I have long been deeply moved and inspired by those doing the brutally tough work of trying to prevent crime, of intervening after a crime has been committed, of trying to keep kids back from the edge, trying to prevent kids on the street from penetrating more deeply into one of our “systems”—mental health, child welfare or juvenile justice.
What is it that keeps an officer returning to the mean streets after a partner has been shot? What is it that keeps a minister’s arms around yet another sobbing mother whose son has been killed? What is it that keeps social workers returning to grim tenements, streetworkers to mean streets, child abuse prevention workers to scenes of family abuse and violence? How do mentors and youth workers come back again and again, trying to forge relationships with kids wary and frightened of relationships that in the past have always hurt? How do policy makers decide to expend precious political capital and energy trying to stop crime and to build vital communities?
What supports these people? What does give them strength to stand in the breach, to keep on going? Citizenship? Caring? Passion for justice? Faith? Atonement? Each of us must figure it out for ourselves; no one answer fits all.
The work is inherently unsafe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who protested Hitler’s actions every step of the way, who formed the German Confessing Church in opposition to the German Lutheran Church (by then taken over by the Nazis, who wanted to eliminate the Old Testament because it was a Jewish book and to replace the cross with a swastika) eventually paid with his life. Bonhoeffer warned us that the road to peace, to safety is inherently risky, paradoxically, the opposite of peace. In The Cost of Discipleship he writes, “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself.”
I think of Mattie Lawson from Richmond, California who lost two kids to gang violence. As a parent and grandparent, I cannot imagine a more horrible pain. Yet Mattie was not destroyed by her staggering grief. Instead she turned to action, saying, “I no longer have two children, I have four hundred. Not one more child in my neighborhood will die.” Why did she not fold up in her grief? Is it because she hurts? Is her work really part of a mutual struggle to heal, to try to make sense of pain, abandonment, violence and death? Mattie comes as a wounded healer; aren’t we all?
Many youth are literally dying for a relationship. They will risk gang life for that relationship, that fundamental claim as “home boy,” as one of the family. Yet street youth, while aching for a connection, will keep possible helpers at arm’s length; they will literally spit in their helper’s’ faces. Why? Probably because they are sure that anyone who gets close enough will see only garbage, will reject these youths just as others have. Kevin Grant, a phenomenal street worker works with such kids in Oakland; before that he served more than 25 years in federal prison. For Kevin, this work is atonement, giving back to a community from which he took a great deal. Kevin is desperate to save the kids from choosing the path he once took. For Kevin, every one of the street kids is a “loved one” whom he wants to reclaim, to bring into a welcoming and supportive “family.”
My sister Deane, appalled by the number of youth in California slain by guns, created Youth Alive, a non-profit devoted to reducing the appallingly high number of teen shootings and homicides. She employed teen gunshot victims as advocates to help stop retaliation, as lecturers in junior high schools (some in wheelchairs, some with colostomy bags) and as testifiers in the California Assembly for strict gun-control laws. For her incredible work, she received the California Peace Prize in 2004. She stayed grounded, her feet planted in both unquenchable outrage at the easy availability of guns and number of teen homicides and social justice that holds that kids (including teenagers) have a right to be alive, a right to be free from fear.
Many have an unshakable sense of having been “called” to this work. Anthony Ortiz, whose agency (California Youth Outreach) is in demand all around the State of California because of his ability to pull youth from gang life or keep them from getting into gangs, believes that his early involvement in gang life was preparation for his current work. He has no other explanation for the dramatic turn his life took:
Look at my life. It was all preparation for this ministry and my work with youth. So I look at situations, even bad ones, or maybe especially bad ones, and I say, “okay, God, what’s your message here?” And why wouldn’t I. Look at my life. Weasel! [Tony’s gang name]. Nobody would ever know I existed except my jailers and a few homies. And most of them are dead or in jail. Now I’m speaking, training, here and across the country. I even went to the White House to talk about gang issues and attend the National Prayer Breakfast. Me! [Hope Matters: The Untold Story of How Faith Works in America, p. 18]
I asked Earl Paysinger, then Deputy Chief of the South Bureau in Los Angeles, why he had chosen to work in one of the most violent pieces of real estate in the nation. His response had to do with a clear sense of purpose, of his mission in life:
Bloody, beaten, whipped. For me! What I’m doing cannot compare to what He did. But what I’m doing is right. I’ve been given a huge amount. Look what He gave me. Look what others have given me. Five generations ago, my people were slaves. They sweated in the fields. The baton was passed through the years. Some ran with no shoes and no food. My daddy ran in sneakers on a cinder track. I ran in college with spiked shoes on a smooth track. Because of them, I will pass the baton. My sons are waiting. I will not trip. I will not fall. I will not be discouraged. I will not be stopped. If I have to pick up the community myself, I will do it. [ibid, p. 128]
Cora Tomalinas, who almost lost her now highly-successful daughter to gang life, got her back and then plunged into community building and violence prevention work so that others with children at risk would not experience the pain she had experienced.
Joe Hynes, Brooklyn New York’s DA made a pledge similar to Cora’s. His office, one of the largest such prosecutorial entities in the nation, is filled with domestic violence and child abuse prevention programs. Local churches help mentor first and second offenders. Lighter offenders are “diverted” to job training and counseling. In a highly unusual move, Joe elevated his domestic violence prevention program to the same level of importance as his major bureaus—organized crime, civil rights, juvenile crime. As a child, Joe had repeatedly watched his father beat up his mother. His life’s purpose was to keep others from such pain:
I didn’t want others to suffer as I had suffered. Kids growing up in that situation learn that hurting others is the way to operate. It’s a good path to a criminal career. [ibid, p. 94]
Our standing points differ; the places and purposes of our work differ. But we share the fact that our work is a calling, not a career. In his book Passion for the Possible, William Coffin describes the difference brilliantly:
A career seeks to be successful, a calling to be valuable. A career tries to make money, a calling tries to make a difference…the words “car” and “career” [to which I would add “careen”] come from carrera, the Latin word for racetrack. This suggests that a car and a career both have you going in circles rapidly and competitively…Calling on the other hand, come from the Latin vocation (vocation) from vocare, (to call)…A career demands technical intelligence to learn a skill, to find out how to get from here to there. A calling demands critical intelligence to question whether “there” is worth going toward.
What fuels our callings differs. What keeps us between despair and hope, wounds and healing, mistrust and trust, isolation and connection, differs. However, we share the fact that we are called to stand in the breach no matter what comes, a calling to which Isaiah (Chapter 58) summons us beautifully:
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
They shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
You shall be called the repairer of the breach;
The restorer of the streets to dwell in.