I can not and should not tell his story. Not in the way that he could. This former gang member had just finished giving our class of nursing students a tour of Homeboy Industries, the amazing ministry to at-risk, formerly gang-involved youth, and the recently incarcerated, headed by Father Gregory Boyle. To conclude the tour, he sat down with us in a small room and told us of his life. Grew up with a father addicted to heroin and an older brother heavily involved in gangs. Hoped as a child to experience what it was like to have a child of his own, before he would probably die around age 18 if he was lucky. Ended up in the hospital one time after a bad scuffle, and felt the pain of the wounds not from his latest altercation, but from the judgmental comments and looks of scorn from the nurses who took one look at his tattoos, heard his unsophisticated language, and thereby deemed him worthless, no good, society’s trouble. He had grown accustomed to those comments and looks from everyone else in the community. But he didn’t expect them to come from the nurses too. The healers. The caregivers. Them too. Huh.
All he wanted was another chance at life. On so many levels.
He pled with us through tears, and so I vowed with tears, to never look at these young men and women through such a dark lens. I believe so deeply in social justice, I said to myself. I kept this vow faithfully in my head and in my heart.
Until one of these young people showed up in the room that I was assigned to for my nursing shift.
The music. The very, very loud music. How can that be therapeutic?
The simple questions about this disease that my proud, educated self was so tempted to shun.
I saw my prejudices emerge from a hidden place that I was so sure did not exist in me. I saw my impatience grow with each ring of the nurse call light, but he started and ended every request with please and thank-you, respectively. Through the rough language, the very, very loud music, and the questions that came from a place that never afforded him a chance to learn, shone a heart of gold. This patient humbled me with his repeated expressions of deep, sincere gratitude for my help. Deep gratitude for life, for family, for everything that meant anything to him.
I realized that I can’t say I truly care about social justice until I learn to care about the actual people who need it the most. Until I learn to serve them with a level of humility and gratitude that can match even a tenth of theirs. Until I learn to talk with them in their language. Until I’m even just willing to talk with them, period, rather than cut short conversations because they make me too uncomfortable, with them, and moreso, with myself.
Maybe. Just maybe, one day, I will learn to care about social justice.