Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California, 1999
Once in a while throughout a lifetime, there will be times you will just know that a certain day will be different than any of the others. This was not one of them. It was just another sunny perfectly warm spring Southern California day in 1999. My class in Youth Ministry through the Bresee Institute would meet at 4pm in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles at a Tutoring Center. We were to meet Father Greg Boyle there and he would give us a tour. This was an adjunct course but part of my Master of Divinity program at the Claremont School of Theology.
That course led the class of 10 students to a store front that evening. The program we were to tour first was just one of several built by Father Greg Boyle, who also headed up the organization called Homeboy Industries.
Boyle Heights was noted for having the most gang members per capita of any area in the world. Homeboy Industries was a commercial bakery and limited clothing manufacturer that employed former gang members. The storefront tutoring center was a place where other gang and former gang members tutored school age youth and children in schoolwork.
Since I lived in Los Angeles, I knew about Boyle Heights. I knew I was in the middle of a part of town I wouldn’t want to be stranded in. I wondered if my car would still be there with all its tires and rims on it. Actually, I was concerned about that. I was also concerned that I would be in a building with lots of glass that wouldn’t stop any bullets if they were fired. I had heard stories of people in their living rooms, in this part of town, being hit as stray bullets came through their windows while they thought they were safe inside watching TV. Apparently, I was growing into my middle-class education, even if I did come from working class roots.
How wrong my early perception of this day would wind up being. This would wind up being one of the most important days of my life. You see, I was about to meet God.
I walked the block to the storefront. Several of the other students from the class were there, along with the instructor already. Around the room were boys and girls, preteen and teenagers at tables where men with facial and neck tattoos were going from student to student helping them with whatever they were working on.
Somewhere, I had read that 16-year-old boys in Boyle Heights started setting aside money to pay for their funerals. Statistics had them dead by 21. They knew their chances. Gangs were part of the landscape. They were their best chance of surviving with absent fathers and mothers that had to find creative, and oftentimes debasing, ways to support themselves and their illegitimate children beyond what welfare provided.
These same mothers were known to, at times, step in the middle of gang wars to ward off their sons from killing one another. These same mothers were organizing as a voting block to see change done in their area. Of course that was dangerous to the interests of several prominent politicians so in time the housing tenements would be slated for demolition and the mothers and their gang member boys would spread throughout Los Angeles and Riverside counties to break the organizing women and spread out the growth of gangs.
I found myself standing in a hopeless place where the only way out was killing and being killed, selling drugs, and taking them. The little hope there, was in the hands of one outcast priest and several ex-cons and gang bangers. Suddenly I was standing on holy ground. God was here. God was all around me, part of this place, part of the interaction. Whatever it was. It was God. I’m reminded of Exodus chapter three verse five; “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” And verse 6: “Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’”
It was then that Father Greg Boyle stepped out from his office. He was a huge man, middle-age, grey haired. His eyes were penetrating, and his presence was accountable. He was not God. God was already here before Greg came into the room. No one in the room but us accounted for Greg’s presence, nonetheless, everyone knew Father Greg was there. And so was God, just as assuredly as was the instructor and the other students. God’s presence was palpable. It was real. In the midst of this overwhelming hopelessness, God is the bringer of an inkling of hope. God’s messenger of hope led this place. That’s who Father Greg was – God’s messenger.
While God was presence behind Greg, God was present in the moments, behind the hope. Granted, that hope was minuscule. It was a drop of fresh water in a salt-water ocean of hopelessness. But isn’t that really the essence of God? Hope, love, trust, faith?
Since that day I have never had to have faith that God existed. God exists. God exists as much as I exist, as much as you exist. In an age that considered Andre Gide’s exhortation of existentialism this would be my response to Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.” For surely if I am then God is. I can no more prove I exist than I can prove you or God exists. But I know we do. God’s existence, even more so, God’s presence, was proven in the action, the feeling, the human interaction, in the concrete human experience
God did not exist in hope. God existed in the slimmest chance of hope in a very hopeless place, in a place where all odds were against surviving past the age of 21, where Senators came for photo ops and returned only empty promises, where boys and young men died more senselessly than in a war.
This is my God; found not in a church, not in meditative prayerfulness, but in the chaotic prayer expecting no answer by men and boys who have no reason on counting on anyone or anything but themselves and a gun.
It was as if God were saying, “This is who you serve. This is your God. I am not hope. I am not even the promise of hope. I am only the seed of hope. This is who you would choose to serve. A semblance of hope. So will you? Will you serve us?
God answers such prayers as Father Greg and the tattooed men and students offered, not by miracles but by the tiniest of seeds planted by the poorest of gardeners. God quite often doesn’t choose the best. More likely, God will choose the worst of all possibilities. All you have to do is consider his follower Saul, renamed Paul, or Moses, or Aaron or Jeremiah or Jonah. I suspect God enjoys a challenge. After all, God chose me. How could I not discover God but in such a place, a place that frightened me. A place where, apparently, I belonged. And, of course, my answer was yes.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please leave a like or comment. We’re coming to the end of this series. Next week’s will be the final episode. Let me know if there’s something you’re interested in thinking about. Meanwhile, may God continue to bless you. Stay safe.