From Tattoos on the Heart
In 1993, I taught a course at Folsom Prison. “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction.” From the beginning, the inmates said they wanted me to teach them something. Just not scripture. I mentioned that I had an MA in English.
“Well, yeah, teach us that,” they said.
So we would sit around in the chapel, some fifteen lifers and myself, and discuss short stories. I ended up teaching three classes of this short-story course on all three yards. (As in most prisons in California, they have three yards: A [special-needs yard or protective custody]; B [a tough and generally wild yard]; and C [a moderately “programming” yet very high security yard]. I settled on short stories so I could Xerox copies of really short ones and we’d read them out loud and discuss them.
One of the stories was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” After they read it, we come to the Grandmother’s transformation of character (“she would of been a good woman …if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”). My students speak of this woman’s change and seem to use these terms interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Like any teacher stalling until the bell rings, I ask these felons to define their terms.
“Well, sympathy,” one begins, “is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say, ‘‘Spensa – sorry to hear ’bout your moms.'”
Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy.
“Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, ‘‘Spensa, ’bout your moms. Sabes qué, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog.’
“Excellent,” I say. “Now, what’s compassion?”
The class collectively squirms and stares at their state-issue boots.
“Come on now,” I say, “compassion – what’s it mean?”
Their silence is quite sustained, like visitors entering for the first time some sacred, mysterious temple.
Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him.
“Well, now,” he says, all eyes on him, shaking his head, “compassion – that’s sumthin’ altogether different.”
He ponders what he’ll say next.
“Cause,” he adds humbly, “that’s what Jesus did. I mean, compassion… IS… God.”
God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus’s soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.”
Jesus pulled this off. Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger. It’s full-throttled. Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person. This was how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being. He was “moved with pity” when he saw folks who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd.” He had room for everybody in his compassion.
In the earliest days of our storefront office, along with thousands of gang members from some forty gangs in the neighborhoods of the Hollenbeck Police Division, we’d be visited by countless kids making their way home to the projects from school. I had known all these kids and their families during my years as pastor, so they’d drop by from Second Street School and Hollenbeck Middle School. They’d just sit on the couch in the waiting area or play video games on the computers. They were dry, emaciated sponges hoping to catch a drop of adult attention. All of the staff got into the habit of asking each kid, daily, “So, what did you learn today that you never knew before?”
They got to dreading this question, because it forced them to think. “Buffalo – I learned about da buffalo.”
One junior high kid said, “I learned not to pick on girls.”
“Oh, yeah, how’d you learn that?”
“I got slapped.” (That’ll do it.)
Errands were an almost daily occurrence. Someone on my staff would go to Office Depot or Smart & Final to pick up supplies, and the project kids would race to the staff member’s car. The luckiest one would get to ride shotgun.
One day a tiny kid, twelve-year-old Betito, rests his head on his fists on the front of my desk. He looks forlorn and asks sadly, “Hey, G, are ya goin’ anywhere?”
“No, mijo,” I say.
He comes alive, “Can I go wit ya?”
The destination, apparently, was less important – it’s the “going with” that counted.
Betito is a funny kid, bright and energetic, who comes alive when he steps into our office on First Street. He becomes a fixture there, and you can count on him arriving after school, greeting each one of my staff at their desks as he works the room. English is not his first language, and though all of us speak Spanish, Betito challenges himself in this, insisting on “English only.” Betito is always picking up English expressions he hears on TV. He walks in one day, armed with some idiomatic argot courtesy of a Pollo Loco commercial.
“Hey, G, you know what you are?” his accent thick and halting. “You da real deal.”
At a dollar ninety-nine.
Routines get born this way. Betito and I would try to catch each other. “Hey, Beto – you now why she said that about you?”
“Cuz you’re da real deal.”
We both try to make the answer to every question, “the real deal.” This even becomes our nicknames for each other, “Oye, qué ‘onda, Real Deal?”
