The sermon for week June 16, 2013
Father Greg Boyle found himself in a raging storm when he moved to his new parish. He was assigned to Dolores Mission in central Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Dolores Mission is right in the middle of two large public-housing projects, the largest projects west of the Mississippi. This area also had the highest concentration of gang activity in LA. So if LA was the gang capital of the world, his little postage stamp sized area on the map was the gang capital of LA (Boyle 2).
This is the stuff of gangster rap that hit big in the 1990s and continues to this day. This is straight out of Compton, LA, type stuff. Father Greg had a massive storm filled with gang violence, murder, drugs, sex, child abuse and neglect. All of the worst parts of humanity swirling around him. And much of this was carried out by teenagers. Father Greg said that the kids of these gangs would sooner plan their funerals than their futures.
So Father Greg, or “G” as the homies call him, started programs to try and calm the storm. Based on G’s assumption that nothing stops a bullet like a job, he brought together former rivals and had them bake bread together. This was incredibly successful and lead to Homeboy Industries, which include Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, Homeboy Diner, Homeboy Farmers Markets, Homeboy Plumbing and Homegirl Café. Kate and I ate at Homegirl Cafe while we were in LA last month and it was really good.
Homeboy Industries is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the United States (wiki).
While the storm hasn’t entirely been calmed, G has calmed the storms in many young peoples' lives and given them a future. There are plenty of testimonies in G’s book Tattoos on the Heart about this. One of my favorites is about Luis and it has a Father’s Day theme, so it fits the day.
Luis used to be one of the biggest, savviest drug dealers that the community had ever known. But when his daughter was born, everything changed. He wanted to work at the bakery and with his natural leadership abilities, he quickly moved up to foreman. Not only did he work with former rivals, he supervised them.
And because Luis is smart, quick-witted, and funny, G had him lead tours for people who visit Homeboy Industries. After a month or so of being a tour guide, G asked Luis how it was going. And this is straight from the book, so pardon the language:
“Damn G,” Luis says as he shakes his head, “What’s up with white people any way?”
“I don’t know,” G stated. “What is up with us?”
“I mean they always be using the word ‘Great.’”
“Oh yah. Watcha. This buncha gabachos stroll in here and see the place and it’s all firme and clean and machines workin’ proper and they say, ‘This place is GREAT!’ And then they see the homies, you know, enemies working together and they say, ‘You fellas are GREAT.’ Then they taste our bread and they go, ‘This bread… it’s GREAT!’ I mean, damn G, why white people always be using the word ‘great?’”
G told him he didn’t know, but he used the word “great” at every opportunity just to mess with Luis a little.
A few months go by and Luis runs up to G and tells him about picking up his 4-year-old daughter Tiffany at the babysitter’s. He puts her in the car, they drive to their tiny apartment, where for the first time, Luis is paying rent with honestly earned, clean money. He unlocks the front door, and Tiffany scurries in. She plants her feet in the living room and extends her arms and takes in the whole room with her eyes. She then declares, with an untethered smile, “This… is GREAT!”
He turns to G and says, “I thought she was turning white on me.”
Luis kneels down to Tiffany’s level and asks, “What’s great, mija?”
Tiffany clutches her heart and gushes, “MY HOOOOOOME!”
Never before has Luis had a home. Do you know what it means to have a home in the purest sense of the word? A place where the storms of life can’t fully get you? A place where you’re welcome. A place Luis never had but could provide for his daughter. This is an amazing thing.
G points at him and says, “You… did… this. You’ve never had a home in your life-now you have one. You did this. You were the biggest drug dealer in town, and you stopped and baked bread instead. You did this. You’ve never had a father in your life- and now you are one… and I hate to tell you this... but you’re great.”
And I hate to tell you this, but the first time G took this story from his memory bank was to tell it at Luis’ funeral. He was loading the trunk of his car to go on a camping trip and some gang members came in, saw Luis and shot him.
This caused the homies and the church members to ask, “What’s the point of doing good if something like this can happen to you?” It was a good question. One worthy of a response. What's the point of doing good if something like this can happen?
We’ll come back to what G said to them, but first let’s acknowledge something: We’re not in LA. We don’t really have to worry about gangs and getting shot in our driveways here in NW Ohio. Sylvania is no LA. And while Toledo can be a scary place and there are way too many shootings, it’s not on the scale of Dolores Mission.
Our storms are of a different type. Storms of family issues, addiction, depression. Storms of our political climate or economic climate. Storms of stress or business. Storms. Can you think of one you’re facing?
Wait, wait, Pastor Luke! Jesus calmed a storm while in a boat. It was like a real storm with rain and wind! What’s with this metaphorical stuff?
Well, what good does it do us today if Jesus calmed a storm 2,000 years ago that affected 12 people? I mean that’s fine well and good, but it doesn’t do us much good today in the midst of our own storms. And I find it interesting that Jesus was in the boat asleep. I mean the dude was a carpenter’s son! In a boat full of fishermen! These are seasoned fishermen, these disciples. They’ve seen storms on the sea before. This can’t be their first. Yet Jesus stands and has the words to calm the storm. For me, I believe Jesus still has the words to calm the storm, whatever the storm maybe. I think there’s even greater power in calming the metaphorical storms in our lives. And I truly believe that Jesus can do this.
I think Father Greg can do the things he’s done because he’s modeling his life on Jesus. Jesus had a ministry of prayer and presence. Presence I have preached on before, the idea that just showing up is enough. Or as Sam said a few sermons back, just picking up the phone and making that hard call, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone does so much good in the world.
