When asked what I do as a Catholic journalist, I often reply that I’m basically a salaried, curious two-year-old – one with access to a laptop, Google and a whole lot of gracious folks who allow me to pester them with my constant questions about the faith and how it’s lived out. Rather like my coal miner ancestors, I aim to dig down deep, not by swinging a pickaxe, but by calling, emailing and meeting with people, seeking to learn how Christ has touched their lives in some way.
In my zeal, I’ve even been known to wear out a few souls, as one poor nun, wilting after an hour’s conversation, gently reminded me: “Sweetie, we have to lock up the church now.”
But the other week, I was what you might call “at sea” during an interview – faltering without a foothold, at a loss for a question or for anything to say. And what had shipwrecked me was the incomprehensible agony described by two youth who had agreed to share with me how gun violence has ravaged their lives.
The teens were being aided by Catholic Social Services (CSS), and after their care team had carefully reviewed and approved my request, they had agreed to speak with me. Their counselor was on hand to support them, and I had a list of angles I wanted to explore: their take on the public outcry and the political flailing, and above all, their ideas on “how to really fix this problem.”
Leaning forward, I earnestly asked, “What dreams do you have for your future?”
I knew they had endured tremendous suffering, but I was certain that hidden somewhere in their wounded hearts was at least one small, safe place where a cherished longing lay – a desire to succeed in a career, to build a family, to travel beyond the blighted city blocks that had scarred them, or to return to and renew those broken communities. Surely their spirits couldn’t be completely vanquished, I thought.
But the youth were silent a moment, as if pitying my naivete. Then one met my gaze and said, “We don’t have dreams. We just want to survive another day.”
And, patiently, the two of them recounted to me the dark theology of the street, summed up in a single deadly commandment: “Kill or be killed.” Their parents had been mired in addiction and later incarcerated; food and shelter were tenuous at best, and their friends were relentlessly slain – one at age eight – in constant gang wars set off by “beefs” and grievances that could be sparked by a single glance.
Their sacred texts were social media posts that glorified cash, cars and clothing; their psalms were the rap music that at once gave voice to and perpetuated their experiences, with lyrics extolling drugs, promiscuity and murder: “I be with demons, and yeah, I admit it … You can’t run when we shoot.”
Prior to entering the CSS program, these kids didn’t expect to see their 21st birthdays, and their blood ran thick with the toxins of self-medication: marijuana, opioids, cocaine. You needed to be high to face a world where you could be shot in your own home – if you had one, they said.
In essence, the teens translated for me how life looks and feels when you have no hope.
And I mean “hope” in its fullest sense – not as the vague term we cast about in daily conversation, but as the vigorous theological virtue on which we as believers in Christ base our very lives: the “desire (for) the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1817).
In every human heart, God has placed an “aspiration to happiness,” one that hope in Christ’s great redemptive work “purifies” and “(orders) … to the kingdom of heaven” (CCC, 1818). We are all of us creatures of God, made in his image and likeness, destined neither for the mean streets nor Wall Street, but for an everlasting home in the very heart of the Most Holy Trinity.
Heaven can seem a long way off when you have enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, a steady income, good health, family and friends. Talking about our faith is now deemed foolish, impolite, even traitorous; indeed, in our own nation, we are rapidly transforming “freedom of religion” into “freedom to worship privately without offense to the ways of the world.”
But the victims of those ways can tell you they would give anything to have the hope that is ours, and as disciples of Christ, we must share that hope – boldly, bravely and now, before we are all caught in the crossfire.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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