"TRY TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW GATE:" And Then "Kill them With Kindness!"

My first lesson in "Liberation Theology" did not take place in the classroom at St. Norbert College, nor was it in a seminar at Catholic Theological Union. Rather, on the streets of Chicago, in the sanctuary of an urban church in an exclusively Black neighborhood on the South Side. As I gazed at the image of Christ in the inculturated apse, I saw an image of an African-American Lord and Savior. In many ways, it is similar to an image of Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe -- an Aztec looking woman clothed with the sun, reminding the faithful, that Mary (or in the earlier case, Christ) comes as one like us -- in our culture, with our looks, with a deeper understanding of our plight. It wasn't the image of Christ that shocked me, but an equally large image of the pastor's face prominently placed within the hands of Christ! It was that image that rocked my world!

The lesson would continue as I made my way through the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago's near west side. As part of a practicum course, I was to bring communion to an elderly parishioner of a parish I was serving during my first year at CTU. Her home was very warm and welcoming. Displayed above her 1950's 'davenport' still shrouded in the original plastic covering, she had a plethora of pictures gracing the living room wall. Most were dated pictures in faded black & white, but some of the pictures were more contemporary, in faded color highlighting a 70's style of dress, eye wear and facial mustaches and foomanchoos!

But then there was the central image surrounded by all those familial pics: an image of a simple doorway -- not too impressive, not that distinctive. I was struck that the picture had a dried up palm behind it -- this struck me as a bit odd; after all, one usually places palms behind crosses, holy cards, images of Christ, Mary or a patron saint -- or your favorite Norbertine (well, maybe not so much!). I needed to ask for clarification as to why that image was in the center, and why it was adorned with the palm.

She told me that for her it was an image of Christ. Back in the Communist homeland, there were not a lot of holy images gracing the homes; although the image of Christ had a permanent fixture in their hearts. That particular door was the portal to her childhood home, the door that she would be carried through at a very young age as her parents would leave -- not only the house -- but their homeland, for a better way of life. That life would be found in Chicago, Illinois, USA. That door was a reminder of how Christ always kept an open door for her and her family; and it was indeed a very 'narrow gate' that would invite them to pass from one way of life to another -- and Christ was there at the threshold. Perhaps that kind, faithful, forever-welcoming Polish woman has Sunday's Gospel in mind as she gazes upon her walls this weekend:

"I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice."

Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10, 1-10).

This past Thursday, I gathered with the inmates for Mass at Green Bay Correctional Institution anticipating the Sunday celebration. As usual, I enter through the "Southwest Processing Gate." The doorway is rather pleasant -- a large, decorative, highly stained and polished oak door, flanked by turn-of-the-century looking lanterns. I have come in and gone out of that door rather freely over these many years. And yet, there are a few more 'thresholds' through which I must pass beyond the old oak door. As I stand before the next automated iron door, I realize that I am now on camera, being watched by any number of guards within the institution. That door opens with hydraulic ease admitting me into a small, 10 x 10 foot 'holding pattern.' Only once that door has closed will the next one open. I have never encountered the two doors opened at the same time; I suspect it is not possible. Once the next door opens, I am free to walk through a still narrower gate -- a metal detector which makes it abundantly clear that it does not care for the St. Norbert medallion I normally wear under four layers of a Norbertine habit. Eventually, another door will be electronically unlocked, allowing me to exit the processing building into the 'square,' or 'cloister garden' as I like to call it. Once I get to the free standing chapel at the heart of the campus, I find welcoming church doors, similar to any other church, with inmates often waiting there to open the door for Mike Donovan and me. It's quite a journey!

