It’s safe to say that doing a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) changed my life. I served as a teacher/lunch coordinator at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, in the heart of a small neighborhood called “Mexicantown.” When I first saw Miguel*, I thought he was a punk. He was a good-looking kid, clean-cut. But he always looked like he wanted to fight. I wondered if Miguel was in a gang.
But as the year went on, he was assigned to be one of my helpers in the lunch room. Since he was a bigger guy, he helped lug milk crates up to the third-floor cafeteria almost every day. During our downtime I learned a lot about him. He told me about his cars and how he was saving up for a new motor to go into an old Mercedes that he was fixing up with his uncle.
One day Miguel couldn’t stop talking about the town’s Cinco de Mayo parade. As we continued talking, he let me know that the parade was a breeding ground for gang violence. The parade traveled through a long street which went into different gang territories, and crossing territories was a big no-no. Miguel went on chattering about rims and low-rider cars passing through, and all of a sudden he said, “And, oh, Mr. Sison”¦”
It was as if something invaded his mind. He stopped cold like he was watching an invisible television screen in front of his face. “Miguel, are you OK?” I asked quietly.
“Um”¦Mister”¦one of my friends”¦um”¦he”¦um”¦”
My heart sunk. “What do you mean your friend died, Miguel?”
“He died in the parade.”
Miguel continued to tell me that one of the gangs chased down his friend and shot him behind a Burger King, which was a block away from our school.
“Miguel, did you see him? Did you see him get shot?” Miguel, with a blank stare, nodded his head slowly and continued to stare. “I’m so sorry, Miguel. I’m so sorry you had to see that.”
Miguel continued to stare, nodding slowly—almost as if the nodding would hold back tears.
There were no words shared after that. Miguel and I just sat there until the bell rang, both of us with blank stares.
After that moment, we never spoke of the event again. He returned to class the same old trouble-making, class-disrupting teenager, as if nothing had happened. But in that moment of shared silence there was an intimate exchange—one of love, trust, and mutual respect.
Sometimes there are no words to be shared, only presence. And that can sometimes mean the world.
Miguel, if you are reading this, thank you for making me a better person.
*For the sake of privacy I am not using his real name.