Love with its sleeves rolled up

Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, with a trainee at Homeboy Industries

Ryan and I caught a livestream last week of Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, the beloved Jesuit priest and founder of the gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries, in conversation with Oregon Humanities.

Boyle strikes me as one of those Jesuits who’s equally Catholic and Buddhist in his grounding. (Or, as a Catholic friend once said when an acquaintance asked him if he was Buddhist, “I wish!”)

He has been doing the daily work of accompanying “homies” and “homegirls” for decades, and what he does seems to be so transformative exactly because he’s not trying to force behavioral change or to measure KPIs or to implement programs to change the nature of gang activity. He simply shows up, over and over, for people who have never had stability in their lives.

He appreciates how his smartphone helps him keep in touch with the vast amount of people who’ve come into his life through his work. He says his relationships are stronger because he can send texts to let people know he’s thinking of them. What would our world look like, he mused, if we practiced micro-affirmations instead of micro-aggressions?

Or in the poet Mary Oliver’s words:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Be astonished.
  3. Tell about it.

His approach at Homeboy Industries, he says, is based on two unwavering principles:

  1. Everyone is unshakably good.
  2. We belong to each other.

His work is a mix of theology, psychotherapy, and companionship. He calls it “love with its sleeves rolled up.”

Former gang members come to Homeboy Industries for 18-month stints (the same timeframe in which an infant forms an attachment bond with primary caregivers, Boyle noted) to work, receive services, and to develop what Boyle calls “a muscular hope and a sturdy kind of resilience.” In short, they learn that they are cherished.

Hence, the name of Boyle’s forthcoming book: Cherished Belonging, which I’m looking forward to reading and giving to others.

The conversation had me thinking of a phrase used by psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy (who also uses the phrase “sturdy,” to describe how parents should act as leaders for their kids — to show empathy while holding firm boundaries).

She encourages parents to embrace the “most generous interpretation” when their children are acting out.

“Choosing the most generous interpretation of your child’s behavior does not mean you are ‘being easy’ on them, but rather you are framing their behavior in a way that will help them build critical emotion regulation skills for their future — and you’re preserving your connection and close relationship along the way,” she writes in her book Good Inside.

Emphasis mine. (And advice worth taking to other relationships, too.)

It feels like in-person human connection can be in short supply these days, or when we encounter other people, especially those in pain, we don’t know how to help. But we don’t build relationships alone.

As Boyle says, “Healing happens in a community. I’ve never healed anyone.”


Be thankful

This is what I saw at Mass this morning:

A little boy wearing a shark tooth necklace.

A retirement-age woman leaning over to her husband to whisper her opinions on the homily.

A woman who reminded me of a friend I met through another Jesuit parish, her face radiant as she lifted a host to each person approaching her, offering them the Body of Christ.

A man who I see almost every Sunday, stepping gingerly and leaning on a pair of crutches, his T-shirt tucked into a pair of athletic shorts cinched high around his waist.

The cantor greeting the congregation before Mass, asking us to “sing with full voices.”

A young man behind us kneeling down after receiving Communion, head bent low over his hands. He was breathing so heavily he may have been crying.

A string of people like a thread of rosary beads, clasping one another’s hands during the Our Father. One man stood with his arms crossed in front of his torso so that he could hold hands with his wife and reach out to the person behind him.

Voices rising into the air, singing, “I will come to you in the silence / I will lift you from all your fear.” A feeling of nostalgia, home, yearning pulling at my chest during the chorus of the song.

A toddler coming back from receiving a blessing during Communion, clutching a big, overstuffed teddy bear to his chest.

A little girl with braided pigtails skipping out into the aisle to shake hands with a stranger during the sign of peace.

My fingers laced into my boyfriend’s fingers.

The priest speaking from his heart, asking us to pray for the victims and the perpetrators of clergy sex abuse, for all Catholics who feel heart-heavy and weary and bruised and yet still find ourselves in the pews each week.

