Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in California, has been ministering to gang members in and around Los Angeles for many years and has written of the struggles his “parishioners” go through trying to escape the ever-present tentacles the culture uses to lure them back. His most recent book is entitled FORGIVE EVERYBODY EVERYTHING, and contains this story on forgiveness.
On a Saturday in 1996 I am set to baptize George at Camp Munz (a juvenile detention camp). He has delayed doing this until he acquires his GED, seeing it as a twofer celebration. I know both George (17) and his brother, Cisco (19), gang members from a barrio in the projects. As a part-time chaplain, I have gotten to know George pretty well during his nine-month stint in the camp. He has moves so gracefully from his hardened posturing to being a young man in possession of himself and his gifts.
The night before George’s baptism, Cisco is walking home before midnight when the quiet is shattered by gunshots. Some rivals creep up and open fire, and Cisco falls half a block from his apartment, killed instantly. His girlfriend, Annel, eight months pregnant with their first child, runs outside. She cradles Cisco in her arms and lap, rocking him as if to sleep, screaming with every motion.
I don’t sleep much that night. It occurs to me to cancel my presence at the Mass at Camp Munz to be with Cisco’s grieving family, but then I remember George and his baptism. I arrive before Mass and there is George alone in the mess hall, holding his newly acquired GED certificate. He heads toward me, waving his GED and beaming. We hug each other. He is in a borrowed, ironed, crisp white shirt and a thin black tie. His pants are the regular camp-issue camouflage, green and brown. I am desvelado, completely wiped out, but trying to keep pace with George’s excitement. None of the residents have phones or any way to stay “connected” to the activities back in their barrios and I am quite certain George doesn’t know about Cisco.
The mess hall slowly fills up and is packed for the Mass and we begin as I ask George his name. “George Martinez,” he says with an overflow of confidence. “And George, what do you ask of God’s church?” He replies, “Baptism,” with a steady, barely contained smile.
It’s the most difficult baptism of my life. For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father….Son….Holy Spirit,” I know I will walk George outside alone after and tell him what happened. As I do, I put my arm around him, and I whisper gently as we walk out across the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”
I can feel the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant. We land on a bench. His face seeks refuge in his open palms, and he sobs quietly. Most notable is what isn’t present in his rocking and gentle wailing. I’ve been in this place before many times. There’s always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things. There is none of this in George. It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God.
George seems to offer proof of what we say about sacraments…that they have operative or effective power; that sacramental power can change our human kneejerk reaction to life’s experiences if we let it. George managed to hold all the complexity of his great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping. I had previously asked him in the baptismal rite, after reminding him of his commitment, “to live as though this truth was true.” Then I asked, “Do you clearly understand what you are doing?”
I remember he paused, and then revs himself up in a gathering of self and soul and says, “Yes, I do.”
And yes, he does.
In the traditions of the monastic religious orders, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope. George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate and choses to march, resilient, into his future.
Forgive everybody everything! Fr. Glenn