, who’s that random homeless guy?”

On one level, that comment makes sense. This older white man stood out amongst the Asian-American college students and young professionals that made up the bulk of the congregation. Not everyone in our congregation comes from the same economic background, but the material lack of my friends lies behind closed doors, whereas this gentleman’s poverty was visibly apparent. He stood out.

Yet what stung me about the comment was the message it declared: “Sir, you do not belong here. You have no place here. This is not for you.”

My friend was not being intentionally exclusionary, of course. He did not harbor malice or contempt in his heart. Yet his words revealed what churchgoers often think: This is a place for people who look like me, and people who look too different don’t belong.

Yet the expansive heart of God is greater than our desire to be comfortable. It is written that Jesus refused to keep to polite company. He socialized with prostitutes, outcasts, lepers. As a preacher once put it, “Jesus hung out with people who hung out at the Greyhound bus station.”

May this same Jesus continue to teach me how to love, for I know I have much yet to learn.

Teach me to love

Today was garbage pickup day. Last night, I put out the garbage and recycling bins, along with some cardboard boxes.

I got home from work today and saw the bins and boxes still out front. I also saw a young woman standing next to them. Her clothes were dirty and worn. She was standing near a cardboard box full of stuff. There was trash everywhere: paper cups, newspaper, bagels. She was tearing into a stuffed animal, pulling the stuffing out.

I dropped my bag off inside and thought of what to do. I thought of calling the police, but wasn’t sure if that would help. “Well, at least I can go and get the trash bins back in.”

As I started collecting the cardboard boxes, the woman saw me, and started gathering some of the trash. The two of us started cleaning up the street, tidying up. I introduced myself. I asked if she needed anything. She asked if I had any shoes, as the ones she had were wearing out and too big for her feet. I gave her the sandals I was wearing and some socks. I also gave her some fruit and some cashews.

She looked tired, so I brought out some chairs so we could sit. She started telling me stories about how her dad went to prison when she was young and her mom was addicted to drugs. She talked about having a drug problem herself. She talked about her friends and wanting to help others (she offered some fruit to other street She was a bit jittery and agitated, but overall she was clear.

As she was getting ready to leave, I asked if I could pray for her. She asked that I pray that God keep her safe. I prayed for her, blessed her, and we parted ways.

God didn’t tell me loud and clear “Go talk to her.” There was no specific call. But I considered what would it mean to love someone, even if I can’t solve all their problems. I’m excited to use my legal training to be an advocate for people in need. But I can’t see people as just their legal cases, as exam questions in which I try to spot the issues. Part of being an advocate is being present with other people, listening to their stories. May God continue to teach me how to love.

Love for Another

Let me ask you about love.

Earlier this year, Dr. Willie Parker came to speak at my school. Dr. Parker provides abortions at the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, flying in from Chicago twice a month. I did not attend the talk, but the advertisements said that Dr. Parker would speak on how his Christian faith animates his work.

After the talk, one of my classmates, who is ardently pro-life, stayed behind to ask Dr. Parker some questions. He asked some strongly worded questions, including how his reliance on his faith to justify the killing of innocents is any different than Islamic jihad.

After the questions, Dr. Parker reached out his hand for a handshake, but my classmate refused and walked away. He later said that he refused to shake the hand of a mass murder. He refused to shake the hand of someone who is destroying the lives of the vulnerable and the voiceless. The event caused a stir of comments on Facebook.

Last week, I was at a talk for public interest summer interns in San Francisco. The speaker was a prominent leader of a national LGBT-rights legal center. She spoke about how we need gratitude, passion, and humility in advocating for others. It was inspiring.

After the talk, I asked her a question. She had mentioned that part of humility is learning to accept losing, since “you will lose often.” I asked her how she has learned to talk about losing, particularly to the other side of a case. She mentioned that she doesn’t communicate much with her most ardent opponents. “Those anti-gay groups, like Alliance Defending Freedom? I don’t really talk to them. I don’t call them up and say ‘Congratulations’ when they win a case. In fact, one time I was in the judge’s chambers with ADF’s attorney, Jordan Lorence. I saw that my seat was next to him. I asked if I could move my seat, but I wasn’t allowed to. Later, when we moved to another room, I made sure to sit away from him. I didn’t even talk to him.”

“After the meeting, Jordan reached out his hand for a handshake, but I refused. I said ‘Don’t even bother.’ Now, I don’t necessarily advocate that you copy this behavior, but honestly, I refuse to shake the hand of someone who is so against the rights of community.” In effect, she refused to shake the hand of someone who is destroying the lives of the vulnerable and the voiceless. The comment caused a stir of nods in the audience.

My intent in presenting these two scenarios is not to attack or denigrate anyone. You know that it is not my character to be involved in petty personal insults. Besides, if I were trying to cast shade with this story, it would be as subtle as throwing a lamp across the room. But I know that some of my friends will support one action and condemn the other, and that such opinions would fall along partisan lines.

But what should be my response? My calling as a follower of Jesus is to love as He loves. What does that look like? Jesus had said that His followers are to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And He practiced what He preached. It is written that after Jesus had been arrested and accused, after He had been whipped and spat upon, after He had been denigrated and humiliated, after He had been nailed and raised up on the cross, while the guards were casting lots for His clothing, He said, “Father. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He saw the vile hatred of His enemies, and He responded with love.

These two stories are not the same. The people involved are not the same. But I think about how I would respond in such a situation, and how Jesus invites me to choose a different way. May He grant me grace to follow.

A vision at work

Before I went to law school, I worked at Via Center, a special education center in Berkeley. The job was difficult but rewarding. On Fridays, after a long week dealing with problematic behaviors, physical injuries, and minor property damage, we would often go to a nearby bar to relax. We drank cheap beer, ate hot dogs, and talked about the things coworkers generally talk about: weekend plans, music, the weather. But the bulk of our conversation centered on our students. How can we help R control his behavior? Isn’t it amazing how much progress M has made? That thing that L did yesterday was pretty cool, wasn’t it?

After that job, I worked at Google in HR. At the end of a long week of reading resumes, talking to recruiters, and answering technical questions, we would often go to the company happy hour to relax. We drank craft beer, ate appetizers (chicken wings! sliders! chocolate chip cookies!), and talked about the things coworkers generally talk about: weekend plans, music, the weather. But we hardly ever talked about work. There really wasn’t much to say, and none of it was particularly gripping.

As much as I enjoyed my time at Google, I did miss those conversations at Via. The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in serving our students was rewarding. Some of those conversations led to new approaches and strategies we used with our students. We were all there to learn from each other and support each other.

Not every workplace will be like this, of course, and Via had its own problems. But I want to work in a place where there is a strong sense of vision. I was at a seminar today in which the speaker (the executive director of a civil rights nonprofit) said “Very few people in this country have a job that they love. Even fewer have a job that makes a meaningful impact. Even fewer make an impact on the most vulnerable.” I am excited to find a place to build on not just my own passion, but the passion of my team.

Not gonna lie, though. Those chocolate chip cookies were nice.