A teenage girl who looked like she would rather have been anywhere else, her eyes sleepy, her long legs bare.

A brother and sister carrying up the gifts, the sister stage-whispering “STOP” to her brother as they reached the steps, then elbowing him hard to tell him where to hand off the collection basket.

A Eucharistic minister wearing cargo shorts on the altar.

Black faces. Brown faces. White faces. Old faces. Young faces. Tired faces. Emotional faces. Apathetic faces. Lovesick faces.

A family gathering up their purses and backpacks and coloring books so they could leave discreetly after receiving Communion, skipping the obligatory announcements.

A mother with her three children in their preferred pew at the back of the church, her sons in suits. She wore a black fascinator on her head and pointed-toe pumps.

Light streaming in through the blue stained glass, the thin, modern windows reflected in the glass face of my wristwatch.

The altar flanked with tall potted palms bedded in decorative moss.

Another song, one that we always sing before receiving Communion: “Take, oh, take me as I am. Summon out what I shall be. Set your seal upon my heart and rest in me.”

A community that I don’t see elsewhere in my city, although I live and work and shop among the people that join me in the pews. A belief that flickers and wavers. A belief that brings us back to the pews most Sundays, to talk to a being we can’t see, except when it appears in the people around us, a kingdom of God, sleepy and earnest, striving and slouching toward hope.


Say how you are feeling

I bought myself a ring last weekend when I was home in Oregon. I’d been looking at this designer’s work for months, maybe years. The purchase wasn’t a big splurge at all, but when the store was in my backyard, I never felt like I had a reason to walk in the door and buy the ring. Being 30 is reason enough.

I wear this delicate piece on the middle finger of my left hand. A hammered brass band rises up into a thin ridge studded with seed beads of silver. The silver pieces are threaded through holes in the ridge, so they have the freedom to move.

As the cashier at the shop handed me my receipt, she told me that sometimes the pieces break. Some women don’t have any problems, she said, but if you shoved your hand into the pocket of your skinny jeans too fast, maybe you’d lose them. “Don’t worry, though. The designer is happy to repair rings. You can mail it in. If for some reason it keeps happening, she could even solder the pieces in place.”

So I look at this dainty ring often, tilting my hand to count the little dumbbells of silver, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I love looking at the ring. It’s not conventionally pretty. It’s interesting. It’s mine. 

And because it’s on my finger, my particular brain likes to send up a little flare of anxiety from time to time. Did I lose a piece? No, no, they’re all there. Admire the ring, go back to my day. That knee-jerk reaction reminds me that I haven’t been feeling (clinically) anxious lately. It feels good to have a baseline of calm and ease. I haven’t missed reading about heart failure on internet health forums at 11 pm.

This new habit of checking the ring is a way to safeguard against further wreckage. Oh, because I have been feeling. I’ve been angry. I’ve been grieving. This winter and spring have been flooded with a salty wave of sadness, and treading water in that sea has been exhausting. Some days, I’m only plunging my hand into a tide pool of sad, not minding the cold sting because I’m closer to the beauty under the surface. And other days, I’m choking on the salt water as waves crash over my head, my legs churning to keep myself afloat, everything inside feeling rusty and hollowed out and close to cracking.

Simple things start the sorrow rocking: A taste of Cran-Raspberry La Croix, the first stuttering notes of a Local Natives song, admiring other people’s dogs on a bright Sunday loop through the park. These things once belonged to us, all the tiny details of a love now lost.

Sometimes the pieces break. 

Here I am now, afloat, adrift. A relationship rooted in my new city has ended, and it is hard work to be submerged in that loss, to trust that my strong legs will keep kicking, that my chest will one day cease to ache. It takes energy to acknowledge that I am alone, that I am still out here. I wave hello to a friend relaxing on the beach. I ask another to join me in the bobbing waves as crusts of salt dry on my face. I’m moving closer to the shore. Soon, I’ll be able to stand on the sand bar under my feet.