The soul is a world that is kept secret until it is shared with another person through action, attitude, or speech. One’s soul stores up all types of contradictions, hope, and hurt. It is the sum of our own personal past, present and future tenses. Religious beliefs that form in the soul signal their temporal layers in their birth in the public world of religious practices and narratives.
A crucial moment in the inner and outer worlds of a person is often the transition from living a life of hardness and crime to a life of virtue and compassion. Those who have practiced crime face a dilemma on how to change course both inside themselves and outside in the public world. Some seek redemption by dedicating their life to a higher power. I interviewed one pastor in the Bronx who taught me about the complex reality of self, redemption, and public persona.
Norberto Carrero, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Torrente de Cedron (718-542-4671) in the Morrisania section in the Bronx, was in the Ching-a-Ling gang until 1974. While sitting across from me on a chair at the end of a large heavy desk with both his hands on the table, he recalled his experience of changing from gang member to church member. Pastor Carrero was 17 years old when it started to take place.
The Ching-a-Lings began in Greenwich Village as a street gang influenced by the Hell’s Angels. After they were kicked out of the Village in the early 1970s, they moved to the Bronx with a reputation for violence, drugs, rock and roll, and motorcycles. They considered themselves the number #2 gang in the city, though this title was claimed by a lot of gangs.
Prior to Pastor Carrero's spiritual birth, he served as a gang division leader called “the Enforcer.” If a gang mate was going to fight, he had to come to him to be approved. More importantly, he was in charge of the initiation rituals. To join, the would-be gang member was “lashed 200 times or hit for 7 minutes with a blunt object.” He recalled, “If you survived, you could join... but you had scars.”
Surely, they were more than just physical scars. The ritual was to toughen up the member, to prepare him for a rebirth into gang life.
The gang assumed that someone who could take a beating would be unlikely to run away in a fight with another gang or inform on the gang under pressure from a police beating. Most important, a boy who took a beating became a man in the eyes of fellow gang brothers. Becoming a gangster was a distorted way of seeming manly.
Carrero motioned around our room, pointing out that the initiation ritual would take place in a room the size of where our interview was taking place, a pale basement room without any windows. I turned my head to my right and to my left, trying to absorb the tone of the room as both Carrero and I fell silent. Quickly, my mind raced to thoughts of Carrero in his past life as the initiator of such actions. After all, he was quick to point out the spatial dimensions of where such experiences took place for him.
Thankfully (for me and him!), through a dream and calling from higher up, Pastor Carrero found God along his journey. His face softened as he told me more about his story on being saved from a life of inflicting pain towards others and himself as he removed himself out of the gangster lifestyle. His recollection resulted in a conversation of tears and hugs.
In that basement on 1330 Louis Nine Boulevard Carrero recreated the stage of his conversion. It was small, claustrophobic, and briefly felt more like a beating room than a pastor’s office. His remembrance of his dream was like opening a window to another world. He went through it and emotionally took me with him. The change in him, the room’s atmosphere, and myself was tangible.
The moment was dramatic but not manufactured. It came out of the depths of the man before me. Since the late 1970s, research on conversion has focused on this active role that the converts play in responding to the spiritual cues in their situations and in changing themselves. You might say that their conversions are dramas of soul-life entered into and acted out within a community. The sociologist Roger Straus says conversion is “a personal and collective accomplishment” of “changing oneself.” The late Melvin Pollner studied how the drama of soul-life takes place with the experience of interaction with “invisible others.”
Through my encounter with Pastor Carrero, I realize that one cannot know how deep life is without experiencing the tensions and changes, privately and publicly, in the worlds of good and evil. Depth is not one-dimensional, but rather a temporal progression that goes deep into the soul and widely into the public spheres of social life. Programs for those wanting out of a life of crime provides a chance to heal divided selves, re-engage with family and society, and change one’s narrative from gang member to born again, testifying pastor.
NYC has 6,374.9 miles of streets. We have traveled through a fraction of that amount. There's an immense opportunity for us to observe relationships of the past, present, and future of those we encounter. This is the true history and destiny of New York City.
As we travel, we witness the churches, mosques, and temples with grand openings and tearful failures, the roads that get diligently paved and built within the span of a week's time, the homes that tragically catch fire and the brave men that put them out, and the blossoming of sidewalk memorials and park monuments. Surprising friendships between people morph in front of our very eyes like the one we observed at a Hindu temple on our first day at Jamaica, Queens. As we took pictures and made our notes, a Christian evangelist came to visit his old friend the Hindu priest. They engaged in an apparently longstanding and good natured debate between two old friends about how to live with Muslims.
In the process, our travels transform us deeply. Through the continual reminder that life is happening before our very eyes, we open our hearts and minds as the folks we meet share their memories, food, songs, and families. Each memory is new, fresh, and unexpected. As I replay the shared moments of exaltations and griefs, for the sake of religious actualizations and tribulations, I smile to myself at this endless stream and wait for it to start up all over again in the new year.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
P.S. For those intellectual techies out there:
John Lofland. 1965. ‘Becoming a World-Saver’ revisited, American Behavioral Scientist. 20: 805-818.
Melvin Pollner. March 1989. Divine Relations, Social Relations, and Well-Being, Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 30,1:92-104.
Roger Straus. 1976. Changing oneself, in John Lofland, ed.; Doing Social Life. New York: Wiley, 252-273.
Roger Straus. 1979. Religious conversion as a personal and collective accomplishment, Sociological Analysis, 40: 158-165.