How God Loves—Reflection from the NY Encounter

Last week, I was a guest at the New York Encounter, a stupendous Catholic culture event held each year in Manhattan...

Last week, I was a guest at the New York Encounter, a stupendous Catholic culture event held each year in Manhattan. I had a public conversation there with an actor who has appeared in many television shows and even a few films, named Richard Cabral. He was invited to the Encounter because he has a unique story. Raised in the "barrios" of Los Angeles, he joined a gang at the age of 12, and from age 13 on began to do time in jail. At 20 years old, he faced a sentence of 20 years, which was later brought down to five. Once out of prison, he sought a way to change his life; he met a priest who was famous for his work with kids in gangs; he saw the work they did; and it helped him to begin to live again. "You see, Father Greg helped reignite this little flame that was in my soul...he helped me believe in love...because, if someone else has loved me, how can I not love myself?"

At a certain point, in response to one of my questions about life in a gang, he gave an answer that surprised everybody, causing a murmur to come out of the thousand or so people who were there listening to him. "The members of the gang—Cabral said—were the nicest people in the world. Gangs exist in order to love." After all he had said about the violence of his life, of the more or less gratuitous aggression that he had seen and done, I wasn't expecting this. In my head I saw dangerous men, full of anger and brutality, and therefore it was shocking to see Richard get choked up at the thought of his ex-companions.

And then I thought of my father, a World War II veteran, who after years of not wanting even to hear anyone speak about that brutal experience, in the last years of his life sought out the company of those who had gone to war with him. It had to do, I thought, with the fact that these men had given their life for him, and my father now needed to remember a time when he felt loved. I saw in Richard a nostalgia similar to that of my father. And looking at Richard, I had the desire to be able to look at people the way he did. I would like to look at people who bring destruction and blood, and see that they are loveable, that they are the most loveable people in the world.

Three days later, I had the opportunity to celebrate a Mass for the second anniversary of the death of a friend who had been the leader of a Christian community in New York. He was a black man, raised in poverty, addicted to drugs and alcohol, sustaining his dependency by theft and violence.

Then an encounter with a priest changed his life. He met a girl through this community, a Catholic, and they were married. When he was dying, she made videos (you can find them on YouTube) of her husband talking about life, God, love, gratitude, and beauty. His name was Frank Simmonds. Re-watching these videos, the thing that struck me the most was when Frank declared that the greatest gift God had given him, and for which he was grateful, was the ability to see himself the way God sees him, with the same gaze that God has. And what he saw was a creature who was infinitely loveable. I want this. To see people, myself included, like God sees us, without fear. I want to discover how each one of us is infinitely lovable. This is my prayer. Thank you, New York!

Previously published in Il Sussidiario, 27 January, 2017