Sitting at the table with the kindergarteners coloring today I thought of Josh’s story. Josh was 14 when he started “gang banging” and another homie we talked to today was 7 when he started. That’s only a few years older than the sweet faces sitting next to me at the lunch table. While Josh talked I was reminded of how fragile we as humans are. Little Josh watched his step dad shoot up, watched him beat his mother and was kicked out of his house. In search of a family he found himself in a gang, full of resentment and anger, hurt, wounded and left yearning for love, acceptance and a home.
The kindergarteners at Asencion Catholic school, Josh when he was nine, myself and every other kid I know, all have these same needs. The need for love, safety, affection, security, family and a sense of home. And by some random luck I landed in shoes that afforded me the privilege that made having those things a little easier. As a white, middle class woman I was born into a set of advantages that have allowed me to get where I am today. The color of my skin, the place I was born and my parents background provided me with the ability to navigate the system, to receive a quality education, to make choices and demand my rights, to avoid being targeted by law enforcement and to have the resources and support I needed when life got rocky.
The thing is we are all fragile. Josh was so vulnerable when his world was crumbling around him. There was a point where my world was crumbling too. Addiction ran rampant in my family and somedays I wondered if it would tear us apart. But we had the resources to work through it. The money when someone needed to go to rehab, the prescriptions from doctors that we could afford that made those addictions legal, the family and friends to fill in when others couldn’t be there, the access to therapy to help us through it. Dysfunction is not exclusive to those who are less privileged, it just hits harder when there are not the resources and the masks to remedy or simply bandaid the situation.
Josh spent 29 years in prison starting when he was 16. When he was my age he had 22 years left ahead of him. He thought about if he would get to go outside and exercise that day, if he would survive the wrath of the “organizations” or gangs that existed inside the prison. He thought about missing his family. The unfair claim that put him there.
I worry about what graduation will be like. The year I will be spending in El Salvador next year. When and where Ill meet my future husband. What my kids will look like. How my life will play out. But in the last few days I have come to understand how privileged I am to have a future that is unknown and full of possibility. In Boyle Heights, in LA and across the globe so many kids do not have the privilege of wondering what their future will look like. Today another homie said “I never knew if I would make it to 16”. They talk about prison sentences of 10-30 years as if they are somewhat normal. We read a passage from Tattoos on the Heart that talked about homies who commit suicide by walking into enemy territory rather than putting a gun to their head. And we were again reminded of the concerns of so many 14 year olds- “will I die or will I go to jail”.
The fragility of human beings is so much more obvious in this context when rather than so many privileges providing stepping stones to success, they are fighting against the barriers society places in front of them day after day. Schools with less resources, parents who struggle to get good paying jobs, skin color that leave the police all too aware of their actions- they are fragile and have no safety nets. Safety nets become gangs, drugs and violence when the world is not on your side. As I sat with the kindergarteners today I felt both heart broken and hopeful. Heart broken at the reality they are fighting against. Yet hopeful that a school with a high success rate may be their out. Then we returned to Homeboy silkscreen and another homie told us about how some of his family calls him a sell out for leaving the gangs and again I was reminded of how fragile we all are.
We are all grasping for something. The homie at the silk screen and the kids and teachers at Asencion have focused that grasp on their faith. And something about it seems to work.
We are fragile and we need something more. We are searching for meaning, for love and for light. The homies and these young kindergarteners might not be able to find it in the people around them, their circumstances, the barriers they are facing- but so many of them seem to find it in God. Despite all the questions I and so many have- faith gives something to these people. To the homies, the teachers at Asencion, the families who are a part of Delores Mission and work through Christain Base Communities to meet the needs of their community. Their faith drives them and gets them out of bed in the morning. There is a sense of oneness in our need for something more in this community. People know we can not do it alone and there is no attempt to fake that we can. They don’t have the masks to cover it up and fake it so instead they turn to God to hold them. It is the most beautiful, strongest faith I have ever seen and so inspiring amidst such deep suffering.
So many of them don’t have a future of “it will get better” to hold onto like I do on rough days. But they do not deny that they need something, that they are fragile and vulnerable. So instead they place their faith in God- despite all the reasons to believe things WONT improve- they hold onto a hope that it will, that God, like Father G, is in their corner. Is suffering with them, going to immigration marches with them, in the midst of gang violence with them- and will love them unconditionally, protect them and help them find their way to that “it will get better” they have never even been able to dream about.