Would You Just Try It For Lent?

As I write this, the president will reportedly announce his decision on DACA in the next 24 hours. If he continues to be true to form the decision will be a cruel one.

Justice and compassion for the children of DACA is personal for me. I know firsthand of the sacrifices and hardships they and their parents have made in order to have a new life here. I know firsthand of the contribution the immigrant community—whether documented or not—has made to the culture and community of both Los Angeles, the city where I’ve lived for 44 years and Denver, CO, the city where I was raised.

In the fall, winter, and spring of 1982-83, I suffered through an almost year long bout with suicidal depression. I was unemployed (and, at that time, probably unemployable) and low on funds. This was barely a year after my experience at the Camaldolese monastery where I had experienced the love and intimacy of God more deeply than I ever had before. I had plummeted from the ecstasy of that experience into the darkest time of my life. Many days I barely got out of bed.

I made an appointment to see Rob Eichberg, a wonderful therapist and one of the creators of the Advocate Experience, the coming-out workshop that had transformed my life a few years earlier. I continued in therapy with him for a year.

Rob insisted that I make my bed the first time I got out of it in the morning even if I crawled back into it an hour later. Making my bed every morning has been an essential part of my spiritual practice ever since.

Rob also made me commit to doing at least one thing every day that got me out of my apartment. I agreed to attend daily Mass. I kept the commitment even though it felt, most of the time, like I was just going through the motions.

One Sunday, early in 1983, a young woman who sang regularly at the evening folk mass introduced herself to the congregation as Sister Andrea Johnson. I had not been aware that she was a nun. Sr. Andrea ran the parish youth ministry and, at this particular mass, she announced that she needed “male volunteers” to drive the boys in the youth group to a retreat she had arranged for them. I will never know what possessed me, in the state I was in, to sign my name to the volunteer sheet, but I did. And I promptly forgot about it.

One Friday night two months later, I got a call from Sister Andrea cheerfully reminding me to be at the church at nine o’clock the next morning. She had to remind me what she was talking about. It turned out that the boys didn’t need rides, as I had thought; they needed chaperones—for the whole weekend! I told her I wasn’t available for the whole weekend. (I didn’t want to do it at all.) She cajoled me, “guilted me” actually, into making myself available until 5:00 PM the next day.

The retreat was a “men only” affair and Sister Andrea was told it would be inappropriate for her to attend. That’s why she needed male chaperones. I had never attended a meeting of the youth group so I had no idea what to expect. When I showed up Saturday morning I discovered that all of the boys in the youth group were Hispanic. I quickly learned that they were all immigrants or the sons of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. (There was, in fact, only one non-Hispanic member in the youth group, a girl who had been orphaned when her parents had both died in an automobile accident. The girl was living with her grandmother in a studio apartment in the center of Hollywood—the un-gentrified part.)

The retreat leaders were a group of itinerant young preachers from Chicago, many of them former gang members, who called themselves “Soldiers of Jesus”. The group had shown up at the Church a few months earlier and offered to give a free retreat for the boys in the youth group. Gangs were becoming a real problem at Hollywood High where most of the youth group attended school. Sister Andrea, fresh from Wichita, Kansas, welcomed the help of these “Soldiers of Jesus.”

We met in the dining room of the old parish convent, the former residence of the nuns who taught at the parish grade school. They were long gone and the convent was used for parish meetings such as these. It was also offered, although few of the parish members were aware of it, as a sanctuary for undocumented people fleeing the civil wars in Central America. The two other chaperones, septuagenarians both, were long-time ushers at the church. They frequently excused themselves from the proceedings to take smoke breaks much like they did at Sunday Mass. Except during the collection and communion, these men could almost always be found smoking just outside of the church doors.

Before the first hour of the retreat was over, I was appalled by what the “Soldiers” were telling these kids. By the end of the day I was furious. I had not experienced emotions this intense since the onset of my depression. The soldiers were teaching these boys a lot of superstitious hogwash that I had had to work through in order to reach the beginnings of an adult faith. Some of what they told the boys was dangerous. You don’t tell young men who are living on the fringes of gangs that, if they die wearing a scapular medal, they will gain immediate entrance into heaven. This is like telling adolescent suicide bombers they will be greeted by 40 virgins when they enter paradise.

When we broke for the day, I tried to find Sister Andrea but she was nowhere to be found. She had my phone number but I had not bothered to get hers. I was relieved that I had only agreed to be there on Saturday and not for the whole weekend.

Monday I got a message from her thanking me for my help and inviting me to an evaluation meeting the following day. I cancelled my plans so I could attend. I was in high dudgeon and I wasn’t going to miss this.

