One of the most powerful passages from the book i am busy finishing at the moment, because it will start with laughter and end in tears. Such a powerful read:
I suppose that the number of homies I’ve baptised over the decades is in the thousands. Gang members find themselves locked up and get around to doing things their parents didn’t arrange for them. Homies are always walking up to me at Homeboy Industries or on the streets or in a jail, saying, “Remember? You baptised me!”
The moment of a homie’s baptism can be an awakening, like the clearing of a new path. You can tell it’s a gang member’s declaration that life will thereafter look different because of this pronouncement and its symbols. Consequently, the moment of baptism is charged with import and nerves.
One day at Juvenile Hall, I am introduced to a kid I am about to baptise. I have never met him, but he knows who I am. He is saucer-eyed and panicky and bouncing slightly up and down. I shake his hand.
“I’m proud to be the one baptising you,” I say.
He tears up a bit and won’t let go of my hand and my eyes.
“Clockwise,” he says.
I always tell those to be baptised that they have little to do and should leave all the heavy lifting to me. “All you have to say is your name when I ask for it. Then I’ll ask, “What do you ask of God’s church?” and you just say, “Baptism.”
When the moment arrives at the beginning of the rite, I can tell this kid is in trouble. He’s hyperventilating, and his constant jig suggests he didn’t visit the men’s room before.
“What is your name?” I ask, and the kid booms back at me,
“And what do you ask of God’s church, Jose?”
He stands erect, and his whole being wants to get this one right. “I WANT TO BE A BAPTIST.”
I suggest he walk down the hall to the Protestant service.
Once, as I am about to baptise a kid at a probation camp, I ask him to incline his head over this huge pan of water, and he looks at me with shock and loudly asks, “You gonna WET me?”
“Um, well, yeah… sorta the idea.”
On a Saturday in 1996 I am set to baptise George at Camp Munz. He delays doing this with the other priests because he only wants me to do it. He also wants to schedule the event to follow his successful passing of the GED exam. He sees it as something of a twofer celebration. I actually know seventeen-year-old George and his nineteen-year-old brother, Cisco. Both are gang members from a barrio in the projects, but I have only really come to know George over his nine-month stint in this camp. I have watched him move gradually from his hardened posturing to being a man in possession of himself and his gifts. Taken out of the environment that keeps him unsettled and crazed, not surprisingly, he begins to thrive at Camp Munz. Now he is nearly unrecognisable. The hard vato with his gangster pose has morphed into a thoughtful, measured man, aware of gifts and talents previously obscured by the unreasonable demands of his gang life.
The Friday night before George’s baptism, Cisco, George’s brother, is walking home before midnight when the quiet is shattered, as it so often is in his neighborhood, by gunshots. Some rivals creep up and open fire, and Cisco falls in the middle of St Louis. street, half a block from his apartment. He is killed instantly. His girlfriend, Annel, nearly eight months pregnant with their first child, runs outside. She cradles Cisco in her arms and lap, rocking him as if to sleep, and her screams syncopate with every motion forward. She continues this until the paramedics pry him away from her arms.
I don’t sleep much that night. It occurs to me to cancel my presence at the Mass next morning at Camp Munz to be with Cisco’s grieving family. But then I remember George and his baptism.
When I arrive before Mass, with all the empty chairs in place in the mess hall, there is George standing by himself, 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, yet trying to keep my excitement at pace with George’s.
At the beginning of Mass, with the mess hall now packed, I ask him, “What is your name?”
“George Martinez,” he says, with an overflow of confidence.
“And, George, what do you ask of God’s church?”
“Baptism,” he says, with a steady, barely contained smile.
It is the most difficult baptism of my life. For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father… Son… Spirit,” I know I will walk George outside alone after and tell him what happened.
As I do, and I put my arm around him, I whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”
I can feel all the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that finds itself in 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 is 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 the efficacy of this thing we call sacrament, and he manages to hold back all the complexity of this great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping. I had previously asked him in his baptismal rite, after outlining the contours of faith and the commitment “to live as though this truth was true.” “Do you clearly understand what you are doing?”
And he pauses, and he revs himself up in the gathering of self and soul and says, “Yes, I do.”
And, yes, he does. In the monastic tradition, 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 chooses to march, resilient, into his future.
What is the delivery system for resilience? In part, it’s the loving, caring adult who pays attention. It’s the community of unconditional love, representing the very “no matter whatness” of God. They say that an educated inmate will not re-offend. This is not because an education assures that this guy will get hired somewhere. It is because his view is larger and more educated, so that he can be rejected at ninety-three job interviews and still not give up. He’s acquired resilience.
Sometimes resilience arrives in the moment you discover your own unshakeable goodness. Poet Galway Kinnell writes, “Sometimes it’s necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”
And when that happens, we begin to foster tenderness for our own human predicament. A spacious and undefended heart finds room for everything you are and carves space for everybody else.
[From the chapter ‘Water, Oil, Flame’ – Tattoos of the Heart – Father Gregory Boyle]