Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Still Kickin": Requiem for El Padre de los Vatos

In late 1970, I was given the opportunity, as a young Community College instructor itching for work, to teach classes at what was then known as the California Youth Authority in Stockton, housing young offenders under the age of 25. The idea of teaching behind bars scared me at first, but with the encouragement of my wife, I took the step. The three institutions were divided into schools, according to ages of the offenders, with Karl Holton School housing wards from about 18-25, there for a variety of offenses from sexual battery to murder.

At that time, the school had a college program and wards could earn college credit for courses. My first class was one in Chicano History and I had about a dozen wards sign up for it. It was a mixed group, mostly Chicanos, with a handful of blacks and whites.

I took them on a haphazard journey through a smattering of Mexico's history, through the early Spanish colonization of the Southwest, the Mexican-American War, and ending with the Farm worker's Movement and Cesar Chavez.

It went much better that I hoped. I generally found the young men restless, distracted but respectful. But others were completely enthralled with the new knowledge they were being given. The next semester, the word must have gotten out because I was so swamped with students we had to turn many of them away. My connection to them was not so much through the curriculum, but the fact that I was Chicano, like so many of them and I could readily relate to their experiences.

The windows of my classroom faced the athletic field, and while I lectured I began to notice a short, stocky Catholic priest slowly walking around and around the track accompanied by a young ward. I thought little about it at the time. I noticed how his bald head glistened like a mirror ball in the sun.

"What is he doing?" I asked a ward one day. "Confession", he answered. Can you do that? I wondered to myself. I had always known confession to take place in a dark, foreboding stall, with a tiny curtained opening through which you spoke your sins to hidden priest.

In 1983, I was invited by a parishioner at the church I attended to participate in a three day men's retreat called a "Cursillo", a short course in Christianity. To that point, I was a Catholic in name only, though I played guitar and led hymns for Spanish masses, so I was not keen on the idea. I told him I would think about it and let him know, hoping with time that he would forget all about it. But he was relentless, so some weeks later I reluctantly agreed to go.

The retreat turned out to be a powerful, enlightening experience and I returned from it determined to be a be a better Catholic and a more active member of my church, but I was not sure where to begin. What could I do? What did I have to offer?

Some time later, as I walked past the Catholic Chapel on my way from class, it occurred to me that in all this time, I had never even bothered to introduce myself the the priest I had seen so many times circling the track with young men! What kind of Catholic was I?

In a moment of decisiveness, I walked into his office and introduced myself. I told him that I was a teacher and that I played guitar for masses at my parish. "Nice to meet you", he said with a big grin, "I'm Father Gerold Koller, 'El Padre de los Vatos' ". I laughed. It was odd to hear a non-Chicano use the word "vato", referring to a street-wise kid from the Barrio. He was overjoyed to meet me, and invited me to visit one of his masses. I agreed.

After my first visit to a Sunday mass, I began to feel some sort of calling. If I truly wanted to get more involved in my church, here was my chance. After some prayer, I asked him "would it be o.k. if some Sunday I bring my guitar and play some hymns for mass?" 'Yes! Yes! Yes!" He exclaimed, strongly squeezing my arm. I was amazed at how powerful his grip was for such a small man.

He stayed fit by swimming during his lunches at the institution and riding his bike 25 miles a day during the weekends. He greeted everyone with a staunch grip, wide smile, and looked deeply into your soul with those intense, compassionate sky-blue eyes.

And so began a partnership (and friendship) with El Padre de los Vatos that would last until he retired in 1993. I began bringing my wife, Chela and our two sons, Miguel and Fernando, to mass. She was immediately taken the Padre, and by the young men, and began addressing them as "Mijo" (my son). "Como, estas Mijo?" She would greet them when they arrived to mass. She admonished them to take care, "Cuidate, mijo", as they returned to their halls afterwards.

Father was a learned musician and had apparently directed a choir at one of his earlier assignments, so he taught me many new hymns in English, and songs for the liturgy of the mass, since I had only played hymns for Spanish masses to this point. He even tried to teach me to learn to read music, but to no avail. For me, it was like mathematics or a foreign language, quickly resigning himself to just teaching me the tune, which I could easily repeat since I had a "good ear".

