The man is muscular, tattooed and youthful. He leans with false casualness over the handlebars of his bike, alert with the unmistakably wary stoop bred by the streets. Perhaps the teardrop tattoos near his eyes are a declaration of guilt, but maybe not. Maybe he didn’t serve time for those murders, if they were even committed. The black splashes of ink may be protective coloring, meant to make him appear tougher than he really is. Beneath the hardened, streetwise attitude, there’s the cringing manner of a child defending himself against an onslaught of wrathful blows.
Blue eyes widen with the shell-shocked, bewildered stare of that inner wounded child, and, also childlike, he over-shares with strangers. Within moments of meeting our group of volunteers, he adamantly declares that if he ever finds his father again, he'll probably kill him on sight. It’s clear he’s been living on these streets for a few weeks, but before that, who knows how long he had been in prison. Rescuing him from an abusive father, Child Protective Services had placed him in the foster home-to-prison-to-streets pipeline. He shows off a recent gunshot wound, a notch on the top of his ear; even with his tough background, Portland’s violent streets have caught him off-guard.
He admits he comes from a Catholic upbringing, but that was easy to guess; his sleeveless tank-top shows off an entire upper arm covered with a massive, detailed image of the Crucifixion. At the foot of the lovingly-depicted Christ, a centurion kneels in awe, humility and remorse.
I ask him about this tattoo and he seems both proud and a little embarrassed. “It’s my Jesus,” he concludes matter-of-factly, as if referring to a friend who's with him constantly. Which of course is true on some level: a friend always present, silently reminding him to do the right thing, offering another chance to repent and change.
Even as he admits Jesus is always with him, he also admits he can't give up what he's doing, that he’s not ready to abandon his life on the streets. He says he's got kids of his own, but hasn't seen them for quite awhile because he can't give up his various addictions, not even for their sakes. While he resents his own father, it’s not easy to break with the latter’s example. He knows this life is hurting him and his kids, some part of him wants to escape the cycle, but another part, the part calling the shots, clings to it defiantly.
I can hear the conflict in his voice. He’s a living embodiment of St. Paul’s lament about the powers at war within him, making him a slave to sin.
Also like the apostle, he knows well enough the solution to his dilemma: Jesus Christ. Sure, he’s ready enough to talk about how he needs Jesus, and should forgive his father and move on, break the cycles of family abuse and violence. But he can’t bring himself to do it yet. Even declaring his allegiance to Christ by having ink injected beneath his skin in order to carry an image of the Cross with him everywhere—even then, he can’t give up his sin.
Looking at him and listening to his litany of regrets, excuses and goals, I see and hear myself. How many times have I recited the Lord’s Prayer, publicly, in community, while keeping a death grip on grudges against a family member deep in my heart? How many times have I reflexively judged an addict for their weakness, even as I indulge my own gluttony?
We may not brandish tattoos, but how many of us wear a cross or scapular about our necks that can easily be removed when we’d rather not be reminded of an uncomfortable example? How many of us dress up for church to appear nicely before others, but then revert to our vices as soon as we’re in the privacy of our own homes? We may smile and mind our tongues due to the peer pressure of the community, but what are we saying or thinking in our hearts?
The vices we cling to may not be ‘glamorous’ white collar-crimes or spicy infidelities. They may not be as dire as this young man’s, but they still require divine assistance to beat. Habits of pride, gossip, sloth and self-centeredness kill slowly, less spectacularly than overt violence or substance abuse. Even so, they distort our sense of self in relation to our neighbor and to God. Even as we make excuses—“at least I haven’t shoplifted, I’ve never punched someone”—we’re still addicted to corrosive behaviors that degrade us spiritually and harm the people around us.
As I look forward to this coming Lent, the image of that troubled street youth comes to me. Like him, I am scarred by sin. Like him, I need to place myself at the foot of the Cross at all moments. I need to put my ego aside and admit my weakness, spill my guts in painful honesty in the Confessional, then be ready to find strength and healing in His mercy.