Betito is precocious for his age. He walks into my office one day, and stands in front of my desk, “Hey, G, kick me down wit twenty bones, yeah?”
I’m taken aback by his straight-out-there boldness.
“So what do you need twenty dollars for?”
“Takin’ my lady to the movies.”
“YOUR LADY?” I say to him, not feigning shock. “How old are you?”
“TWELVE? How old’s your lady?”
“Yeah, he says, calming me down with the flick of his hand, “but she’s short.”
(Oh… here’s your twenty dollars, then.)
One Sunday evening, Betito is playing with his cousin in Aliso Village. There is no school the next day – some Monday president’s holiday or something. There are two gang members standing in front of a nearby dumpster, smoking frajos. A van pulls into the projects, with two gang members in the front seat. When they see the two smoking cigarettes in front of the dumpster, they open up fire. A bullet catches one of them. He drops. Everyone runs. Every man, woman, and child knows that when gunfire begins, you run, you duck, you hunker down behind some car or slink in between buildings. You move. Betito knows this. For some reason, though, he freezes there. And because he hesitates to seek cover, a very large bullet enters his side, above the waist, travels through, and exits the other side. They call these “through and throughs.”
The doctor, a friend of mine, who would treat Betito, told me a week later that this bullet was the highest caliber he had ever seen. The sheer reverberation of the bullet traversing Betito’s body rendered him paralyzed from the waist down. And the bullet hadn’t even touched his spine.
Word gets to me, and I go straight to the hospital. Betito’s grandmother and I keep vigil through the night, while the surgeons operate for some six hours. You don’t really keep vigil; it keeps you – suspended in awkward silence and dead air – desperate for anything at all to stir some hope out of these murky waters and make things vital again.
Betito survives. But two hours into his recovery, I watch through the window of his room in intensive care as a team of nurses and doctors rush in and surround him. They pound on his chest. They beg and plead with his heart to cooperate. His heart finally deafens to their entreaties, and he dies.
Betito was precocious, funny, bold, and only twelve-years-old. He was the Real Deal.
If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness. It would rather not rest on the two in the van, aiming frighteningly large-caliber weaponry. I sure didn’t. When they were caught and I found I knew them, it was excruciating not to be able to hate them. Sheep without a shepherd. And no less the real deal. But for lack of someone to reveal the truth to them, they had evaded healing, and the task of returning them to themselves got more hardened and difficult. But are they less worthy of compassion than Betito?
I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion. I can recall a woman in the audience at a talk I gave in Orange County, rushing me during the question-and-answer period. She wanted to do me real harm. People had to restrain her and remove her form the audience. Her daughter had been set on fire by gang members. I represented to her the victimizers. It was a sobering moment, underscoring the precariousness of being too glib here. Sometimes it’s enough simply to acknowledge how wide the gulf is that we all hope to bridge. But isn’t the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both?
Dante speaks of having compassion for the damned. We need not feel ourselves as soft on crime if we see this kind of compassion as its highest calibration.
Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek). He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when he nudges us to love our enemies. Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing. He knows it’s just the harder thing. But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That’s why you do it.
To be in the world who God is.
Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.
In the midnineties, I return to the office after a morning meeting to our storefront sandwiched between the Mitla Café and the furniture store. It’s noonish. I stand in front of the desk of the receptionist, Michelle, who hands me my messages. As I sift through them, someone taps me on my left shoulder. It’s Looney. He gives me a big abrazote.
“Oye, mijo,” I say, “when’d you get out?”
The smile is bigger than he is.
Looney is a fifteen-year-old from a gang located close to our office. He is a chaparrito, barely reaches my chest, and he has just been disgorged from one of the twenty-four probation camps in Los Angeles County. His sentence was a mere six months, but it was his first such detention. Having been put on probation for writing on walls, his probation officer cited him for a violation when he stopped going to school and sent him away.
Emily, one of our office workers, sidles up to Michelle to cheerlead and add to the welcome, project-style.
Emily turns to Michelle and conspires.
