All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Category: Los Muchachos (Page 2 of 2)

Stories from my work with juvenile offenders

Angry with God?

Are you angry with God? Do you look around at all the injustice, hatred, and pain in the world and ask yourself, how could a God that is all love and compassion allow this to happen. How can He let us live lives filled with such sorrow and torment? How could He let my loved ones die such cruel deaths? How could he let rapists and murderers steal our little children and do such awful things? How could God let beasts such as Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, the Black Plague exist in this world where he lets his children play.

Why not baby proof the place a bit?

It’s a simple question, possibly the simplest question ever asked. It’s incongruous to us why God would let such awful thing coexist with his beloved children. Would you tell your children to run out and play by the in-ground pool. Oops, you fell in and drowned. Free will… what’re ya gonna do? You fell in. I told you to be careful. I told you to take care. I guess it was meant to be.

And it burns us up. It makes us angry. Does it make you angry?

I was doing my weekly session at the juvenile prison last week and I had occasion to express to my young pupil a bit of wisdom that came to me in a flash. It was inspired by these children, some of them murderers, car thieves, drug addicts, robbers, and petty crooks. It was inspired by what I saw in their faces, their innocent baby faces.

"You see," I said, "It’s like a child with its father. You have any kids?"

"No," he said.

"Cousins, nephews, nieces?" I asked. He said that he did, but I realized that he might not get what I was about to say. I’ll try it anyway, I thought. Can’t hurt.

I asked him if he saw babies crying because they were hungry, tired, or needed a diaper change. I asked him if he had ever tried to explain, or saw someone explain to the baby why it was crying. "Did the baby respond properly? Did the baby stop crying because it now understood. The irritation, its angst, now made sense, so it calmed down. He laughed and said no. Of course not. His laughter lifted me. He was going to get this, I thought.

It’s interesting to note, that parents will never ever be able to fully explain, allay all fears, take on all burdens from their children. In adolescence, parents attempt to explain the feelings of awkwardness and rejection as normal. Everybody feels that way, they say. Meanwhile, the child thinks or says that they couldn’t possibly understand. How could they? How could they understand the pain I feel right now? I’m living it. You parents can’t understand what it’s like.

Every time a parent tries to explain, or convey experience and wisdom to a child, the child rejects it. You won’t understand until you live it. You will try to explain it to your children but they will reject it. All you can do is be there to pick up the pieces and try to cajole, motivate, and guide. All you can do it change the diaper, bring the food, soothe the restless nights and hold them when they cry.

If you believe in a God with whom to be angry, can you at least see through that clouded consciousness of your childhood and see a father who wants to help? Can you at least realize for a brief instant how we can’t possibly understand what’s to come next, and by next, I mean tomorrow? Can you see yourself as a child who cries and doesn’t know why?

If I know anything about being a father, it’s that when I hold Olaia or Jaimito, I would do anything to take away their pain, their frustration, but I can’t. I can’t because there is no way in the universe I can convey experience. And what is experience if not a combination of pain, joy, suffering, and happiness?

You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water do you? It’s okay, though, if you’re angry with God, I’ll give you a hug if you need it. I understand. I empathize. I hurt too, but I know someone who hurts more. He’s been locked up at the age of 17. He has no father. His uncle is in prison. He best friend was gunned down. He has no education. He’s poor and a drug addict.

Nobody’s Perfect, Least of all Me

tutores_en_accion_016_sm.jpgI said goodbye to my students at the Juvenile Detention Center last
week (Tuesday). They had a day out from the prison at a local Catholic
University, a day of swimming, exercise, and enjoyment, capped off with
a prayer vigil in the university chapel.

The project is called "Tutores en Acción" (Tutors in Action) de San
Ignacio (our parish). I saw an announcement in a Sunday bulletin last
year that was calling for volunteers to tutor in a prison. It spoke to
me. Who among us is more lost than those that have fallen so far to the
wayside. If there is anybody that needs companionship, tutoring,
mentoring, or somebody to care, it is they. Anyway, I wanted to do it,
but hadn’t the time or the motivation to get off my ass and actually
execute. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so the
saying goes.

One Sunday, the sermon was about being ordinary during Ordinary Time
(season of the liturgical year). "Do you want to be ordinary?" was the
call. Hell no, and I signed up. As it turned out the semester was just
beginning on Tuesday, so it was fortuitous.

I ended up with two students, Manuel Nuñez and Juan Luis Rivera,
because there weren’t enough of us to go around. I helped them with
their english (just to do something), but mostly we talked, learning
from each other. I helped give them a perspective outside of the
streets, gangs, and limited opportunities that face them every day in
their ambient. Sometimes when all you see around you is a particular
behavior or life path, it doesn’t seem so bad, rather, it seems right.
It isn’t until you see how other people live, get a bit of perspective,
possibly step outside of your cultural limitations, see new vistas,
that you see how small your life has been… or rather how much bigger
it could be. I think once you take that first step outside of what you
have known, it creates a hunger that never ends. I want to know more. I
want to become more. Basically, we hit that point over and over and
over all semester.

At one point, Manuel got into some trouble with a urine test. Perhaps
he had reverted to drugs, or something, but bascially got caught
switching urine samples. Anyway, he received another 4 months of
encarceration for this. He nearly despaired completely. I noticed a
change in his demeaner, he became more withdrawn, melancholy, angry.

We had a long heart to heart in which he expressed his axiety of being
in this place. "No puedo," (I can’t) he would say, as if to say four
months more would break him. He expressed his anger, his weakness to
become enraged (as one week his black eye confirmed). It was costing
him more time in this purgatorial realm.

"Manuel, you need to stop thinking about the day you leave this place.
You will drive yourself nuts thinking about that year and four months
down the road. Your life is here now, isn’t it."

"Yes," he agreed.

"You can’t think about your life outside of here. Look around, what can
you do with your life right here? You have a year and four months to do
SOMETHING. What is it going to be? Sit on your ass and whine, or make
something of this time?"

"I dunno," he said as if it was the first time he had heard that before.

"Why do you think, Manuel, that this guy dissed you? Do you think he
was frightened or threatened by you? Do you think he had something to
prove to someone else? In either case, he needs something he doesn’t
have. He’s more lost than you are. He’s smaller than you are.


"Next time look at him as a tiny little lost child throwing a tantrum.
Try to help him, not maybe in the heat of the moment, but walk away and
then come back later and offer a hand of friendship. Make a project for
yourself. Manuel, there is much to do here. Take some of it upon

"I’ll try," he answered skeptically. I didn’t hope for much, but maybe just a tiny bit sunk in.

In subsequent weeks we practiced tranquility, quiet words, peace, calm
in the face of the torment. I related to him my failings with my
temper, and how I should try to reflect more empathy before I lash out
with my words… try to put myself in the shoes of the other. "I fail
frequently," I told him.

"Claro, we can’t be perfect. Everybody fails from time to time," he answered.

"Yes, that’s for sure."

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