One day, Father Koller told me that some of the wards wanted to learn to play guitar and other instruments and that he had been teaching them basics. He proudly showed me a collection of old guitars, a stand-up bass, tambourines and a conga drum, which he kept in a room behind the altar. "Can you join us to practice next week?" I said yes and so started our ragtag choir of misfits, the official choir of the Padre's church!

One of the guitar players was actually pretty good, but the rest could only tag along, sometimes a beat or a chord behind. No matter. "The secret", warned the Padre "is to all start together and end on together". Everything in between is not that important!" And he would chuckle. "1-2- 3 play, 2-3-4 play!" We would hear over and over, as we polished each song for a subsequent Sunday's mass.

The Father also had his regular altar helpers during the mass, assigning one ward to read in English, and another in Spanish for the Liturgy of The Word.

But Father Koller could also be stern and took no guff from the guys. Many came just to mass just to socialize and get away from the halls, and though they were supposed to sit in the pews, according to their respective units, he quickly separated those becoming too chummy during mass. During prayers or the Homily, he would close his eyes as he spoke, but never mind, he always knew who was talking or misbehaving! "You!" Pointing to the culprit; "There!" Indicating where he wanted them to move. "This is God's house!" 

But his abiding love his vatos, these young misguided souls was evident in his face and the kind words he always spoke to them. He visited them in the halls, even in lockup when they had gotten in trouble for fighting.

He was especially sympathetic to those who had lost loved ones, parents, on the "outside" who were not even allowed to attend the funeral.

One day, after mulling over the words in Matthew 23, where Jesus, as he separates the evil doers from the righteous, praises the good because "I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, in prison and you visited me", I was smitten by the phrase... "In prison and you visited me."

I began to design a retreat similar to a Cursillo, but with some obvious limitations. First, we could only have the guys for two complete days Saturdays and Sundays, not three, and they would have to return to their halls at the end of each day. When I first presented the proposal  to Father, he tepidly responded and said he would think about and get back to me. After several weeks with no response I timidly brought up the subject again. "Oh yes, yes let's do it", he exclaimed, apologizing for not responding sooner.

I then recruited about 8-10 Cursillo volunteers, told them of the plan and after a few meetings, we fine tuned the details.

The retreat would begin with a Friday night orientation. We would tell the wards briefly what the retreat entailed, ask them to commit to the entire weekend, forgo any family visits, and a pledge to participate in all activities. Only 25 would be chosen.

Fr. Koller hand picked each participant. Those who regularly attended mass would be invited first, followed by those who were close to being paroled. Usually, we had to squeeze in an extra 5-6 wards who had gotten the last minute word about the retreat and begged Father to attend.

There would be a series of 45 minute talks by the volunteers on the topics of faith, family, forgiveness, the sacraments, and God's love. Wards were to assigned tables of 6-8 each, with a volunteer leader at each. The tables were given names of saints: St. John, St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Francis, and wards were carefully assigned to tables by El Padre who knew their personalities, and gang affiliations. Sworn enemies were kept apart.

Each talk was followed by the making of a colored group poster, depicting the topic (there was usually one artist at each table), then each table was to stand up in front of the room, taking turns explaining the images on their poster to the others.

One skit which I had written, was regularly included in the retreat. It was a parody on the parable of the Prodigal Son, but vato-style with the all the duds and slang of the barrio. I played "Joker", the crazy, disobedient young son who demands his part of his father's inheritance, then squanders it on drugs, booze and women. When he finds himself broke and broken, he returns to a forgiving father. The wards loved it and got the message, too. Months after, whenever they saw me on the grounds, they shouted "Hey, Joker!".

"Good job! Good job! Good job!" The padre would grab my arm tightly and whisper. Father stayed away most of the day. He felt confident that we could run the program without his interference and I for one, greatly appreciated his trust in us. "It's your program", he often remind us, though I always made sure to run all details of the topics and events of the weekend past him.

We sang hymns, prayed and showered the wards with a love they hardly knew existed. If for but a moment, they were transported to a community of love, kindness, joy and respect. Temporary treaties were made between wards. Rancors set aside for the weekend, at least. They were after all, God's children now, regardless of territory, race or creed.

