In the Meantime, IV: A Barn Shall Harbor Heaven
In a few moments, Alyssa and Ryan will sing “O Holy Night” for us with their inimitable, empyreal voices, including that line “long lay the world in sin and error pining, until he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” That’s what I want to talk about this evening. I just want to tell you one story about that line: “long lay the world in sin and error pining, until he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
I’ve told you many times about my hero Gregory Boyle, a Roman Catholic priest in the Delores Mission of Los Angeles, the poorest parish in LA and home to the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi.
There are 1,100 gangs in LA County, 86,00 gang members. Thirty years ago, Father Greg started a ministry to gang members called Homeboy Industries; you’ve probably heard of it. Father Greg—the homies call him G-Dog—has buried well over 200 young people, most of them gang members.
Father Greg’s motto is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” He says, “If you stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, people will tell you you’re wasting your time. But don’t quit. Stand in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than in judgement of how they carry it.” Yes? Stand in awe, not judgement.
Father Greg entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1972, 50 years ago. In an LA Times article celebrating his 50th anniversary, the author calls Father Greg “the patron saint of second chances.”
That title made me admire Father Greg all the more, because we all need a patron saint of second chances. We’ve all screwed up so thoroughly, maybe multiple times, that we all need a patron saint of the second or the third or the fourth chance to help us own it, to confess it, and to start all over again. We all need someone to reassure us that we have not ruined everything permanently—a life, a marriage, a family, a friendship. We made a mistake; we have not written The End.
You can’t really describe Jesus as the patron saint of anything, so I will call him “The Lord of the Second Chance.” “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, until he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
Gregory Boyle was raised in family of eight—a huge LA home with two wonderful parents, five sisters, and two brothers. Greg’s mother warned the children, “Never go into the attic,” but of course that’s just what the children needed to hear to start selling tickets to the attic: “Come one, come all—The Attic.”
It was a planky, gappy, precarious place and one day all eight children find an old phonograph record, made of clay. Probably most of us don’t even remember the plastic LP discs; well, this one is even older than the plastic ones.
And so the kids grab the recording and go downstairs and haul out their children’s record player, and encircle the speakers and collapse on their bellies and prop their heads up with their hands.
And they start playing this record, an old scratchy thing, but this perfect, clear, crystalline voice starts singing “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, until he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
And they look at the record jacket and it says “Kathleen Conway.” Kathleen Conway was their mother’s maiden name. They’d never known she’d been an accomplished opera singer before she decided to have eight children. They could barely grasp the idea that the voice that bellowed at them to come to dinner belonged to this glorious music. Those eight kids played the grooves off that old record.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, until he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” One homie says, “Father Greg returned me to God because I had so much shame and guilt over everything that I had done. He makes me feel like I matter.”
Father Greg asks, “How is it not the job description of everybody in this room to help the soul feel its worth?” Yes? If you don’t have a patron saint of the second chance, be a patron saint of the second chance. Because the one who came down to that stable in Bethlehem is The Lord of the Second Chance.
Slightly adapted from Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2010), pp. 41–42.
Steve Lopez, “50 Years as a Jesuit Priest on a Mission of Redemption, and the Homies Say Thanks to Father Greg,” The Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-02/lopez-column-father-greg-boyle-homeboy-industries-50-years-jesuit-priest
Boyle, p. 196.
*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.