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Caught up in a conspiracy of hope


“The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was nonetheless a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. ... The habit of despair is worse than despair itself. …

Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left but a series of present moments.”

--Albert Camus, The Plague

Magdalena is a weary woman, not yet 40. She is thin, bordering on gaunt. Her shoulders and back are drooped. Her posture is demonstrative of the beating she has taken in this life. She seems resigned to her unhappy fate.

We first met Magdalena four years ago through her sons. She has four boys: Wilfredo (19), Thomas (17), Jose (15) and Raymond (13). Jose and Raymond once spent nearly every afternoon and Saturday with us and they came to our summer camp for a couple of summers. When we first met Jose and Raymond they were 11 and 9 years old. One Saturday morning Magdalena came with them to arts and crafts to help out. I remember commenting to Jackie how good she was with her boys and the other children. I don’t recall her being carefree, but when we first met she didn’t seem so broken. The woman I met four years ago is an apparition now. Two years ago the family moved a few blocks away, and we saw the boys less frequently. This last year we hardly saw them at all.

Magdalena’s husband is horribly addicted to alcohol. When he is drunk he is dastardly and mean. Twice he has cheated death after staggering in front of moving cars. He has been in and out of jail since we have known the family.

Ray and Jose (and their friends, especially Kyon) openly despise their father. In the past he has stolen from them to get money to buy booze. One Thanksgiving their dad even sold the family turkey.

By the numbers Magdalena is a welfare reform success story. Magdalena has been employed for about three years now at a low-paying job in a suburban retail store. She takes two busses to get there and two more to get back; so that even though she works first shift she leaves before her boys leave for school and she does not return home until early evening. What the number crunchers in the governor’s office and the pundits miss while they lose themselves in the ecstasy of “moving people toward independence” is that while Magdalena was toiling at a meaningless dead-end job her children were abandoned. When their father was not in jail he was either drunk or out looking for a drink. So though we were extremely disappointed, we were not surprised when Magdalena called us recently to ask if Raymond could do some court-ordered community service hours with us. She also told us that Jose was in jail.

Raymond and a friend had robbed another boy for a few dollars. I asked Ray why he did it. He at first said that it was his friend’s fault. He then tried to make me believe that it was the fault of the boy they robbed. Finally, he said that he didn’t know why he did it. I hesitate to add: He doesn’t seem a bit remorseful over his actions. I asked Ray about his future, what did he want to do, to be, when he grows up? I asked him who his heroes are and what his dreams are. His response is tragic for both its frankness and its matter-of-fact delivery. With a shrug of the shoulders, Ray said to me: “What do you mean? I have no heroes. I have no dreams.”

Jose was released a few weeks ago after spending three months in jail for selling heroin. I asked Jose if he thought about how heroin affects people who use it. I mentioned his father’s alcoholism and asked if he saw how selling heroin could cause other children to suffer in the way he and his brothers have. The connection was a revelation that did not impress him. I asked him why he was selling heroin. His response: “I needed the money.” What for? “For clothes and boots and hats.” Jose tells me that he wants to go back to school and graduate.

Raymond did not come by to do all of his community service hours, and with a court date approaching Magdalena called us again asking if we could provide a letter for her son saying that he completed his community service hours. She knew that he had not. Yet she was obliged to try to keep her youngest son out of jail. I know I would have done the same.

Winter arrived, messages left for Magdalena weren’t received, and Raymond’s fate was unknown to us. Finally Raymond reappeared at our doorstep with his friend -- our friend -- Kyon.

Kyon, 15, was orphaned at age 5. His elderly grandmother raised him the best she could, but by the time adolescence approached she had lost control of the situation. For a while Kyon lived with us.

Raymond and Kyon came to us scared, exhausted, hungry, cold and on the lam.

Both boys were being monitored electronically and living under home confinement. Bedeviled by a “series of present moments” these suffering souls cut off their chainless electronic shackles and fled their homes turned prisons. Our children need help expanding their minds, not confining their bodies.

After many days of hiding and apprehensive nights without rest, the two prodigal sons came to us for help. A lawyer friend came right over, and a plan to turn themselves in was discussed. Trapped in the present, Raymond has again fled to live as a juvenile fugitive. Kyon turned himself in. Court appearances and appointments with child welfare personnel will dominate the calendar for weeks to come. My wife and I are trying to extract him from the juvenile detention facility.

The American dream has become a nightmare for the poor. While we struggle to accumulate goods and wealth, we move away from those with less so that they can’t take our things or so that we won’t be confronted by their poverty.

We no longer know who we are. We seek meaning through the purchase of stuff. We define ourselves with the symbols of status. We have become hollow beings defined by the tag on our pants and the firebrand on our boots. Fashion has become self-actualization. And do we really think that poor children are somehow immune to the hypnosis of all this? Ray and Jose are not deaf to the cacophony of television and radio advertisements and the ever-present billboards in our neighborhood.

Yet through the din of “Why ask why? Just do it” I can make out the faint plea of Magdalena. She does not understand herself as the wearer of Timberland boots or Levi jeans. Rather she understands herself as the mother of four boys, two of whom are drowning in the morass of our times. She is pleading for her children’s lives. What poisons her sons infects all of us.

Be still and listen carefully and you, too, will hear her plaintive appeal as the whisper of the All Merciful calling us to a conspiracy of hope, a conspiracy of active loving that will transcend the suffering of the present and deliver us into the embrace of God.

Chris Allen-Doucot and his family live in the Catholic Worker House in Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000