G does that. He spends time with gang members, many who have spent time in jail. And more so, he loves and prays for and with them. He prays not just for the shooting victim but the shooter as well. He states, “I think that God mourns both sides. God can’t stand that His children are shooting each other.”
Prayer is a big part of the Christian life. It is something I neglected for a long time. In seminary, I resisted the classes which tried to have us pray. I always fought the particular wording. Or felt that I was doing just fine without it, thank you very much. I was just too busy. But during my time as a chaplain intern in the hospital where I witnessed so many tragedies, prayer became very important for me.
Now every morning I do some sort of prayer. I come into work and I grab a devotional book. Or I read the UCC Daily Devotional email. Or Richard Rohr. Or I just spend time in a meditative silence. Recently, I’ve found myself in a prayer group. It meets once a month. We start with a time of silence and some guided meditation and then we just talk about spiritual stuff or things that are affecting us or things that we’re struggling with theologically. It’s like a spiritual jazz session. Someone plays a note, then someone else plays along, and then we riff on these things. Of course I don’t listen to jazz all that much, but I’m told this is how it works… sorta.
Now I’m a practical guy. Pretty direct and simple in my thinking. What good does prayer do? I have work to be done! I’m a busy guy! I have people to call and check up on, Facebook and email messages to get back to, Association things to attend to, books to read, and I do have a family to spend time with, and I used to have friends… I better call them, too…
But now I crave that prayer group time. I just love it! And now I’m like a prayer addict. I keep looking for good devotionals. I’m reading more and more poets. My recent favorite has been the poet Hafiz. Hafiz has been singing into my life and has calmed many a storm. And he speaks of the power of prayer simply and masterfully: “Come to my verse again tomorrow. We’ll go speak to the Friend together.
I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you pray
somewhere in this world-
something good will happen.
God wants us to see more love and playfulness in your eyes for that is your greatest witness to Him.”
I love that line: “But I know if you pray somewhere in this world-Something good will happen.” Praying. Simple prayer. It’s another route to help us problem solve. It’s another way to name our problems. There’s great power in naming.
Dr. Rich Melhiem talks about the Voldemort Effect. This is named after the evil being in the Harry Potter book series who was referred to as “He who shall not be named.” This holds a mysterious and sinister grip on everyone. Yet Harry is the only character who dared speak the name Voldemort. I think that prayer helps us name the storm. It helps us name what we fear or what we’re hoping for, and it helps us face reality. Like Harry, we are going to name that storm out loud. We’re going to call Voldemort what he is and who he is so we can deal with the real problem, and not the reputation, not the hype.
The disciples are freaking out in the boat while the storm is raging! The disciples name how they feel, yet they don’t say what exactly they’re worried about. They just say, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re dying!” And Jesus said, “PEACE! Be still.”
Whenever I can name something in prayer, I tend to find it everywhere. It’s sort of like when you buy a car, or put a bumper sticker on it thinking you’re the only one who drives this model or has this sticker and then you see it everywhere? Have you ever had this happen? That’s what prayer can do! Although I shouldn’t make any promises, I can say that good things will happen.
Make a practice out of it.
Just 5 minutes before bed.
Or 5 minutes before you start your day.
Maybe many of you are having trouble praying, like you don’t feel like you have the words. Here’s a simple way to get started. As writer Anne Lamott suggests, you need only three phrases to pray: Help, Wow and Thanks. That’s all you need. “Dear God, help with this, WOW that is GREAT, or thanks for another day. Amen.” Look! You can pray now! You’re a real Christian! Nothing to it. Just start simple. Like the disciples who did this in one sentence! “WE NEED HELP WITH THIS STORM! Amen.”
Now with all this prayer and naming things, bad things will still happen. There’s no guarantee of safety here. One storm can be calmed only to have a new one roll in. Or the same one will come back around again. Yet prayer helps us remain calm in the storm and even calm the storm itself. Prayer can do great things. Prayer is just great. And the word great reminds me of Luis’ story.
The homies asked Father Greg, “What’s the point of doing good if this can happen to a man like Luis?”
G told that packed church that Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there. He was able to name the good. He found what God already sees in each of us, that we are great! We are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator.
Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic thought life’s struggle was to realize that we are “clothed in God’s goodness.” Julian found this truth through the practice of prayer. G, I think, has a very strong prayer life, which sustains him in the hard work that he does. He alludes to this many times in his book. It would take an extreme amout of prayer and time in stillness to see the God in Luis when G first met him. Yet G loved him, and that type of love is only honed and perfected through prayer. And Luis, he found that he was clothed in God’s goodness and he embraced this goodness- his greatness- and nothing was the same again. And really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it.
I will end this sermon as G ended the chapter with Luis’ story in it. With a poem from Hafiz entitled “With That Moon Language”
Everyone you see, you say to them, "Love me."
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise, someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying with that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in this world
I love you. I LOVE you. I love you. I love YOU. I LOVE YOU! We'll keep working on that. Until then, let's spend time in prayer together. Using that Moon Language as we talk to God, and when we talk to each other. Amen.
Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart. Pages 2-17.
Hafiz. The Gift. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Page 39.
Melheim, Rich. Holding Your Family Together: The Course. Pages 23.
Wikipedia contributors. "Greg Boyle." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Jun. 2013.