The two other chaperones made perfunctory comments about the weekend and then she asked what I thought. I lit into her. The other chaperones quietly excused themselves and the two of us were alone in her office. I behaved like a prosecuting attorney. “How could you have left the kids with these screwballs? Where did you find them? Do you know they are not a legitimate religious order? Where were you all weekend? What were you thinking?” I had a laundry list of offenses that the “soldiers” had committed ending with their treatise on the magical powers of the scapular.

Sister Andrea came right back at me. “I have almost no support for this ministry. No funds. The parish secretary fights me on everything. None of the clergy and none of the male parishioners are willing to help. One of the priests even leaves me notes telling me the kids make too much noise. These boys need a masculine influence. The soldiers offered to do something for the boys for free. It was supposed to be for men only and they asked me not to attend. That’s why I needed chaperones.”

There was nothing apologetic or complaining in her presentation; she was standing her ground and explaining the facts as she understood them.

I apologized for my tone of voice.

Sister Andrea took a deep breath. “I need help,” she said. “Would you be willing to commit to teaching Bible studies with me one night a week?”

I blew up again. “You don’t know any more about me than you know about the Soldiers of Jesus.”

“What do I need to know?” she asked calmly, not giving an inch.

“To begin with, I’m a radical gay activist. I’m out to everyone I know, and my picture has appeared in the Los Angeles Times. My spirituality is not conventional. I quarrel with a lot of the church’s teachings. I don’t think the kids parents would be comfortable having me minister to their children! And I don’t have any experience with teenagers.”

“I know gay people. The music minister at our church in Kansas is gay.”

I held my tongue—a smart assed come back would be too easy.

She continued. “May I ask you two questions?”

“Go ahead.”

“Are you sexually active with teenage boys?”

“No!”

“Do you harbor any secret desires to be?”

“Nooooo!!!!!”

“Would you at least try it for Lent?”

Checkmate! She had hooked me. Well played, Sister Andrea!

“Just let me check with Father Thom (the pastor),” I said to her, hoping for an out. I told him my story and Sister Andrea’s proposition.

“She could really use the help. Thanks.” Father Thom shook my hand, slapped me on the back, and ushered me out of his office. (Did I mention he was a Jesuit?)

My six week stint evolved into five years as a volunteer youth minister. My “one night a week” commitment gradually became two nights a week and some weekends. The work got my attention off myself and gradually healed my depression. I loved the kids more than I could have imagined. They rewarded me in kind.

They were sometimes, usually unintentionally, hilarious. Their view of the world and of life was radically different from mine.

My first night of ministry, I sat in a circle with Sister Andrea and about twenty teenagers—boys and girls, some of them siblings. I asked each one of them to tell me their name and something about themselves. Most of them were not particularly forthcoming not out of shyness, I learned, but because they didn’t know if they could trust me or count on me. We finally got to the end of the circle and to a beautiful girl named Claudia who had attitude for days.

“My name is Claudia. I’m sixteen years old and I hate my life” she challenged me.

“Finally—an honest teenager!” I shot back.

My response stunned the group. Claudia smiled. I had hooked her just as Sister Andrea had hooked me. Claudia, it turned out, was a natural leader.

One night we played a game called “Ethics.” Each kid drew a card and had to answer the question on the card. Claudia read her question: “If you had company over and after they left you found a dollar in change in the chair where one of them sat, would you keep it or  return it?”

“I would return it,” Claudia answered immediately.

“Really? Just a little bit of loose change,” I countered.

Claudia thought for a moment. “Maybe if it was $20 I wouldn’t, but I can be honest for a dollar.”

Less than a year into my time there, my old car died. I didn’t know how I was going to replace it. Two of the boys, Hector and Julio, approached me after our meeting. “Jim, what kind of car do you want? You’ve been good to us. We can fix you up.” I knew that they could. I declined their offer as graciously as I could.

Eduardo was the slightest, and perhaps, the shyest of the boys. He rarely talked; when he did, his speech was more heavily accented than the other kids. He spent most of his time drawing in a spiral notebook. One night after the meeting, he approached me and asked if I would like to see his artwork. “Of course.” I expected him to hand me his notebook. “You’ll have to drive me,” he said, “It’s not very far.” I’d driven him home before and I thought that was where he was taking me. Instead he directed me to a locked, fenced-in vacant lot. “We have to crawl under the fence if you want to see it up close.” “See what?” I asked. He pointed at a wall at the far end of the lot. The entire wall was filled with ornate, wildly colored graffiti. “You did all of that?” I asked incredulously. “Yeah,” he smiled. “Mostly really late at night when I can’t sleep. Do you like it?”

“I’m amazed!”

