A heavy marine layer fell like a pall over Long Beach, California, bringing colder, damper weather. I had set aside the day to visit my sister and together we were going to visit our mom’s grave in All Souls’ Cemetery, right there on Cherry Avenue, just north of Memorial Hospital. We opened the car doors and began walking slowly to the site. I had not returned since the death of my mom. My sister had come back many, many times. For a long time she had come by daily. This time we went together. The grey morning matched our spirits. We missed our mom.
The two of us walked around the perimeter of her section. We talked very little and we thought a lot. After a while, we ended up at her grave. We both said a prayer and laid some flowers down near her.
Just as we were beginning to leave, we heard some voices. Both of us turned around quickly to see what was happening. We saw an interesting group of people, teenagers, walking to a new grave just up the hill from us. They were dressed in black, complete with piercings, belts that were chains, and a not-so-confident swagger to their walk. They stopped at the new grave on the hill.
Not knowing exactly what to do, I turned to my sister and said, “Wait a minute. I’m going up there.” So, I hiked up my habit a couple of inches and began my morning march through the wet grass. Before five minutes was up, I had reached them. To this day, I’m not sure what urged me onward toward them, but I followed my interior nudging and, upon reaching the group, introduced myself and said, “Why are you here—all of you? Have you lost someone?”
One of the girls ventured forward and held out her hand. “I went to Catholic school,” she said. “You are a Catholic sister.” I nodded. “Our friend Dave is dead. He was in our gang and the other gang killed him. Both gangs were not allowed to come to the funeral together, nor to the cemetery. We waited until everything was over, and decided to come by later to pay our respects.”
I had never heard of anyone being ousted from a funeral. How sad! What a statement of our culture, of our whole society. And at that moment I knew why I felt I should climb the little hill to meet this group of young teens. I could pray with them if they wanted me to. After so many years in religious life, and having participated in so many spiritual retreats and taught in so many classrooms, I knew good and well, that some kind of closure is needed at a time like this. So I stepped in with their permission, and we had a little closure ceremony.
We all formed one large circle. (There must have been thirty or forty gang members including their girl friends who had also shown up after the funeral). My heart embraced them all. I asked the name of the deceased.
His name was Dave, someone ventured.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Will everyone please form a circle here around his grave (we were a large enough group to be able to do that) and then let’s all of us hold hands. I couldn’t think of a common hymn we could all sing until the words of “Jesus loves me” came into my mind. So I began, “Jesus loves me this I know. ‘Cause the Bible tells me so.” They began singing one by one. “Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but He is strong.” Their voices became stronger. “Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.” Tears began flowing freely down their young faces.
“Alright, everybody, just continue holding hands and think of one thing, one good thing, you remember about Dave.” We’ll go around the circle and not finish until everyone has said something. If someone remembers something else, they can add it in at the end.”
Then I watched as these supposedly tough gang members, obediently held hands and told their stories and memories of Dave. They laughed. They cried. They shared.
When it was all over, I began the Lord’s Prayer, and we all said it together.
As I prepared to leave, one of the young men asked me to bless the group. I was dumbfounded. I had never expected anything like that. I was thinking “closure” and the group was thinking “blessings.”
So that’s the background to the story of how one Carmelite Sister standing on a grassy knoll at All Souls’ Cemetery in Long Beach reached out to ask God’s blessings upon these beautiful children of His. I put my hands on each head and one by one asked their guardian angel to protect them (I was thinking of all those gang wars we have here in the City of the Angels). They formed a line, and silently—oh so silently—you could have heard a pin drop—bowed their heads, one by one, in front of me. As I prayed, I spoke to each one about the beauty of heaven, and the unimaginable love of God, and His magnificent mercy. And I spoke of peace—peace in their hearts, their families, peace in our world.
I was humbled by their true and sincere piety. I was saddened by the circumstances of life which had drawn them into one of the gangs. I was amazed at myself standing in a cemetery on a bleak, wintry day amidst these gang members. After the last one stood in front of me and bowed his head, we all turned toward Dave’s grave one last time. Slowly, we wound our way back through the wet grass and down the hill.
I soon found myself at my sister’s side once again…
Our loving God can use anybody, anytime, to do anything He wants. And that day, for some reason, according to some divine plan, He used me.
“Wow!” my sister said. That was enough. That was everything.
Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
This story and many others are found in the Carmelite Sisters’ short-story book called Moments of Grace. If you wish to obtain a copy of the book, please visit:
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