Friday, August 14, 2015

straight outta scotland

1. brave hearts

Earlier this week, Homeboy Industries hosted its second annual Global Homeboy Network, a gathering of like-minded organizations and Fr. Greg’s answer to those who say “Homeboy is amazing! Will you start one in our city?” (“We’re not the McDonalds of social justice organizations,” he always replies.)

I.e., it would be presumptuous (not to mention financially unfeasible) to think that what works in L.A.—and, honestly, largely in East L.A.—would work everywhere.

During our Morning Meetings, whenever the schedule is announced, Marvin from Tattoo Removal says that the machines will be going “all damn day.”

Everyone choruses: “All damn day!”

Except last year one of our machines broke and we had to cut back on hours, so sometimes Marvin would say “nine to one.”

A muddled chorus of “nine to one!” and “half damn day” followed.

Can you imagine an employee handbook for Homeboy Chicago (or wherever) explaining when and how to reply “all damn day”? (I imagine there is a handbook with such systematized quirk at 826…but that’s just a hunch.)

Pedro and Fr. Greg at the gathering.
Nevertheless, certain things are pretty much guaranteed to work for most people in most communities. Namely: giving people a shitload of love and resources and a meaningful task to do. That’s Homeboy in a nutshell. It’s not complicated; it’s just also not quick or inexpensive.

Cut to a few years ago in Glasgow, Scotland. If you’re like me, you think of the UK as a place of jolly bobbies solving capers involving missing cheese (I watched some Wallace & Gromit in my day). But Glasgow had the highest homicide rate in the western hemisphere.

Iain Murray (left) with former Homeboy trainee James Horton (second from left).
When Iain Murray shared this statistic in his thick, charming accent at the conference on Tuesday, I could tell that some of the people in the room only half believed him.

“But did you have a gang problem?” they asked. I imagined they were thinking of cheese wheels gone missing too.

“Yes, a terrible gang problem,” Murray said. “Our gangs are a bit different in that it’s not hard to get out when you decide you don’t want that life. But they’re quite violent.”

As part of the Violence Reduction Unit, he was tasked with doing something about this. So, imagine if Fr. Greg were not a cuddly American priest but an angular cop with a leathery tan, light eyes and a sharp purple tie (so, basically the movie version of Fr. Greg). But my point is: cop. A cop started the Scottish version of Homeboy Industries, a place where Angry Young Men (and women) can find mentorship and jobs working as teamsters at one of Scotland’s festivals.

The program is small but growing. They have some challenges that L.A. doesn’t—L.A. has deep pockets, even if it doesn’t always seem that way from a grant writer’s perspective, while Glasgow doesn’t have many private foundations. On the other hand, they have socialized healthcare, so all their trainees physical and mental-health needs are taken care of.

A year after the police shot Mike Brown in Ferguson—a year marked by more shootings by police and others, a year of the same conversations and seemingly little progress—it seems important to point toward something that works. If the Homeboy ethos is about dismantling notions of “us and them,” cops working side by side with ex-cons seems like the ultimate dismantling.

The Glasgow organization is called Braveheart Industries; I imagine that at least some of the folks who’ve come through the Scottish program are McDonalds.

2. holy water

AK and I finally finished watching Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. The season had a spiritual arc, as silent former cult wife Norma gained her own group of followers and Black Cindy found her true calling as a Jew. Mike Birbiglia, as a friendly corporate pawn, more or less plays the Devil.

Now I’m going to give away the ending, but not the part involving Alex, don’t worry.

The banks of Freedom Lake.
In the final scenes, the women notice that workers have accidentally left an opening in the prison yard fence. So they make a break for it, to Freedom Lake, where they baptize themselves literally and figuratively. They know they’re not really getting away with anything—they’ll be rounded up and probably punished by the time the credits roll. And even as they frolic, the prison is replacing their beds with…bunk beds. Meaning that the population and the tension in the prison is about to double.

Still, the women have won in the only way anyone can ever really win. Once I heard a young widow-turned-wise-old-chaplain on the radio, saying, “If we define being blessed as defeating death, we all lose sooner or later. But if we define it as experiencing love, that’s available to everyone.”

It was a huge comfort to me during a time when I wasn’t sure what I would get to stick around for (meaning still and always). That’s the gist of the end of Never Let Me Go, and why I loved that movie so much. The greedy, broken part of me always wants to win at un-winnable games. Right now I love my life. I have most of what I want, but I still don’t have guarantees about the future, since no one does. Some days, I have the luxury of denial. Some days I don’t.

I don’t want to surrender my hope for the future in exchange for the heavenly present. Like I said, I’m greedy. I don’t think God will hold that wanting against me, because I don’t think God’s M.O. is to hold things against people. The opposite, actually.

Fr. Greg has said, “Heaven is not around the corner. Heaven is the corner.”

AK has said, “I think God lives in time. Kind of like Interstellar; I think that’s what the afterlife is.”

Heaven with big scary waves.
I believe in parallel universes, a place where physics and metaphysics collide; if you talk to some of the most open-minded, deepest-thinking scientists and clergy, I think you’ll hear versions of this. The notion of science and religion as separate and opposing forces is the stuff of politics and troll-y internet threads.

I won’t leave my little slice of earthly universe without kicking and screaming, but I can at least promise to try to keep my eye on the place where God lives, in the cool muck at the bottom of Freedom Lake.

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