“I was pleased to receive your recent letter and to learn that Archbishop Gomez will be opening a Holy Door of Mercy at the Barry Nidorf [Sylmar] Juvenile Hall. It brings me great joy to know that you and the other residents are united with the whole Church in celebrating this Jubilee of Mercy.”
Carlos was standing at the end of a table reading the words on the letter he recently got from Pope Francis. He was wearing the facility’s winter garb: bulky light-gray sweatshirt, dark-blue loose pants held up by an elastic band, black low-cut slipper-sneakers with no laces.
The Clark Kent glasses gave him a bookish look, but his hair combed straight back was a modified gangbanger cut. He spoke quickly to a half-dozen late-teen guys on Unit Z in a cavernous room painted in dull colors, smelling of industrial cleaner. They were sitting, elbows on the table, when Archbishop José H. Gomez and his priest secretary Father Brian Nunes walked in with Father Mike Kennedy, the Jesuit chaplain, Javier Stauring, co-director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice, Deacon Bill Smith and others.
“Know that the Holy Father is thinking of you and praying for you,” Carlos continued reading, still not glancing up. “And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers. May our Blessed Mother watch over you and our Lord grant you every blessing in this Jubilee Year.”
Carlos, in fact, had already received one huge blessing. Going to the juvenile hall’s high security “Compound” at 16, he was facing 35 years to life in one of California’s adult prisons. But a Hollywood movie producer named Scott Budnick, founder of The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and Stauring took an interest. They saw him change at Sylmar and advocated to have his sentence reduced.
“[Scott] had seen the change in me and brought me back to court, and I was granted 11 years at Ironwood State Prison that has a college,” he explained. “And that returned a lot of hope within me, and now I have hope.” Creases of a smile crossed his unlined face. “And I want to do something with my life.”
“Great, yes,” said the archbishop. “So you can go to college there, huh?
Stauring spoke up, saying how it was a great example of how hope can transform a life. “Because Carlos was always very polite,” he reported. “So he would let us know ahead of time, like, ‘I’m gonna get into a fight tomorrow. So you’re not gonna see me here next week. I’m gonna be in the box.’
“And he just made such an incredible, incredible transformation in his life,” Stauring said, making eye contact with Carlos now.
“I know that people helping him contributed to that. But you getting a second chance is really like who you became. An example for everybody.
Archbishop Gomez was smiling and nodding, and people began to clap. Carlos looked up.
To state prisons
Before his visit to units in The Compound, Archbishop Gomez had celebrated Mass in the juvenile hall’s chapel. With its folding-up movie-style seats, you couldn’t help but think this was a mall multiplex. But there was the thick stone altar. And when the regular volunteers showed up at 7:30 a.m. for the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass, the women and men quickly transformed the place into a sacred worship place. Two laid a white cloth over the altar. Others placed white roses and lilies before it, along with a wood crucifix on a pole.
Lower-security groups of boys and girls, housed outside of The Compound, filed in one at a time. Each was accompanied by a CO (correction officer) in a Navy shell jacket with “Probation” on the back.
The archbishop and his group walked from one end of the campus right past The Compound to the front of the chapel. Among the procession were Jesuit seminarians and Knights and Dames of Malta, who volunteered at the juvenile hall.
He blessed himself before reading the words posted on one of the double doors:
“Doors help us enter into new places. Doors help us exit out of troubled places. During many years, these doors at Sylmar have let in thousands of youth from 14 to 17. And these doors have let out youths, exiting them to eventual state prisons, where they remain today with life sentences. May this year of mercy, 2016, bring the light of mercy to our leaders to help them understand how these youths have not fully developed as adults, but are sentenced anyway to harsh life sentences. We pray for all the families, victims of violence who have suffered unimaginative suffering. May these doors open into the space of mercy where God’s unconditional love will bring these youngsters the blessings of forgiveness. Amen.”
He blessed the doors with a healthy dose of Holy Water from a gold goblet before entering.
Priests, deacons, members of the Office of Restorative Justice, volunteers and guests followed to the music of electric guitars.
Readings were done by two boys and a girl. The Gospel was read by Deacon Smith, who ministers at the juvenile hall with his wife, Judy. It told of Jesus returning to Nazareth and reading in a synagogue from the Old Testament: “To bring glad tidings to the poor.”
During his homily, Archbishop Gomez mentioned both Kobe Bryant and Katy Perry. Referring to the Sunday’s scriptures, he told the juveniles how God wants “us” to be happy and how all are called to be the Body of Christ. He urged them to do good things for others.
And he reminded those present how Christ was also in prison. “He is an example for you,” he said. “It’s better not to worry too much about the reality of our sins, but look at what we can do better.”
Archbishop Gomez also said how “every Sunday when you come to Mass, you can feel the personal presence of the pope, who we call the Vicar of Christ on earth, and how your chapel door is now a ‘door or mercy’ declared by Pope Francis.”
Outside, after Mass, the archbishop answered questions from the weekend guy from Channel 7, the Daily News and The Tidings. He was asked about his own feelings.
“It’s an emotional celebration because I know how difficult it is for them and for their families,” he admitted. “They are, in a sense, victims of the challenges we have in our society. The strength of the family is not there. Maybe their family is broken, like with the immigration system that is still breaking families down. So they don’t have, really, the support of a father and a mother, and brothers and sisters and extended family.
“And also, I think it’s important to give priority to education,” he added. “Because I think education helps us to value ourselves and see the world in a different way. For me, coming to say Mass, my hope is they can feel that they are important. Because sometimes they got into this situation because they were looking for somebody to pay attention to them.
“I think it is important for us as a society to value them for who they are,” he said, “children of God.”
Hope and faith
That’s exactly how Scott Budnick, the movie producer of “The Hangover I and II,” would describe Carlos. He’s the guy who helped get his sentence reduced from 35 years to life to 11 years straight time. That’s no small thing in the world of youths tried as adults.
“You know, I think so much surviving this type of experience is hope and faith,” he told me. “And I think somebody with the archbishop’s reach — obviously where he goes, there’s cameras that follow him, there’s reporters that follow him.
“These are mostly kids who are invisible,” pointed out Budnick. “And to be able to shine a light on their stories, and to show them that there’s people out there who believe in them and [are] fighting for them, I think is just absolutely magnificent.”