The First and Greatest Commandment

incarcerated_youthWe were driving home after giving a talk at Dominican University and Anthony was more quiet than normal.  Usually, that means he is deep into his phone – on Facebook or some other social media app.  But no phone….head toward the passenger window of the car.

“Hey, Anthony, anything the matter?” I asked. He shook his head no; he still was staring out the window.  “Anthony, look at me,” I said.  He turned toward me with tears in his eyes.

“What’s up?” I asked.  “What’s hurting you?”  And through the tears he spoke of how alone he felt….like everyone left him.

Anthony has his issues….been locked up a couple of times.  He accompanies me quite a bit when I am asked to give talks on the neighborhood and the violence.  He is an excellent speaker….talks from his heart…keeps it real.  Today was no different.  The college students were captivated by his story.  He spoke of his life and the struggles.  “I am still struggling”, he told the group.  “I just don’t want to end up like my father or my brothers.”

That was what was bothering him.  He spoke well.  He told the truth.  But on the ride home, it came tumbling down on him.  He felt the words he shared so openly.  His father, whom he barely knows, has been locked up most of his life.   His older brother is doing 55 years;  his little brother has been locked up for 6 months and will probably have to do a few years (he’s only 16); another brother, who is just a year and a half younger than he, got locked up a couple weeks ago.

Anthony feels like they all left him.

“You know we gotcha’, right Anthony?”  I said.  “Yea, Fr. Kelly, I know you got me.  It is just like, I don’t know, like nobody is thinking about me.   My ma’, she doin’ her thing.  I just feel alone.”

Luckily (I can say this now) the traffic was Chicago traffic – stopped.  We had time to talk.  And talk we did.

We offer many programs at PBMR; people want numbers, structure, success rates…but we know all the programs in the world can’t take that feeling of being alone away.  That takes having someone who is willing to be there for you.  It takes someone who is willing to listen; it takes someone there assuring you that they “Got your back”.

Maybe I listened because I had to – there was nowhere to go.  But I’d like to think I listened because I know that is what is needed.

I was listening to public radio the other day and two regular contributors, David Brooks of the New York Times and EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, were speaking of theology and the criminal justice system.  David Brooks told a story of an old friend who has worked with “at-risk” youth for 40 years.  Someone asked this veteran of youth work which program, out all the many programs, really worked.  His reply was that he didn’t know of any such program, but, in his experience, what really did work, what really did have a real impact, was the consistent presence that helps a kid feel that they are loved.

This is precisely why I do this work.  You see, all my life I have felt loved.  Whether it was my parents years ago, my sisters and brothers today, or my friends and colleagues, I have always felt loved.  And so when a kid tells me he’s got no one….feels all alone, well it breaks my heart.

As a society, we need to do better.  That any child in our world grows up feeling like he/she has no one is sinful.  I am not talking about the occasional feeling of loneliness, I am talking about the overall feeling that I am alone – that I have no value.

There is a lot of loneliness in this world and a lot of fear.   There are little children who are afraid to go to bed at night because they are not sure what will happen to them or to their parents.    There are children who wonder what will become of them, to whom can they go; who cares if they exist…..they wander our streets:  we judge them; we fear them; we ignore them.

Pope Francis, on a recent trip to Sweden stated that, “New situations require new energy and a new commitment,” and then he offered a new list of Beatitudes for modern Christians:   And I quote #2:

“Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.”

We can do better.  We need to do better.  It is living out the first and greatest commandment.