Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.

Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.

“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.

“SNIPER,” the kid replies.

Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.

But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”

Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”

What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?

Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”

Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”

Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.

I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.

Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.

The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.

Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?

For those in the Camden area, be sure to check out an upcoming initiative to get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.