For the past two months, I and one of my co-workers have been travelling across the country talking to current students about doing a year of service after they graduate. Over and over again, I hear a very similar sentiment from the students I speak to. “I want to do good. I want to have a positive impact on the world. I just don’t know how to do that.” Hearing these words from students reminded me of my own uncertainties looking at graduation from Loyola University Chicago. I knew I wanted to do a year of service, but I didn’t know where, I didn’t know what, and I didn’t know how.
I ended up going to Los Angeles and working at My Friend’s Place, a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness. While I was there I got the opportunity to meet a guy named Fr. Greg Boyle. Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest, but he is best known for founding Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation program in the United States. He wrote a book called Tattoos on the Heart, and it is easily one of my favorite books, and there is one line that I will never forget. “How do we get the world to change anyway? Dorothy Day asked critically: “Where were the saints to try and change the social order? Not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery.” Dorothy Day is a hero of mine, but I disagree with her here. You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by doing so, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, “Where are you standing?”
I’ve spent so much time during the past few years thinking about this quote and how it has impacted my life, and how I see the world. The problem is the question, “Where are you standing?” doesn’t always have an easy answer. There have been many times in my life where the answer to that question was, “I’m not sure.” I’ve experienced heartbreaking defeat trying to do this.
After my year in Los Angeles, I moved to Detroit and started working at Holy Cross Children’s Services as a Chaplain for juveniles in the criminal justice system. There was one student in particular during my first few months there I got particularly close to. He wanted to get connected to a church and start going to a boxing gym. There was one weekend where he was able to leave the facility for a home visit, and during that weekend I spent the vast majority of my time getting in touch with different organizations and pastors that I could connect him to after he left the facility for good. I showed up to work on Monday with a huge grin, excited to show him all of these amazing opportunities I had found, until I got to work and he wasn’t there. He never returned after his home visit and there was a warrant out for his arrest. I feel like the rest of the day was a blur. I was so disappointed and thinking if I could have done anything to change what had happened. Jesus had to ask me that question, “Where are you standing?” I had to answer Christ, but I wasn’t sure I could, at least for a little while.
I truly believe that we as a society need to spend more time on the margins, with the marginalized, because that’s the only way anything will change for the better. Fr. Greg Boyle at a recent commencement address said, “No kinship no peace, no kinship no justice, no kinship no equality. You go from here to stand at the margins; because that’s the only way they get erased. You brace yourselves, because the world will accuse you of wasting your time. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “In this place of which you say it is a waste. They will be heard again. The voice of mirth, the voice of gladness, voices of those who sing.” Make those voices heard. You go to the margins not to make a difference, but so that the folks at the margins make you different.” I need to be reminded of this from time to time, that we all need to change for the better. That we all need to lift up each other’s voices. That will be the only way this world will change.