A Moment of Shared Silence

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.

cafeteria tablesBut 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”¦”


“He died.”

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.

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Jurell Sison
Jurell Sison is a 20-something Filipino American living in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a teacher, writer, and filmmaker on the quest for the living God. His mission is to share stories and experiences with those who are chasing meaning and purpose in life. Jurell graduated in May 2013 with a Master of Arts in Theology. He served as a graduate assistant for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. He enjoys photography, videography, and keeping up with Pope Francis. His favorite activity is sharing a good meal with close family and friends, especially his best friend and wife, Bridget.


  1. “Do good as opposed to what, do bad, do nothing? ” How about first “Do no harm “? A person going into those neighborhoods who has no knowledge of the culture, the players or the dynamics involved may be well intentioned, but is the equivalent of someone who’s taken a CPR Class and now, consumed with visions of grandeur believes they have the capability to perform open heart surgery. In this particular instance, the harm was already done. Believe me, the police already know. And, how many times do you think that “Miguel ” has heard phrases such as “Dirty, lazy, illegals ” or “Go back to your own country “? Enough so that it would take time to convince him that help offered is genuine and heartfelt. Funny how now that gang violence is spilling over into middle class neighborhoods, the middle class is taking notice. Before, it was swept under the carpet. The uprising is a symptom, not the disease. Before anyone acts, they need to love. Act out of love for those they want to reach. IMHO, most only act as if they care, to bolster their own image. Thus, the term “do gooder “. They run game. So, one lesson learned at a young age : “Just because someone wears a uniform, doesn’t mean they’re a soldier”.

    • The police already know and they need help from citizens who see and hear things that could help the investigation. Up here the RCMP constantly encourage us to help keep our neighbourhoods safe: don’t confront anyone but report it. All it takes sometimes is one seemingly innocuous detail to solve a decades old crime. To help your policing system is to love your neighbours.
      What if they’d let Hussein just go about his merry little way? Not every bad guy embraces those proportions but really bad guys started somewhere. I turned an 11 year old who left a threatening message on my machine — and sthe officer knew who it was without me ever saying her name. Eleven years old and already known to police!

    • “IMHO, most only act as if they care, to bolster their own image.” Really? I’s a mistake to presume to know the minds of others. Do you truly believe all”do-gooders”, to use your terminology, contribute to the Bishop’s Appeal to make themselves feel good? Join ESL groups to help new immigrants learn English and so find work? Donate to food banks in order to feed the hungry? Abide within the laws of our society, thereby maintaining peace and safety to feel good? I can think of any number of activities people who give could involve themselves with to otherwise use their free time and save themselves a lot of money, money which many of us have to budget for in order to give, go without little luxuries precisely because we have for generations taken notice of the plight of the poor and marginalized.
      I, too, Emma, grew up in extreme poverty, but I don’t share your attitude toward those who have managed to escape it. I lived surrounded by post-war (WWII) immigrants, many of whom were concentration camp refugees. There were any number of occasions when they would have heard the slurs you reference, but there was no gang activity in our neighbourhood. They came with a morality and work ethic already in place, hoped for a better future for themselves and their future children. There is a time to love, and a time to teach, as well as a time to give. Excusing violence on any grounds is simply a cop out.

  2. “middle class do-gooders can’t be trusted because they don’t understand the situation” – this is the second time within a few weeks I have heard/read the use of the term “do-gooder” – the previous being “do-good White people” used as a put-down by a member of our Canadian Parliament who is of First Nations ancestry. Do-good as opposed to what? Do bad, or do nothing? I understand how some, not all, people who live a more privileged life, a more law-abiding life, might not understand the dynamics of gang life or would not understand what it is like to live in poverty, but what does it profit to promote the biting of the hand that feeds, seeks to help?
    I do understand the point being made that going to the police after the fact could have dangerous repercussions for the boy and his family. However, the increasing infiltration of gang violence in society is fueled by a don’t say/don’t tell complicity.

    • Agreed Jean and it’s interesting you utlize the same word complicity — I hadn’t seen your post yet! I’ve had people tell me horrific stuff and when I ask if they reported it they just shrug. A person I know had their house broken into twice by their tenants but nobody wants to talk, for example. So guess what, easy pickin’s!

  3. “Sometimes there are no words to be shared, only presence.” Exactly. Thank you for sharing this and reminding us to be present for others and being present in silence is sometimes the only way.

  4. I wonder how going to the police in this particular circumstance, would have contributed to this ministry. The most difficult challenges in counseling at risk youth is that of avoiding a hero complex. It’s much more difficult to wait in silence and prayer than it is to rush in and “save the day “. This young man wanted someone to listen, to share his grief. So, how would calling in law enforcement have aided this young man? Well, someone would have heard of it. That would make his family, friends and teacher a target for retaliation. That would have validated a common belief (one that I held growing up in a similar situation) that “middle class do -gooders can’t be trusted because they don’t understand the situation, but that’s all it would have done. That boy would then slam the door on anything offered. The only thing I might do differently, would be to invite him to tell me something about his friend who died, opening a door for him to share his grief with me. But, call the police? Not if I wanted to help Miguel. Maybe at some future time, encourage him to step forward. But, it’s this child’s life and that of his family that would be at risk. That would be his choice, not a teacher’s or a minister’s. Being told of a future event would elicit a different response, but not after the fact.

    • Going to the police contributes to loving the perpetrator as love means being there for that individual. Being there for the perp means that we are going to bring them to justice. As a priest said in homily, “Sin must be forgiven, crime has to be punished.” Complacency even hidden under a guise of gentleness and mercy is complicity. To hide the bad guy is to help them out in other words and they learn only that they got away with it and can do it again only smarter next time.

    • Emma you said “…a common belief (one that I held growing up in a similar situation) that “middle class do -gooders can’t be trusted because they don’t understand the situation.”
      I am responding at 71 years of age. I worked from 28-36 in a federally-funded job training program as a counselor. I also facilitated group counseling sessions at a prison for two years. I was one of the “middle class do-gooders” you describe. As a graduate of a Jesuit University and having grown up in a Jesuit parish, I felt called to serve. I learned a great deal from the people I served – many on probation and parole. In fact, I learned more there about social justice than anywhere else in my long life. I know I did some good too. That is the beauty and value of service learning – both the giver and receiver benefit though in different ways. For me, the essential ingredients are having an open mind and heart, humility, listening deeply, admitting our ignorance and being open to learning from each other. When that happens both are transformed and liberated. Homeboy Industries is a great example of people from diverse backgrounds working together for the common good. We all have something worthwhile to give and to receive.


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