We had a large gathering of folks here for the celebration of All Souls Day or, in many cultures, “Dia de los Muertos”. It is a celebration of remembrance. We remembered all those who have passed on, who were so much a part of our lives.
Hundreds gathered here at PBMR creating small altars of remembrance. There was a procession through the streets, rituals and blessings. People came with pictures of their loved ones; mothers clutched the image of their sons/daughters who were killed by violence.
As Catholics, we have a long and deep tradition of rituals that allow us to tell our story of loss and suffering in the context of our faith story. Rituals allow us to bring near and touch that which is hard to express in words. In trauma work, we often use rituals and storytelling, poetry and art, to help express and share what so often is hard to verbalize. So often youth who have been victims of violence and abuse find it difficult to talk about their emotions, but in poetry or art, these feelings are more accessible and more easily shared.
It is probably no surprise to most that I know many who are locked up in our jails and prisons. I keep in contact with as many as I can through visits, phone calls and letters. But it is hard to maintain relationships with so many – especially as they are sent downstate to a prison or detention facility. I struggle with a sense of powerlessness because I lose contact with so many who are locked in our prisons.
Yesterday, Joe called from Cook County Jail. He is twenty years old and has been locked up for almost a year now. Joe was a constant at PBMR. He would go often with me to give talks – he had an outgoing personality that allowed people to come to know what we see in so many of youth – a deep respect and a desire for a better life.
When you receive a collect call from jail or prison, you have to wait for a long and repetitive recording to tell you that it is a collect call from an “inmate”. The recording is more annoying because it takes away from the short amount of time allowed for the phone call from the “inmate”.
As soon as the recording ended, Joe blurted, “Fr. Kelly, are you ok?” I responded that I was fine, tired, but fine. He went on to say he had been trying to reach me, and because there were so many failed attempts at connecting via phone, he thought something happened to me. While I appreciated his concern, I knew that much of his concern was that PBMR is his only connection to the outside world. Phone calls are expensive and most family members cannot afford to “keep money on their phone”.
After talking a bit, he asked about everybody at the Center: Fr. Denny, Sr. Donna, Jonathan, Pamela, Sr. Carolyn, etc. He asked about everyone at PBMR, as though he had a list and was checking off the names. Since I was at the Center, I asked him if he wanted to talk to some of them. One by one, people got on the phone and spoke with Joe. You could hear laughter, words of encouragement, and expressions of love.
As the time drew near for the phone call to be terminated, I got back on the phone; Joe’s voice was so full of life; you could hear the joy of being reconnected. “Man, Fr. Kelly”, he said, “I feel so much better. I was wondering if people were thinking of me or if everybody had forgotten me.” I assured him that we thought of him regularly – he was still very much a part of the Precious Blood Center.
The phone call abruptly terminated.
In many ways, that phone call was a ritual of remembrance. We didn’t create an altar, but we celebrated Joe’s connection to his community, and in that connection, he came alive. Moreover, it was not just Joe who came alive; each of us at the Center came alive as well.
Loss is a familiar feeling here; we lose so many to death, jail, mental illness and the streets. It can take its toll. These simple rituals are important moments to celebrate.
“But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ”. (Ephesians 2: 13)