The mother of two girls who were in the youth group invited me to dinner. Sister Andrea told me I must accept and that I must eat the meat. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “The family is very poor and they may not be able to afford meat for all of them. You’re their guest and they will want to honor you.” I protested. “I can have meat every day. I don’t want them doing without.” “You must or you will insult her hospitality. She wants to thank you for what you are doing for her daughters.” The one-bedroom apartment, one block off of Hollywood Boulevard was threadbare and immaculate. The woman’s husband was still in Mexico saving money to join her and the three children who shared the tiny apartment. Her son was still too young to be part of the youth group. The mother served a delicious soup. I was given the only meatball.

Early during my second year, Sister Andrea urged me to run for the parish council. I told her that nobody in the parish knew who I was except for her and the kids. She persisted. “If you were on the council, you could advocate for them.”

Much to my surprise I was elected. I got the most votes. I had no idea how. Several months later Claudia confessed that she and her boyfriend had convinced the youth group to stuff the ballot box. I reported this to Father Thom who laughed and said, “God works in mysterious ways.” I ended up serving three terms on the council.

The most extraordinary event occurred during my last winter as a youth group minister. Sister Andrea had managed to arrange the use of the lodge at a Catholic a summer camp in the mountains near Big Bear. We loaded three cars with kids. Sister Andrea had a van. Half-way up the mountain road we had to stop at a service station and get chains for the tires. It was snowing when we arrived at the Lodge. Most of the kids had never seen snow and they were hypnotized by it. We unpacked the groceries and lit a fire in the huge fireplace. Then we went outside and joined the kids. Sister Andrea showed them how to make snow angels. The boys split into two teams with the intention of starting a snowball fight. One of the girls stopped them. “It’s too beautiful for a fight,” she pleaded. “I suggested the boys have a snowman building contest. The resulting artwork was outrageous and funny, not quite, but nearly obscene.

I’ve seldom seen anything more beautiful than snowflakes falling on the jet black hair of the kids. The flakes looked like stars. Outside of the city the kids had a rare opportunity to be children. The innocence that lived just a millimeter beneath the tough bravado of their streetwise attitudes was a glory to behold.

After dinner we made hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows in the fireplace. I’d never seen the kids this relaxed and vulnerable. They began to share secrets. Eduardo had seen his older brother shot down in the streets of his hometown in Guatemala and he missed him every day. No one had known this. Veronica, a petite, lovely 15 year old with straight black hair long enough to sit on crossed the room to sit by the fire next to her older brother, Pio who was not much taller than her sister but had more swagger and more bravado than any of the other boys. He and his sister fought constantly; and I don’t remember hearing either one of them say a civil word to each other. Veronica rested her head on Pio’s shoulder and said, “Pio, you know I love you.” And the dam broke. Pio sobbed while Veronica held him. Nearly all the other kids began to cry with them. For a moment they could shed the armor that they, as immigrant children, had to wear all day, every day in the city.

I got a call one day from Brian a friend of mine who managed the box office at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. “Help,” he said. “I’ve been given a directive to make the staff more diverse. Do you know any bilingual minority women?”

“How old do they have to be?”

The only requirement is that they be 18 years old and have a high school diploma.”

“I have the perfect candidate. Tell me when and where she should show up.”

Claudia had just graduated and was flipping burgers at a local Wendy’s. Her arms were dotted with small grease burns. She had the grades to get into college but not the money.

I drove over to Wendy’s and told her about the box-office job. She got it and excelled at it, gradually working her way into more responsible positions. The museum had a program to assist employees in pursuing a higher education and Claudia eagerly took advantage of it.

Several of the kids made it to college. A few of the boys joined the military.

On my last day, Sister Andrea and I met for a meal. “We did well,” she said. “None of our kids got killed, none are in jail, and only one girl got pregnant.”

She had never told me that that was the criteria for success.

I owe those immigrant kids, who are, by now, in their mid-forties, my life. They brought me back from the brink. They gave me far more than I could ever give them.

Give the DACA kids the chance to save lives. We need them and their gifts. We’d be fools to reject them.

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3 thoughts on “Would You Just Try It For Lent?

  1. Thank you. Both for the service to these kids and for telling the story. There as quite a few politicians who really ought to read it and take it to heart. The Norwegian “integration minister” for one. Who’s working more along the lines of divide and conquer and get them all out of here, and has been named “the Norwegian Trump-ist.” Hopefully the job is no longer hers in a week… (parliament election coming up, I’m voting for a green change. Goodness knows we need it).

    There’s always hope. ❤

  2. Jim, you’ve done it again so brilliantly. It’s as if the question the United States posed to you was “Why should I care about DACA?” and you’ve given an incredibly poignant answer. Thank you for this answer.

  3. 15 states have now filed suit against this! Thank you for your piece… you are indeed a talented and gifted writer, and I am so glad that my son shared your post.

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