“When will we let go of the idea that we’re separate?” These were the opening words of an address by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, at a conference I recently attended. Living and working in the ganglands of Los Angeles, these words are particularly pertinent. Rival gangs fight to the death over their “turf” on a daily basis. But while the territory may be different and the issues multi-faceted, it seems that we are all fighting over turf in one way or another. Our gangs are not so much Crips vs. Bloods, as they are black vs. white, gay vs. straight, poor vs. rich, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim—it’s all the same. We all operate by the principle that there are people like us, and then there are the “others.” The most recent election cycle and its sharply defined divisions are proof of that. It seems that Mother Teresa was right when she said, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
It appears that we have lost our common humanity. We wall ourselves off in enclaves of sameness, where we can reassure ourselves that ours is the only perspective that matters. When our ideas do get challenged by the “other,” we can rush off to our fortress, where our friends will confirm for us that we are right, and everyone else is so very wrong—deluded, misinformed, perhaps even subhuman. The more isolated we become, the more different and dangerous the “other” seems, and the less desire to find common ground.
I recently read a comment by Bill Nye that reminds us that there is no such thing as race. Researchers have proven that humans are all one people. The variations in skin color, shape of features, build and musculature are all evolutionary adaptations to environment, climate, and the skills and abilities that were needed to survive in a particular place. “Each of us is much more alike than different,” he says. “We’re all made of the same star dust.”
What does it take for us to recognize this? The best way I know is through connection. When we allow the “other” in, when we get to know them in a deeper way, we discover the depths of heart that exist in all of us. We all laugh, cry, grieve, dream. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the character of Shylock is a Jewish lender who has suffered endless mockery and discrimination at the hands of an elitist and privileged merchant named Antonio. Ultimately, their rivalry ends up in court, where Shylock makes this plea: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” This moving passage speaks to the common humanity we need to discover if we are to be loving citizens of our one common world.
The power of this connection is best exemplified by one of the stories Father Boyle shares in his book, Tattoos on the Heart. He tells of two homeboys from rival gangs who came to find work at Homeboy Industries. When they were first introduced to each other, they refused to speak or shake hands. They glared at each other, and it was clear that this could be a touchy situation. Nonetheless, Father Boyle decided to put them next to each other on an assembly line. He says that men might not talk much, but working side by side creates a bond that can break down barriers. Ultimately, Miguel and Chico became the closest of friends. Then, as happens too often in the barrio, Chico walked into the wrong bodega one night and was gunned down, his life taken in the split second it takes for a bullet to travel from a rival’s gun into Chico’s chest. When Father Boyle called Miguel to tell him what had happened, he heard Miguel’s anguished wail: “But he was my brother!”
You see, Miguel and Chico had discovered the truth that we belong to each other, not just as a concept, but as a lived reality. They learned that our differences need not divide us. Just like in a choir, it takes more than one note to create a harmony. We are all brothers and sisters in the human family, connected not by blood, but by the star dust from which we all came. Once we find that common bond, there is no longer an “us” versus “them,” only one people, one humanity, riding the same blue planet on our voyage through the galaxy. May it be so.