Access & Kinship

October 28, 2018

Series: October 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 10:46-52

46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

 Access & Kinship

        Father Gregory Boyle is a Catholic Priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest ministry for gang members in the country.  In their own words, Homeboy Industries “provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of the community.”[1]  Their services range from parenting classes to anger management, job placement to tattoo removal.  That’s the official description of what they do, but if you really want to understand what the ministry is, you have to hear the stories, many of which you can find in Boyle’s books Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir (both been recommended to me by a different one of you, so I offer you my gratitude). 

           The stories are intense, I warn you, but well worth it.  In Barking to the Choir, Boyle tells of a man named Sergio.  Boyle has brought Sergio to a speaking engagement, as he does with his “homies” so they can tell their story in their own words.  Sergio in his mid-twenties, recounts what his life was like growing up.  He describes a moment in which his mother turned to him and said, “Why don’tcha just kill yourself?  You’re such a burden to me.”[2]  Sergio was six.  When he was nine, Sergio, who makes no mention of another parent, says his mother drove him deep into Baja California and left him on the door of an orphanage saying she had “found this kid.”  He remained there for 90 days until his grandmother tracked down where he was and rescued him.  Sergio used to get made fun of in elementary school because he would wear three t-shirts.  What a silly thing to do in the Southern California weather, but Sergio didn’t wear three shirts because of the heating; he wore them because of the beating he endured at home.  The blood often showed through the first two shirts.  It took the third to conceal his wounds.  We hide the unsightly wounds we carry.

          The crowds want to hide from Jesus the unsightly in their midst.  A blind beggar by the side of the road calls out to him, and Scripture says “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet” (Mk. 10:47-48).  Not one, not a few, man.  Have they not understood the purpose for which and the people for whom Jesus has come?  How could they do this?  I don’t think it’s because they are evil.  Maybe they don’t want to trouble their prized guest.  Maybe they are embarrassed at the beggar’s presence and think it will somehow reflect poorly on them or their community.  Maybe they are reacting out of their own unattended sadness and grief over the state of their world.  More on that later.  The beggar is a wound they’d rather keep unseen. 

Who are the unsightly ones for us, the ones we don’t want to look at, deal with?   What stories do we tell about them in order to make it easier to neglect them?  In Jesus’ time, people believed physical ailments were the result of immoral conduct, their own or that of their family members.  We scoff at such primitive beliefs now, and yet in our own way do we not reign down moral judgments on those who, like the blind beggar, find themselves on the road desperate and crying out?  Jesus makes clear that following him is fundamentally not about gatekeeping.  It is about open access.

The purpose of Boyle’s storytelling is not merely to shock.  It is to provide access to a world that many of us know nothing about.  It brings visibility to the unsightly and the unseen, restoring dignity to those who are so often labeled as thugs or monsters.  Assigning those labels makes it easier to write people off or lock them up.  Father Boyle doesn’t deny or excuse destructive behavior.  He simply brings to light the massive hidden trauma many carry with them that, unhealed, leads people to inflict it upon others and themselves in a vicious cycle.  Think of the trauma someone like Sergio carries.  Imagine the sort of trauma his mother must have carried and passed on to her son. 

Boyle defies the commonly held notion that people join gangs to belong.  He says gang members will even say that because they know that’s what people want to hear, but he doesn’t believe it.  Boyle says people join gangs because they are in immense pain and, put simply, “misery loves company.”  The hopeless seek out the hopeless and together they try and deaden the pain, often through destructive behavior, a way of rerouting their suffering.

          Pain, you see, is like water; it finds its way to the lowest places.  There it pools.  In telling these peoples’ stories, Boyle invites us down to the water’s edge, not so we can heroically drain the water or bail them out, but so we can see our own reflection in it.  The stories of Homeboy Industries often evoke tears, but the purpose of those tears is not to create pity at those whose lives are so different from ours.  The purpose is to remind us of our common humanity, for we all cry the same kind of saltwater, and we all have reasons to cry.  It is on this most basic of levels, that we discover we are family. 

The prevailing metaphor Boyle uses for being a Christian is, in fact, kinship.  The goal of the Christian is not to be good or believe this or that.  It is to learn to see each other first as kin, belonging to each other.  That’s no small thing when you’re working with gangs, which are based in mutually opposed ideologies of belonging.  It feels less and less like a small thing for those of us outside the gang world.  Jesus, himself, spoke in terms of kinship, a kinship that superseded even blood relationships.  It’s why we call one another sisters and brothers in Christ.  It’s not a mere nicety.  It’s a statement of moral clarity in a world where people are confused into believing they belong only to their nation or their race or even their religion.  No, we all belong to each other, and we all belong to God.  That’s not to critique minority groups who have a need to cling together in a hostile world, but rather to remind us that all such communities do so precisely out of a sense that they too have been told they’re a burden and have been effectively dropped off at the orphanage unwanted. 

          Speaking of clarity, it is, ironically, the blind one in today’s story who sees Jesus most clearly, crying “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  One would safely assume a blind person cannot see, but appearances are deceiving, and following Jesus requires a different kind of seeing.  It is learning to see beyond what the world tells you about someone to what is behind and beneath appearances.  Following Jesus is also about learning how to hear differently.  It is about hearing other peoples’ stories.  A person’s story becomes a bridge from one soul to another and that bridge makes the way for compassion.  This is why it is so essential to dehumanize a person or group if you want to make an enemy of them.  When you cut off the path to their story, reduce them to a caricature or stereotype, paint a frightening two-dimensional picture, you blow up the bridge to kinship.  In the Christian lexicon, there’s a word for that.  It’s called sin, sin which comes from the Old English, “to tear asunder.”  When we say that Jesus was without sin, we may think of someone who was a good boy in Sunday School, but perhaps more fittingly he was someone who refused to tear people from their stories. 

