A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Luis Alberto Rodriguez Guadalupe at the Centro de Evaluación Residencial (Residential Evaluation Center for the Juvenile Justice System in Puerto Rico). His story is as follows:
He was turned over to foster care seven years ago when his parents found they could no longer take care of him. He was lucky to find a family willing to take him in through the foster system. He was particularly bonded to the husband of the family, Fernando Luis Cartagena Torres.
“So, how was it with them? Did you get along?”
“Yes, I was welcomed into the family. I lived with the father.”
“What about the mother?”
“Oh, well,” he said, “They split up about 3 years into my stay. I chose to live with the father. I still saw the wife, but I stay with him.”
“Well, let’s talk about him, then. What is he like?”
“He was great to me, but he was sick. He had a lot of health problems. Actually, he already died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, when did that happen? How did it happen?” I leaned forward.
“It has been three and a half years. I was with him, and he started having… he had diabetes, and it caused all sorts of problems. He was at home and was feeling weak, and collapsed. They called the hospital and an ambulance came. I rode to the hospital with him. I was with him when they said he died. His heart stopped.”
“Oh my gosh. That must have been terrible. But he sounded like a great man.”
“He was, and then his children came for the funeral, an’ they scattered his ashes on a hill in Coamo his hometown. I got to throw some of the ashes. His kids were there too.”
He didn’t actually say it. I think being a young man, too much emotion wasn’t going to cut it here. But the way he said, “His kids were there too,” a couple of times, I got the sense that he felt accepted into the family. Birth, death, these are the sacred waypoints, and for the siblings to have accepted a foster kid into that moment said something about the family and the bond that had grown. In any case, I understood the implication.
“So,” I said, “He sounded like a great man. A modern example of Christ. You know sometimes we look to the past for examples of how to live our lives, but many times we have the best examples in front of us. Let me ask you something. Have you ever been tired or sick?”
“How does it make you feel about helping others. When you feel bad, really sick, do you want to go out and help others?”
“I guess not,” he replied, “no.”
Don’t you just want to sit and sulk? And who would blame you? Most people would say for you to get well first, take care of yourself, and then look after others. That’s what is normal. You say that Fernando Luis was very sick. Wouldn’t it have been easier on him if he had said, ‘I will take care of myself first’?”
“Just think about it. This is a man who was dying, but chose to look after you because he thought you were important. You were important to him. He loved you. He didn’t push you aside and say, ‘I can’t take care of you, because I am sick.’ No, he said that there was nothing he would rather be doing. He gave himself to you. When we talk about the sacrifice of Christ, that is what we are talking about. I hope you take that example with you and apply it.”
Luis Alberto was smiling now. He already knew that Fernando Luis was special, but perhaps my take on the situation exposed a new facet. Maybe he didn’t realize the depth of the man’s love.
“I will say an intention for Fernando Luis,” I said. “I will mention his name at Mass. We will pray for him. I will tell his story. It is an important story. It was good to have met you, Luis Alberto.”
We normally distribute Rosaries at the end of each session. The kids snatch them up with gusto. Although many are not Catholic, Catholicism is deeply embedded into Puerto Rican culture. The wearing of a Rosary is a powerful symbol on the street. I try to combat the “Rosary as accessory” by telling them that it is a reminder of their commitment, un recordadorio de tu compromiso. It is something that helps them not forget what they have been given and where they want to be. In the times when they feel small, petty, vengeful, selfish, or weak, it shall be a symbol to them of the love they have been given. Remember Fernando Luis, the man who gave his life so you may know love.
Remember Fernando Luis Cartagena Torres, Luis Alberto, so that you may be inspired.