Hugo was a gang member from Los Angeles. At 16, he fell into the trap of gang violence that so many fall into. He attempted a hit on three rivals, was arrested, tried as an adult, and convicted. Hugo was sentenced for attempted murder and thrown into the general population of adult inmates in a federal prison in California. It’s a story that everyone is familiar with, of an abstract face on the news found guilty of some (to us) unimaginable crime. But this story played out a little differently than you might imagine.
During his prison sentence, Hugo received the news that he might have cancer. As he was in the infirmary at the prison, awaiting news that might change his life, he looked around the hospital ward. Guys he had known from the prison yard were there, enforcers from different gangs and of different ethnicities. But the one thing they all had in common was they all had stage four cancer, and he hadn’t seen them in some time. The toughest of criminals from rival gangs were side by side, many on oxygen or hooked to bags of chemotherapy. Just as he was stewing in this sight, the doctor arrived with the news; Hugo was cancer free. It was just a scare.
The moment became a crossroads. From this brief glimpse into what could easily have been, Hugo made a choice. On Sundays he started visiting the sick in the infirmary, some of them being from the very gangs that he had been brought up to hate. He started reading voraciously, learning in order to be a better help to those who were in need. He said, “I spent a lot of years living selfishly. But it was then that I started seeing people as people.” His change of heart led to reading groups, to new education programs for inmates. “That was where the healing began. Human connection is everything.”
Eventually, Hugo finished certification programs through the prison education system. The governor of California granted clemency after he had spent over a decade behind bars. And now this former gang member speaks about the power of tenderness to tie us together as human beings. Hugo had heard the same thing his whole life. He’d been told that he didn’t belong anywhere, that he wasn’t any good, and that he wasn’t worth believing in. Now, he spends his days telling others his story: that those things aren’t true, for him or for any of us.
I believe there is a part of all of us that can identify with Hugo’s struggles to grow from a place of self-centeredness toward a place of compassion. If you’re struggling with some of the same nagging voices of doubt in your head, or if you’re facing a similar crossroads, then be like Hugo. Ask yourself, “What choice would be the tender one?”
If you’re interested in more stories like this one, I encourage you to look into the ministry of Homeboy Industries, and the books of Father Gregory Boyle of Los Angeles. If Hugo – and hundreds others like him – can find the transforming power of grace and live transformed lives, then there’s hope for us, too. And if someone like Hugo can make that one choice of tenderness, and be opened to a beautiful new world of possibility, then why can’t we?