“If you ask me what we do with people who come in the door, the people who live with chronic hopelessness and fear, I’ll tell you that we try to live comfortably in their darkness. And that’s the hardest thing of all.”
On January 8, 1945, my birthday, I asked the priest at La Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, if I could become an altar boy. I had just turned six. I was turned down outright. Too young, I was told: I had to wait until I was eight. The tall, pale, lanky Irish priest with the kind eyes was firm. But I would not take no for an answer and continued to ask even though I continued to be turned down. One day, after one of my entreaties, Father Keegan turned to me and said: “En tu inocencia esta la sabiduria”—in your innocence lies your wisdom. I had worn down Father Keegan and he agreed to make an exception and let me serve.
Once I was to assist Father Keegan at mass by myself. The moment came when I had to move the huge prayer book from the Epistle side to the Gospel side behind and around the priest. I went up the three steps to the right side of the altar, picked up the book, descended the steps, turned at the middle of the altar, genuflected and attempted the climb of the three steps to bring the book up to the Gospel side.
The waiting priest, who had his back to the congregation, turned upon hearing their laughter to see that the book was so heavy that little Paco could not make it up the three steps. Every persistent attempt at stepping up brought me to the edge of being toppled back by the weight of the big book. The priest rescued me by taking the weight off the book as he lifted it slightly, allowing me to complete my mission with recovered dignity.
Six months later, my very close friend, Juan, was killed by Father Keegan as the priest was backing up his car and did not see the small child who was waiting for him. Juan was trying to talk to Father about he, too, becoming an altar boy. From then on, whenever I saw Father Keegan, I was impressed by the fact that his face and neck had become beet red, a permanent mark of his deep grief. All he could do was hug me and cry—no words.
Soon after the accident he told me I could not continue my altar boy training. I felt wounded; my heart was broken. But something had happened in the brief days I was allowed to serve. I had learned everything I ever needed to know about being a priest, even though I would forget lots of it and would have to relearn it. I believe it was in that period long ago that the seeds for my life’s work were germinated.
I have now been living and working in The Bronx, New York for fifty-one years. What I have relearned in these many years working in the second poorest Congressional District of the United States (second only to one in Mississippi) is that in order to serve one must have the openness and innocence of a child. That compassion and love for oneself and others is essential, and that being always mindful of the moment you are breathing is the way to heal yourself and others.
My mission is to work with people whom I call “wounded healers” and their organizations in the South Bronx, to build sustainable neighborhoods with a sound, spiritual underpinning. In light of the many years I’ve spent as a businessman, I teach that doing well should not be seen as evil or an obstacle to spiritual transformation. My bedrock foundation is meditation and prayer.
The challenge is that people are very cynical, very scared, very hungry, and very wounded. Most of all, they are feeling very tired and uncared for. A friend once told me that wounded humans do not care what you know; they want to know that you care, and only then they might be interested in what you know. If you ask me what we really do with people who come in the door, the people who live with chronic hopelessness and fear, I’ll tell you that we try to live comfortably in their darkness. And that’s the hardest thing of all.
Somebody comes into the employment program.
“Tell me what you can do,” I ask her.
“I can’t do nothing. I got no skills, no diploma, no job. I’m on welfare, my mother’s been on welfare, don’t fuck with me!”
I enter her darkness.
The hardest thing is being with people who are hurting, with no agenda of their own, no answers. You need to stay with them in this place and help them find the light within this darkness.
So I continue my interview.
“Tell me, do your kids get fed?”
“Course they get fed.”
“Who feeds them?”
“I feed them.”
“How do you do that?”
“I go to the fucking refrigerator. I look inside, I make a list, I go to the store.”
“You know what you’re telling me? You’re telling me that you do inventory, you do planning, and then you get the job done. People go to college and get a BA to do what you did.”
As Father Keegan had done with me, I intervene only enough to lighten the weight so they can move to the next objective with a whole change of perspective. A wounded mother begins to mend.
The Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) is a living experiment testing these premises on a daily basis. LPAC was founded by Reverend Raymond Rivera in 1992, and it is where I established my first Peacemaker Village soon after my ordination in July, 1997.
Raymond has struggled with the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and the personal and the structural, while responding both to those who want to save the soul and those who want to change the system. He founded LPAC because he found it difficult to integrate these two perspectives within the church and the social activist communities. Since I have also found myself in similar struggles, the LPAC Peacemaker Village is his and my heartfelt attempt to respond to this challenge.
The work that our village carries out is to bring peace to these wounded healers and their organizations. We also teach alternatives to violence-particularly to parish youth, but also to gang members. We accomplish this by teaching people to sit and just be quiet; we dialogue and even teach Aikido, not necessarily as a defense mechanism but rather as a state of mind.
At our weekend workshops for young people, we even use some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practices. That’s when I can tell them about myself, that I have brailled my way through life. That feeling my way through long periods of darkness, I’ve learned that the darkness and the light come from the same source, and that for too many of us, getting through the darkness is our only road to getting to the light.
For many of the youngsters we work with, La Aldea de Paz del Sur del Bronx (The South Bronx Peace Village at LPAC) is the gateway out of darkness and the back to dreaming, imagining and creating hope under circumstances that appear hopeless to them. Our approach is to meet them where they are.