“Oye, look at Looney… he’s so ttttaaaaaallll.” Her words seem to elbow Michelle in her side.
“Yeeeaaahhh,” Michelle adds, “he’s so bbbiiigggg.”
“He’s a maaaaan already,” Emily plants the finishing touch.
Looney is both loving this attention and thinking maybe six months more in camp would not be so bad.
Michelle and Emily have taken it upon themselves to kill the fatted pepperoni and welcome home the prodigal Looney. When five extremely large pizzas arrive, they hand me the bill, which I don’t seem to recall from the gospel account.
We cram ourselves onto the tiny couch in the even sparser reception area and eat our pizza. All the office staff join in. Looney is luminous and giddy in his awkwardness, eyes darting to all of us gathered around, trying to measure our delight in his return. He can barely believe that it’s so high.
I’m sitting on the arm of the couch, eating my slice, and Looney leans in to me, with a whisper, “Can I talk ta ya, G… alone… in your office?”
I gather my grub and sit behind my desk. He moves a chair, situated too far for his liking, and presses it very close to the front of my desk. He extricates a long envelope, squished in his side pocket, and proudly slaps it in front of me on my desk.
“My grades,” he announces, “from camp.”
His voice has moved to a preadolescent octave of excitement, and I scurry to join him at the parade.
“De veeras,” as I relieve the transcript from its container.
Looney straightens his back and hops a little in the chair.
“Straight A’s,” he says.
“Seeerrriioo?” I say.
“Me la rallo,” he says. “Straight A’s.”
Like a kid fumbling with wrapping on a present, I get the transcript out and extend it open. And, sure enough, right there before my eyes: 2 Cs; 2 Bs; 1 A.
And I think, Close enough. Not the straightest A’s I’ve ever seen. I decide not to tell Looney he’s an “unreliable reporter” here.
“Wow, mijo,” I tell him, “bien hecho. Nice goin’.”
I carefully refold the transcript and put it back in the envelope.
“On everything I love, mijo,” I say to him, “if you were my son, I’d be the proudest man alive.”
In a flash, Looney situates his thumb and first finger in his eye sockets, trembling, and wanting to stem the flow of tears, which seem to be inevitable at this point. Like the kid with the fingers in the dike, he’s shaking now and desperate not to cry. I look at this little guy and know that he has been returned to a situation largely unchanged. Parents are either absent at any given time or plagued by mental illness. Chaos and dysfunction is what will now surround him as before. His grandmother, a good woman, whose task it is now to raise this kid, is not quite up to the task. I know that one month before this moment I buried Looney’s best friend, killed in our streets for no reason at all. So I lead with my gut.
“I bet you’re afraid to be out, aren’t you?”
This seems to push the Play button on Looney’s tear ducts, and quickly he folds his arms on the front of my desk and rests his sobbing head on his folded arms. I let him cry it out. Finally, I reach across the desk and place my hand on his shoulder.
“You’re gonna be okay.”
Looney sits up with what is almost defiance and tends to the wiping of his tears.
“I… just… want… to have a life.”
I am taken aback by the determination with which he says this.
“Well, mijo,” I say to him, “who told you that you wouldn’t have one? I mean, remember the letters you used to write to me from camp, telling me about all the gifts and goodness you discovered in yourself – stuff you didn’t know was there. Look, dog, I know you think you’re in a deep, dark hole, pero la neta, you’re in a tunnel. It’s in the nature of tunnels that if you just keep walking, the light’s gonna show up. Trust me, I can see it – I’m taller than you are.”
Looney sniffles and nods and seems to listen.
“You’re gonna be just fine… after all,” and I hand him back his grades. “Straight A’s.”
If you read scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of “sinner,” it’ll say, “see outcast.” This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame, as I have mentioned before, was brought inside and given a home in the outcast.
Jesus’s strategy is a simple one: he eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.” He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he “gets his grub on.” Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable.
Pizzas all around – Looney’s home.
Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God’s own truth for us – waiting to be discovered.