          I mentioned grief earlier, and it’s an important topic to which to return.  So often our outward displays of hostility are an expression of our inward pain.  You don’t need to be a psychologist or spiritual guru to know this.  You just have to have a bad day and then observe yourself come home and take it out on your loved ones.  Recently my spiritual director commented that all the fragmentation we’re seeing in the world, all the angst, is connected to the angst and fragmentation that we are experiencing within.  Frenetic attempts to right what is happening “out there” only feel futile when what is “in here” remains scattered.  “How,” one could ask, “can we dare go in at a time like this?”  Because we must.  I’ve come to realize that we cannot control outcomes.  The only thing we can control is how we show up in the world.  If we don’t do the inner work of peacemaking or healing, we will have no chance of bringing peace or healing to a world torn asunder.  If we do that work, that work of becoming integrated—the opposite of tearing—we can be a real force for good and God.

          Look at the blind man.  He is broken in one sense, but whole in a more important one.  He is totally aware of the healing he needs, and he cries out to Jesus for it.  As he does, Jesus says that it is his faith, which makes him well.  The Scripture says nothing of Jesus’ magic powers, only of the man’s seeking of Jesus and Jesus seeing past the brokenness of the man to the possibility of wholeness within him.  It’s a remarkable exchange.  Jesus calls him over and the man, throwing off his cloak, ridding himself of his only protection, springs up and comes to Jesus.  How do you suppose a blind man runs to Jesus?  Maybe he has learned to see with something other than his eyes. 

          Can we likewise address the pain inside and surrender it to Christ for its healing?  Can we learn to see and hear differently?  If not, we will continue to inflict our pain on each other or doing our own destructive things to anesthetize ourselves to it, isolating ourselves from the one thing we need the most, kinship.  What a week it has been.  What pain we are carrying:  Improvised explosive devices sent through our own postal system at political figures, a caravan of pain heading north in search of a safe place to be, and people gathered Friday for worship gunned down in a house of prayer.  These unsightly events point to something within us.  Among us, we may have different ideas of how to address what is going on, but my guess is if we all go deeply enough, we will meet.  If you’re angry, keep looking deeper.  If you’re afraid, look through the fear.  Look all the way to the bottom until you get to the bottom of it, that reservoir of pain.  Once you’re staring at your own reflection in it you look up, to your leftyou’re your right, you’ll see your kin right beside you looking at the very same thing.  That’s where we all meet.  That’s where we can recognize our fundamental kinship, and subsequently where we can learn to move forward as family.

          In the final pages of Barking to the Choir, Boyle recounts a story about a man named Mario.  Boyle describes Mario as one of the most tattooed of any of the trainees at Homeboy Industries, which is saying something.  Arms, neck, even his face is covered save for a little space around his nose, mouth, and eyes.  My, the lengths we go to become unsightly so that we, and our pain, don’t have to be truly seen.  Mario is also, according to Boyle, is also one of the kindest, most gentle, people at Homeboy.  On this particular occasion, Boyle has brought him along for a speaking engagement along with two other homies.

          For the keynote, Boyle invites the homes to share their stories for 5 minutes and then together they’d take questions form the audience.  If it’s all right with you, I’d like to read for you how it went:

Once the room settled, I encouraged the audience to just raise their hands and belt our their questions without the aid of a microphone.  The first question was from a woman near the front.  She stood and said that she had a question for Mario.  The spine shiver that went through his slim body was likely visible from any seat.  He gingerly approached the mike.

 “Yes?” he squeaked.

 “You say you’re a father,” the woman began, “and your son and your daughter are starting to reach their teenage years.  What wisdom do you impart to them?”  She recalibrates, “I mean, what advice do you give them?”

 She sat, and Mario was left alone to sift her words and find and response.  He trembled some, and closed his eyes, then suddenly blurted out:  “I just…”  as soon as those two words let his mouth, he retreated again to silence.  Standing next to him, I could feel, sense, and see the sentence he was putting together in his mind, reducing him to a new, emotional setting.  His eyes were closed and he was clutching the microphone.  He finally opened his eyes and stretched his arm out toward the woman as if he were pleading with her.  “I just…I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”  His last words felt squeezed out and his sobbing became more pronounced.


The audience was silent, and not one of us made a move to fill it.  The woman stood up again.  Now it was her turn to cry as she pointed at Mario, her voice steely and certain, even through her tears.  “why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you?” she said.  “You are gentle, you are kind, you are loving, you are wise.”  She steadied herself, planted herself firmly.  “I hope your kids turn out to be like you.”  There was not much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood and began to clap.  The ovation seemed to have no end.  All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.


Bobby [one of the other Homeboys] and I each lightly placed a hand on his back as he gently sobbed and a roomful of strangers returned him to himself.  As I looked at this crowd, it was unshakably clear that they, too, had been returned to themselves.  It was all exquisitely mutual.  An “orphan” guiding us to the birth of a new inclusion.  A lanky tattooed gang member befriending his own wound and inoculating this room from despising the wounded.  Everyone recognizing themselves in the brokenness.  All of us, a cry for help, judgment nowhere in sight.  And, yes, entering, just right now, into the fullness of new kinship.[3]



[2] This story is found in Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir:  The Power of Radical Kinship (New York:  Simon & Shuster, 2017), 53.

[3] Ibid, 204-205.