This piece was originally printed in the IVC DC/Metro Maryland/Northern VA December Corps Connector.
I bought Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle, S.J., this year’s book, on my Kindle. I read it on the plane to Florida for a family reunion with my sisters and brothers—there are six of the eight of us left—and as my spiritual reading during the week.
You may have discovered this happening to you, namely, every time I picked this book up the tears began to flow. By the end of the week, I finished the book and cried six five-gallon buckets. Did you get as attached to Greg’s Home Boys and Girls as I did? Greg’s adventure taps deeply into my memories as a young priest in Louisville, KY. I was assigned to Sts. Simon & Jude parish in the South End. We had one of the largest housing projects in the city in the boundaries of our parish. It was the early sixties and we weren’t plagued by drugs and gangs like Greg. But when you stuff so many families into small living spaces called “projects” and they barely have enough money to live on, then that’s a potentially volatile mixture. A lot of the kids enrolled at Simon & Jude are from the projects and a lot of them eventually wind up in trouble with the law.
I soon got as attached to these kids as Greg, though our times and circumstances were different. I found myself quite frequently sitting in Juvenile Court, speaking up for them before Judge Louis Jull, a very compassionate juvenile judge, and together we keep a lot of our children out of Kentucky Village, a juvenile detention center.
I used to say, “I spend more time in Juvenile Court than I do in the rectory!” I remember one night the Louisville police, responding to a lot of complaints about juvenile crime in our area throw out a dragnet and pull in a whole raft of kids—maybe twenty or thirty—and they’re to be arraigned in Juvenile Court tomorrow. Early the next morning a parishioner calls the rectory saying his son just got picked up.
Father Bill Hartlage, our pastor, takes the call and asks me to go down to the courthouse and talk to the parents. When I get there it’s chaos. Kids and parents are sitting or standing all over the place. Over in a corner I find our parishioner, his wife and their sixteen year old son. When they see me I see the shame and embarrassment in their eyes. These are good people, very active in the parish. And their son has never been in trouble before. We say hello and talk about what happened.
It’s about eight o’clock and they tell me his arraignment isn’t scheduled until noon. So what do I want to do? Leave or stay with them? I decide to stay. So we sit there together, not talking much, for nearly four hours. Juvenile court isn’t as formal as regular court, so his son is arraigned before a young social worker. Because I’m there—a priest and I speak for him—he’s released to his parents’ custody. A week later Fr. Bill tells me the boy’s father was just by and says how touched he was , “…and Father Bowling sat there with us the whole time, waiting!”
Isn’t this what IVC volunteers do? Do you come riding in on your white stallion as savior of the poor, the homeless? Don’t you rather come as servants giving of your time and talents? Doing as Jesus does? Show up for your one or two days a week and witness their pain and suffering and rarely, if ever, do you find out how special your presence is to them. Even if all we do is answer the phone, keep the books, or help raise money. Yet most often when asked about your IVC experience you remark: “I’m more blessed by them than they are by me.”
Dick Bowling was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville in June, 1960 and left the active ministry in December 1968. He got a Masters Degree in Counseling from the University of Kentucky in 1968-69 and worked as a college counselor at Northern Virginia Community College from 1969 to 1995. Dick began to volunteer as an assistant to the IVC Northern Virginia Regional Director in 2005 and continues to this day. He also serves as a spiritual reflector for this region.