Naturally and with pretty good reason, that's a bit of a process to go through to get to Mass! And yet I am aware that my journey is pretty tame compared to the journey my 'parishioners' must travel to come to church. Their journey has even more layers of 'gates' and 'portals' that need to be confronted and crossed. After proclaiming the Sunday Gospel to the worshippers, I told the story of the old Polish lady's image of the gate on the living room wall. I asked the guys if they see Christ as-the-gate that keeps them in and others out of GBCI? And in a spirit of liberation, which direction must they pass through in order to receive that new life in Christ? Ironically, Jose, who never allows any of my questions to be rhetorical in nature, answers, "coming in has led to life, really!" "Only time will tell if going out will give us as much life," he adds!

While Jose was certainly tracking at the Mass -- and, perhaps, synthesizing the homily-of-the-day in record time and theological correctness, I am aware that one inmate continued to throw daggers my way via his bitter looking expressions. I suspect I have that coming! When this gentleman first encountered our Thursday morning Mass just over a month ago, I guessed that he was trying to test my patience at that first Mass we celebrated together. Chatting through the entire Mass -- with the exception of the homily -- I was growing more and more frustrated as the Mass progressed. Having the Mass memorized, I prayed the words of Eucharistic Prayer II slowly and deliberately while gazing steadily into his eyes. That stare-down seemed to last forever. When the Sisters did it to me in Catholic grade school, it had a very effective result! At that prison Mass a month ago, I wondered where Sr. Mary Michael was when I needed her most!

Perhaps I finally made an impression when, during the post-Communion musical reflection, the inmate placed his knit stocking cap over his head and over-stretched it well below his eyes -- his stance for the duration of the Mass. I realize that there is a fine line between being a bully, and wanting these men to get the most out of the Mass, not only for their own sake, but for the good of all who worship there, regardless of age, color, culture, sentence, or gang affiliation. Thus, as I recessed out of the church during the song of sending, I made a detour to his pew, tapped him on the shoulder, and invited him to "loose the 'lid'." To his credit, after a little post-Mass discussion with his 'brothers', he did approach me to apologize -- 'he was simply getting ready to head outside.' I reminded him that my intervention really had nothing to do with 'hats, tee shirts or jerseys' but what we do and do not do during Mass. I think he understood.

Since that Mass, I've tried to go out of my way to welcome the young man. While always appropriate with me, he nevertheless gives me the impression of dismissal -- that I should keep my distance. And yes, I have encountered that in any number of ways over the years from any number of inmates. That's when I remember an expression that a Norbertine confrere once shared with me; you need to "kill them with kindness," he would say. In the past, the results have been pretty satisfying, I must admit.

This weekend as I concelebrate Mass at Old Saint Joe's, I'll be praying for the intercession of St. Dismas, the patron of inmates, among other folks. In my mind and in my prayer, I will not consider the image of the gate on the Polish lady's wall -- nor will I even be thinking of the gates that keep the inmates in and the victims out. But I'll be considering the look of his harsh and angry looking face - staring at me with an [understandable] attitude of dismissal. I pray that Christ may pierce his heart as he 'stands at the door and knocks.' I hope this gentleman, who has so much to give -- and so much to receive -- will unlock the door of his heart and 'open without delay.'

On either side of the gate, dear friends, "God's flock is in your midst; give it a shepherd's care!"

Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.

Saint Dismas: PRAY FOR US!


Katie C. said...

Maybe he is just posturing in front of his buddies? Perhaps an image to uphold? Is he a ring leader there? It's odd that he does this yet apologizes and is polite to you otherwise. I am curious to hear how your relationship with him plays out over time. I was very amused at the idea of you "staring him down". I love it. And the story of the Polish woman was beautiful--thank you for sharing that. Hope you are doing well :-)

Anonymous said...

WOW ... what a powerful story. Jose met his match in a "staring contest"!!! (To borrow a line from a song, "you don't mess around with Jim". Jose will be added to my daily prayers along with Luis.
What a touching story of the Polish woman. I know at times we're all guilty of "closing the door" against Jesus but He's always lovingly and patiently waiting for us to open the door and welcome Him back into our lives.

While you are in my daily prayers, I especially pray for your safety on your Thurs. visit to GBCI.


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