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Gabriel: A soul feels its worth

Posted by Ron George on November 26, 2007

The program: Word for Word, American Public Media

“Working up from the streets”
A talk by Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J.
Founder of Homeboy Industries
Los Angeles, Calif.

Homeboy skilkscreenHomeboy Silkscreen

I was on the treadmill at the gym Saturday morning after Thanksgiving when the Word was spoken to me in love — via IPod! — by a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles, the Rev. Greg Boyle. I laughed. I wept. (Imagine that in the workout environment!) I fell in love with Gabriel, a large man with tattoos, a former gang member, who has had dinner with the president. (Yes, the one in the White House.)

Gabriel’s was my favorite story in this talk by “G,” Fr. Boyle’s handle among thousands of LA homeys and homegirls, one of several tearjerkers Fr. Boyle tells of lives redeemed amid the city’s meaner streets, “success stories” but more than that — stories of God at work in a community in need of hope and redemption for its children. I won’t blow the punchline of Gabriel’s story by telling it here, but I will say that how it is told and by whom discloses as much as the story itself about the nature of authentic Christian ministry. It’s a double whammy. Both the medium and the message are so powerful that — well, like I said, there I was on the treadmill, bleeding tears. And just wait until you hear the story of Puppet and Youngster.

Fr. Boyle’s theology and pastoral praxis seem to have been forged in the base communities of Cochabamba, Bolivia. His introducer for this talk says it changed his life; otherwise, Fr. Boyle’s educational track to the Roman Catholic priesthood was relatively conventional. It’s not unusual for a Jesuit to be well grounded by education in Liberation Theology, but Fr. Boyle’s talk discloses far more than mere intellectual assent to the proposition that the church is called to stand with the poor against social, financial and even church structures that oppress and disenfranchise them. Fr. Boyle’s commitment is deeply spiritual, and it shows most in his affection and love for the dangerous world and people in which and with whom he has lived since 1988.

Fr. Boyle is no sappy do-gooder but a practical lover of souls whose witness and example bring God’s love to people rather than the converse we hear about more often — popular pastors whose preaching “wins souls for Christ.” Fr. Boyle continues to bury gang members — more than 150 so far — and the matrix of social-service ministries founded through his ministry are not for everyone. Only those fed up with gang life need apply. He acknowledges that Homeboy Industries is just part of the mix of what cities can and must do to stanch gang bloodshed. He warns would-be imitators that there are no cookie-cutter solutions for the hopelessness that drives young men and women into gangs.

True enough, but Fr. Boyle is also a prophet as well as a consummate pastor, and there are in this talk some generalizable principles for Christian ministry that pastors and church leaders of all sorts and conditions would do well to hear and inwardly digest. Here are just a few.

  • The church is called to de-marginalize those who have been pushed aside by the dominant culture. How? By standing with them personally, institutionally and spiritually by drawing the community of faith’s circle of acceptance larger and larger still until society, as well as the whole church, accepts the premise that every life is worth saving.
  • The church is called to be patient but persistent in pursuing the ends of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven — as justice, as peace, as fairness and as provision for all in need of human dignity. Fr. Boyle’s exquisite recitation of Habakkuk 2:3 still rings in my ears: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” (NRSV)
  • When Christ appears, the soul feels its worth, to paraphrase the schmaltzy “O, Holy Night.” He appears in our kinship with those Christ seeks, not as beneficiaries of care-giving, but as fellow seekers of truth, justice, peace and grace to become ourselves in the fullness of Christ.

When prophets speak, we hear truth, not just prediction but deep knowing borne of experience in the Spirit, truth revealed in the fabric of ordinary life but writ large, magnified by faith, our willingness to let God love us.

Advent is a prophetic season for the church. We hear voices in the wilderness preparing a way for the Lord. We hear challenges that resonate with the Jewish idea of repentance and atonement, because we tend to neglect the numbering of our days, even as we don’t know the number of our days.

Our lives, no less than every one of 83,000 gang members’ lives in greater Los Angeles, are contingent, fleeting in the grand scheme of meaning that is the universe of time and space in which our planet spins its lonely way among the stars. How insignificant, and yet how utterly significant are we, distilled from stellar dust to be loved by a personal God in the very fiber of our being.

There is no life in this universe that isn’t worth saving, and there is no life on this planet that doesn’t fall under the penumbra of Christian care and concern. Fr. Greg Boyle has taken up his cross to follow Jesus. Have I? Have we? Will we?

Will we let the prophet turn us away from the frivolous concerns of the so-called holiday shopping season to serious reflection upon our vocation as the Body of Christ? Will we widen the circle of our kinship, stand on the margins with the poor and dispossessed? How deeply can we yearn that every soul will feel its worth?

Imagine Gabriel. Ask him. He’ll give you the tour.

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