The night started with the host, Dr. Yolanda Brown, crying out, “Make some noise if you are Latino, African-American, Asian or Pacific Islander, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Catholic, an immigrant, child of immigrants, or if you have a family member whose been incarcerated or if you’ve been incarcerated.” After all the cheering, Dr. Brown stated, “We hear you, we see you, we see God, and we see God in you.” A simple but powerful act nonetheless. In calling out all the categories that at times divide us as a people and are used to make us feel inferior, she empowered us and deemed us worthy and important. I say “us” because I identify with several categories previously mentioned. I am an immigrant, Christian Latina, who has had a family member incarcerated and deported. With this act, the host recognized those whom society usually doesn’t recognize or acknowledge, the so-called “minorities.” We are not forgotten; we are seen … somos vistos.
The meaning and intent behind the mantra of the night, “We see you … te vemos ...,” was to let the men, physically incarcerated behind the vigil, know that they are not forgotten; that they are also created in God’s image. They all have a dignity that has to be valued and respected. Most importantly of all, they deserve a second chance, and a third, and even a fourth if needed. How many times does God forgive us when we make mistakes? We make mistakes every day. God forgives us endlessly because God’s mercy is so abundant. So why can’t we return that same grace to those who have stumbled along their paths and made mistakes? Why must we be so harsh with our brothers and sisters?
As I stood outside and looked up at the jail window cells and saw the tiny windows where I know inmates were looking down at us (pictured to the left), I wish I had made a sign that said: “We care for you, we love you, we pray for you, we forgive you, and we fight for you. You are not forgotten.” Although I did not have that sign, I imagine that our presence alone and what we were declaring meant something to the men in the correctional facility. It’s like another female speaker had stated, “I pray being here reminds these men that they are not forgotten. We still see them.” I hope that the imprisoned men grasped the message we all desired to give them: one of love, care, support, forgiveness, and of not forgetting or leaving them behind.
An ex-convict who had been in prison for 20 years for killing another young man told a story that touched us all. One day, he received a letter from the mother of the man he killed. In it, she spoke of how her intent was not to throw anything in his face. Instead, she told him that it hadn’t been easy, but that she forgave him. She recalled how Mary, the mother of Jesus, forgave all those who had killed her son, and called them her own sons. Now, this mother who lost her son told his murderer, “I could call you my son, if you let me.” I had not expected this turn in the story and stood in utter shock. Wow, the power of forgiveness is truly incredible. Then this man said to all of us, “If we could see through God’s eyes, through Mary’s eyes, then the world would be a better place.”
We also heard from a woman who had a mental illness and became much healthier once she had housing. As she stated, “Incarcerating people with mental illnesses, who are homeless, who have drug addictions, does not work. Giving people a life full of purpose does. Affordable housing is the answer.” I agree. Affordable housing is the practical answer. However, I also believe Jesus is the transformative answer.
Here in Hollywood, as I continue to learn more about homelessness, I am coming to understand that so many of those who are homeless are mentally ill. Some had it before they lived on the streets and others have developed it while being homeless. In the past, in different areas of the city, arresting those with mental illnesses, with no place to stay and with drug addictions, has not had effective results. Getting people housed with the best-fitting supportive services for them is a better solution to this specific problem.
Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries here in Los Angeles, also spoke at the prayer vigil. His organization hires ex-convicts and gang members who are looking to give up the gang life and lead a better and more honest life. Father Boyle is the author of Tattoos on the Heart, a great book detailing how Homeboy Industries came to life. At the vigil, Father Boyle mentioned that the building behind us (the jail) is a representation of how society excludes people. He then compared it to the foot washing ritual that took place and how that signified inclusion. In biblical times, the washing of feet symbolized hospitality and a warm welcome to your guests. It was interesting to witness the two extremes right beside one another; exclusion and inclusion.
I want to leave you with this testimony. Pastor Michael Fisher shared how he lost his brother, a vibrant young man, to a shooting. He became frustrated and asked God to show him the way to understand why these kinds of tragedies happen. Through this experience, Pastor Michael learned that a person takes someone else’s life because along the way, someone forgot about theirs.
As Father Boyle stated at the vigil and in his book Tattoos on the Heart, “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: We’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other’” (187).
So, please, let us not forget any longer.