“This is Me” is definitely the anthem and musical centerpiece of Showman, and it’s already shown up in Olympic commercials. It also is the song to which some Christians most object, as it celebrates what they call “expressive individualism” – the you-do-you empowerment philosophy that they fear separates morality and the good life from any external reference and anchors it solely in living your dream.
They have a point, but my take is a little different, thanks in large part to my semi-obsession with Homeboy Industries.
Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle inherited a poor parish in the gang center of Los Angeles in the 1980’s, when Los Angeles was the gang center of the country. So he started ministering to the gang members and helping the ones who wanted to escape that life.
I’ve never been to Homeboy, but I’ve read Boyle’s books, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. I have watched most of his public addresses on YouTube and know most of his stories. I tune in on Facebook to the 5-minute “thought for the day,” given by former gang members in their programs, or staff, or sometimes Father G himself.
One of the best stories he tells is about a gang member who was beaten every day as a child and learned to hide his scars. I can’t do it justice, so you’ll have to hear Boyle tell it himself. It is with this man’s realization that “his wounds are his friends” that I hear this opening verse.
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are
This is the message, time and again, that the gang members of LA soak in.
Homeboy has become the largest gang intervention in the country, and Boyle and his charges have been everywhere, including the White House, to talk about how they have succeeded. I could roll out Boyle’s stories about Homeboy clients all day (and some days it seems like I do), but the uptake is that sometimes, not always, they succeed in surrounding former gang members in a circle of kinship and compassion that enables them to overcome the demons of their past and the despair of their present to accomplish a wholeness from which they can for the first time envision a future.
The chorus of “This is Me” looks like a self-empowerment battle cry.
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are gloriousWhen the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
I suppose it is. But it’s good to remember from whence came the confidence to utter it. This was a collection of outcasts who were given a chance to be something other than that. They were pulled from the isolation of being hopeless misfits into a collection of mutual misfits that became a company of performers and finally a family of mutual care so strong that even when their founder turned his back on them, their kinship gave them strength to rally on.
Christians can point to this as secularist fluff if they want, but not me. I would offer this, though. That ability to rise up, that resilience, usually rests on a deep knowledge that you are beloved, worthy of respect, dignified. We can do this for each other, in the family, in the Church, everywhere we build circles of compassion. But we are imperfect and we fail and we will eventually let each other down. If, however, you are blessed to know the truth on which Homeboy Industries rests its work, that you are God’s most beloved child, you are just what He had in mind when He made you, that He is a God of “no-matter-what” and not “one-false-move,” then the strength of the circle and the strength of the individual is unassailable, and the should can profess confidently, “This is me.”
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