As Jose Arrellano, a self-described “big dude, all tatted up,” spoke Friday at the World Meeting of Popular Movements’ panel session on racism, he took the audience back to his childhood.
He was a trumpet player, a member of his school marching band. He was academically promising and even was put in a program for gifted children.
But his home life was unstable at best. His mother was a gang member and drug addict, he said, not even mentioning his father.
At school in Los Angeles County, “I wasn’t Mexican enough, I wasn’t white enough,” he said. He didn’t feel he fit in either world. But books were an escape, studying was an escape.
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At that time in the early ’90s, gang life was hard to avoid, and a cousin always warned Jose, “Never get in.”
We talked here about the circle of human concern. At Homeboys, we talk about that same circle ... we talk about building the circle of kinship and community. The circle is so big, there’s nobody standing outside of that circle, not the Muslim, not the immigrant ...
Jose Arrellano of Homeboy Industries
But when Jose was 12, that cousin joined a gang, and the boys stopped associating. Jose took to regularly going to a friend’s house, where he found food and caring – for a time. He didn’t realize he’d overstayed his welcome until one evening when the boy’s parents ignored his knocks on the door and turned off the lights – turning him away.
“That hurt me,” he said, and he felt a sense of hopelessness he’d not had before.
When approached about joining a gang, as he’d been many times before, Jose accepted. Eight months later, his cousin was murdered, and “that changed the course of my life,” Arrellano said.
Fast-forwarding, he was in and out of juvenile hall, then jail and prison, through his late 20s, when he looked at himself and asked, “How did I get to this place?”
Behind bars, he’d heard of a priest, Greg Boyle, who helped guys like him. Arrellano was skeptical, having little reason to believe anyone would give him the time of day. But upon being paroled, he called the priest’s organization, Homeboy Industries, which offers training and support to the previously incarcerated and gang-involved.
Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.
African proverb cited by pastor Traci Blackmon
Asked if he’d done time, was on parole and had visible tattoos, Arrellano answered yes, yes and yes. He figured his responses shot his chances, but the voice on the other end of the line said, “OK, we’ll give you a job. ... We’ll give you a job today.”
That opportunity again changed the course of his life, but this time for the better. And the actions of Homeboy Industries, that building of a bridge rather than a wall, embodied the message Arrellano and fellow panelists shared.
“We’re all here for a reason,” he told the audience of hundreds assembled in the gymnasium at Central Catholic High School, “so I challenge you to find that out, find out why your neighbor’s here, find out why the person sitting in front of you is here. Get their number, get their email address. It’s time for us to stand united across all fronts because this is one fight, this is not a bunch of separate, different issues.”
Taking the podium as applause for Arrellano continued, pastor Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland said of his talk, “That’s what it looks like when hatred is met with love.”
Community does not mean sameness. Look around you in this room. We may not all look alike, we may not all act alike, we didn’t come from the same place, we may not even share all the same beliefs. But here’s the deal – no matter what ship you came here on, we’re all in the same boat together now.
Pastor Traci Blackmon
She spoke of the sin of racism, men wanting to be God and the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed Aug. 9, 2014, by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo.
“Why is blackness a threat in America?” she said to the audience. “And how are we as people of color ever to be perceived as unarmed and therefore nonthreatening if our blackness is the weapon that you fear?”
What happened to Brown did not start with that encounter in Ferguson that day, she said. “What happened to Michael began before he was born. What happened to Michael can be traced back to the interpretation of the Scripture in manners that validate a theology ... that professes that God loves some people more than God loves others.”
But “race” is not a biblical term, she said. It’s used nowhere in the sacred text. The sole purpose of identifying by race is to create a false hierarchy, Blackmon said.
“A commitment to confronting racism is a commitment to dismantling white supremacy and all of the structures that undergird its existence,” she said.
Humankind’s desire to be God is the original sin, Blackmon said. “We have become comfortable with creating God in our own image – a God who loves who we love, who hates who we hate, who likes what we like, who disapproves of what we disapprove of. ... From that image emerges all forms of oppression, no matter what they may be.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327