Several years back, around 2010, I visited Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. I brought a copy of Father Greg Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart home with me, in which he writes: “Though this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem, it does aspire to broaden the parameters of our kinship.”
Two years passed before I could open the book and read it. And when I finally did, one of the stories that touched me to the depths of my soul was about Soledad and her two sons, Ronnie and Angel. Ronnie had just come back on military leave from Afghanistan to visit his family. He went on a late night run for food and had almost gotten to the door when his mother heard someone ask him where he was from. All she heard next was gunshots. Ronnie died in his mother’s arms. Six months later, her eldest son Angel went up to her and with his love reached out into the abyss of her grief and asked her to take some time that day to get dressed up and leave her room for a bit: “So she does it. Bathes, wears something with color in it, fixes her hair; and puts on makeup. She emerges from her room, and she is radiant. Angel cups her face in his hands, ‘You look gorgeous.’ He doesn’t hesitate to add, ‘It’s about damn time.’”
Later on that day, Angel is sitting outside when two people come running, chasing someone they are trying to kill. They can’t catch up. They see Angel, and shoot him instead. He also dies in his mother’s arms. When Fr. Greg arrives to Soledad’s house, he finds her crying a stream of tears that has no end: “And the few of us there found our arms too short to wrap around this kind of pain.”
Two years later, when asked how she’s doing, Soledad responds amid tears: “You know, I love the two kids that I have. I hurt for the two that are gone… The hurt wins… the hurt wins.” Shortly after, while at the hospital getting an emergency check-up, Soledad finds herself beside a critically-wounded teenager from the gang that killed her two sons. As he barely clings to life and the doctors are trying to save him, Soledad suddenly begins to cry and to pray: “Please… don’t… let him die. I don’t want his mom to go through what I have.” He lived.
I recently started an apprenticeship in urban farming at Windy City Harvest in Chicago. It was a decision long in the making, since I had always loved farming and being close to the earth. Last week we went on a class trip to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden. At one point we came upon the Buehler Enabling Garden, where it was explained to us that in this garden, space is intentionally made for people who suffer the trauma of war and also for those who cannot walk.
I suddenly envisioned seeing my best friend in this world, Robert, sitting there. I could see him run his hands through the tips of the flowers, and smell their beautiful scents. He wouldn’t have gone with me of course, for he was always thinking of new places to go on dates with the women in his life, most of all his beloved mother.
Robert, who was in a wheelchair, was murdered sixteen years ago, at the age of 19. In the spring of 2010, his mother and I took a three hour trip to visit his pitbull, Reyna, who unbeknownst to me had been living with her adopted family in Indiana all this time. When Reyna saw us, the 10 years we’d been apart felt like only a day. She ran to greet us, jumping in the car like she used to, taking her favorite spot on the back seat, ready to come home. On that long and beautiful trip, Robert’s mother talked for hours, sharing so much of what had been in her heart and mind the last 10 years. She also asked me to answer questions about who her son was, as I knew him. So I did. And as I described the giant of a man her son was, that pure soul, I could see her face becoming more and more at ease and at peace. About a year after, Robert’s mom passed away due to cancer. And standing in that healing garden last week, it comforted me in a way, to envision Robert and his mother already enjoying such a garden together.
As we were walking out of the healing garden, I put my hands in the dirt of the raised beds. Picking up a handful, I smelled the depth of the earth and closed my eyes. And when I looked down, I saw not my hands but the hands of my dear friend Willie. How can I forget those big bear hands? They contained within, the brute force and the rage, to crush and rip apart. Yet he used them to care tenderly for his ill parents; to wrap their wounds; to cook them meals, with singular affection and attention. He used them to hold his nieces and nephews when they were babies, and to keep them safe as they grew under his watch. He used them better than anyone I’ve ever known, to raise and care for the dogs and cats in his home and on his block. And yes, he used those calloused, tattered hands to tend and heal the earth. He could grow plants with often little to no dirt. He grew them from concrete.
This past summer, this giant of a man shared with me his plans to start his own landscaping company, which we were going to do together. A couple months later, on a cool fall evening, my phone rang and rang. I had been tired from an extremely long day, but I closed my eyes and remembered that it is often God who comes to “interrupt.” I picked up the phone and it was Willie. We talked for a long time, laughing like fools. After we hung up, I sat their looking at the phone, thinking to myself, “It was true, God just called.” For Willie was, to borrow from Fr. Greg, “the shape of God’s heart.” Less than a month later, Willie would also be taken far too soon. He was always telling me that he was worried about me, that something would happen to me like with so many of our friends. He said that it is because we are gold, and didn’t I know that nothing gold can stay?
He was the gold one.
Many of us grew up with the realities of violence in our communities, and in our homes. As Fr. Greg notes, “Part of the spirit dies a little each time it’s asked to carry more than its weight in terror, violence, and betrayal.” Despite the toxic terrain all around us, we cultivated with each other beautiful gardens of friendship. The magic and the tenderness of our kinship: friendship turning into intimate union, turning into beloved community where communion and ecstasy are real. I never met people so true, so filled with the Real Presence: “In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope.”
Many are the souls we include and remember: Rene, Jose, Tito, Juan, Don Jose, Fernando. Together, we lived out the truth that life is beautiful and worth living. Even now, the love and kinship we shared slowly brings about a restoration and a healing, and we find ourselves realizing “life, after unspeakable loss, becoming poetry again.” Indeed, the hurt does not win.
At the root of so much violence it seems, is another violence: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.” What does it mean to broaden the parameters of our kinship? Perhaps Soledad’s example above can give us a glimpse. It is the palpable spirit and approach alive at Homeboy Industries: “It’s about ‘appearing,’ remembering that we belong to one another, and letting souls feel their worth.” This spirit resonates deeply with our experience as friends and loved ones, which I am happy to have shared with you all.
What happens when the hurt wins? When the pain wins, we may sometimes feel like or reach the point of harming ourselves or others. To cultivate kinship is to cultivate healing and restoration in our relationships with each other, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation. May we continue casting our net far and wide, opening up ourselves to the possibility and the hope of kinship, of beloved community, of ecstatic union, here, now, forever.
“The prophet Jeremiah 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 voice of those who sing.’”
Happy Sunday everyone.