I would like to begin this morning by reading you a story from a book I am currently reading. I read this story early in the week, and I have not been able to get it out of my mind; I have been kept awake at night by this story, and I am grateful to know it. It is told by Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who served Delores Mission Church in Los Angeles. The part of town the church was in had the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles. In 1988, Fr. Gregory, also known by the community as “G”, began a ministry of intervention for gang members. The program set out to help former gang members gain employment, have substance abuse rehab, have tattoo removal, job skills, etc. It was a way for them to re-enter the world, even if they had served time in prison. Homeboy industries helps thousands of people each year in a variety of ways. It’s an amazing story in itself, starting in the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, it is now the largest rehabilitation program in the world. Listen to this story from Fr. Gregory:
“On a Saturday in 1996 I am set to baptize 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 unrecognizable. 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 the 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 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 all the complexity of this great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping. I had previously asked him in the 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 a 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.” – Tattoos on the Heart, The Power of Boundless Compassion, Gregory Boyle, pg 84-86
The community of love, representing the very “No matter whatness” of God… Fr. Gregory’s ministry had many pieces, but one of the most important pieces was to help his flock realize that they were good, and that they were loved by God “no matter what”. I know that I sometimes take God’s love for granted; I have known for a long time that I am one of God’s own beloved… George and many others like him do not know that God loves them, in part because no one loves them; they also do not have hope or dreams of a happy future or really any future… and while stories about gang members might seem extreme, i suspect that there are many, many people in our community who live without hope, who might live in circumstances that seem more like nightmares than life; and certainly, there are also those who have endless resources who also live without hope, who live without the knowledge of God’s extravagant and healing love; they too live in their own personal hell, devoid of the hope that you and I cling to as we try to live our lives as followers of Jesus.
And he (Jesus) said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Simon and Andrew could not have known what Jesus meant when he said they would fish for people… I hope that we know what it means because this invitation to fish for people is also extended to us, today, here in this place, as we come to this table to be fed… Jesus is making us fish for people as well, which is a good thing for us to think about as we celebrate who we are at our annual meeting today; we have much to celebrate today; my hope is that as we begin another year of ministry in this place, that we will find more ways to fish for people; and as we fish for people, I hope we can do it in such a way that we can help others to see hope even if they are living in hell; not a “Jesus loves you, have a nice day” kind of hope, but a hope that puts our baptismal vows to the test; a hope that gets our hands dirty so that we can show people what hope really looks like; a hope that doesn’t simply look for people to come worship with us, but a hope that touches people and helps people experience Jesus; we are to be bearers of the kind of hope that saves lives. George Martinez could have gone back into his neighborhood and sought vengeance on the gang members who killed his brother Cisco. But he didn’t. George met Jesus through the ministry that Delores mission, Fr. Greg and others did. As George began to learn more about Jesus, he also learned more about who George Martinez was… He was a beloved child of God who could have hope, even while living in the projects; he could get his GED and be employed; he could escape a life of crime. All because a community of people and their priest chose to be a “community of unconditional love” who loved George and reflected God’s love to him, showing George who he really was… that’s some big fish story… but Fr. Greg and his community just kept throwing stuff in the water in extravagant ways in order to catch fish for God. And when George was caught, he saw himself as a member of a true community where he didn’t have to prove himself to earn acceptance. Meeting Jesus and then getting baptized changed George because that’s what knowing Jesus does…it changes us so that we are people who hope for and build the kingdom of God here on earth.
That is a gift we can give people; not so that we can have great numbers on a report to the diocese, but so that people might know that they matter and that they are loved, “no matter what”. May we always love as Jesus loves… may we always love WHOM Jesus loves. May we always bring hope to those who need it. Let’s go fishing, beloved.