Lunch was brought in by a core of loving volunteers, home cooked Spanish rice, beans, tortillas, enchiladas, a la Chicana, and the word soon got out that the chow was just like their momma's. Restaurants would regularly donate food, and the institution hamburgers or hot dogs for the wards. The devotees devoured gallon cans of JalapeƱos and lapped up bowls of home made salsa, even the Blacks and Whites!

And El Padre de los Vatos beamed with pride, and squeezed my arm even harder.

Word of these lunches eventually got out to the "staffa", the staff and they sheepishly began to hang around, waiting be invited to the feast. Some took plates of food back to other staff members who couldn't leave their posts, and there was always plenty for 2nds, and even 3rds.

At first the staff was leery of our retreats. To them they were a big pain in the neck with extra duty, weighed down by the widely accepted myth that wards were a bunch of no-goods, worthless, incapable of change, and that any effort to reform them was a waste of time. To most, we were just a bunch well-intended Pollyannas, bleeding hearts who naively believed in the inherent good of all people.

Ron, a veteran Sergeant and dedicated Catholic, who all the wards respected, did wonders for us, spearheading the logistics to support our efforts, movement to and from the halls, daily headcounts of the men, and by providing guards for the weekend. He willingly volunteered his time. And in time, staffers began to see for themselves some of the small and big changes in the wards attending the retreats, even commenting on it to us, in disbelief.

The wards returned to their dorms after Day 1, with a look of complete contentment and joy on their faces. And every single one anxiously returned on Sunday morning for Day 2 with bigger smiles on their faces.

"If they ask about what you are doing on the retreat, just tell your homies on the halls you had to listen to a bunch of people give talks all day. Especially, don't say anything about the food!  We want those who come to any future retreats to come for the right reasons, and not just for the chow!" I told them before they left. They laughed it off, but The Word would not to be contained.

Day 2 continued like the previous but with much more openness and camaraderie. Loud ones were humbled and shy ones opened like big clams. New leaders began to emerge. At 10 o'clock we marched the men to the chapel for Sunday mass, and back to the classroom and lunch.

By Sunday late, these lions and tigers had become docile children in obvious need of love and friendship. They seemed so much like our own sons and we like their moms, dads, and brothers. They had become our "mijos" (sons).

The retreat ended with a closing ceremony at the Chapel. where we gave each ward a certificate and those who felt the spirit move them, given a chance the share their experience. We were all touched, and wept openly. In one closing, a ward publicly addressed a rival gang member asking for forgiveness. They hugged.

Most of the wards did not want it end, and hung around as long as they could before returning to their halls. Again, we admonished them not to share details of the retreat to others. But like The Word, word of the great food on the weekends ran freely in the halls! 

In time, we took the name "Manos de Cristo" (The Hands of Christ). We continued to invite new volunteers, asking them only to to mass on Sundays. Then, they could decide for themselves if they felt comfortable and wanted to join us. Some came but never returned. At one point, we had about 12-15 regular volunteers who served at masses, taught Bible study and catechism on the halls, helping the Father Koller prepare the young men for First Communion and Confirmations. We followed up with regular monthly meetings for the wards who had attended the retreats, until the majority of them were paroled.

We conducted retreats, at first twice a year, and I continued to play occasionally at mass until Father retired in 1993.  We had a heart-felt potluck at our house for Father's retirement, and volunteers who had worked with him over the years, tearfully said their goodbyes. A couple of years later I wrote him a letter, thanking him for the years we worked together at the institution, to which he responded in a tediously scribbled, handwritten note, thanking me, my wife and the others, for our mutual friendships.

During the writing of this piece, I began to think of the old padre and e-mailed the St. Charles Center in Carthagena, Ohio, where I knew he had gone to retire, to inquire about him. Later that evening, I received a message telling me that Father Koller had passed away in November of 2010, after complications following a serious fall, at the age of 89.

 Whenever I saw Father Koller, I would ask him, "How you doing' Father?" "I'm still kickin.' " He would say and crack up. But I guess his kickin' is over now.

Adios, Padre de los Vatos, may you rest in well-deserved peace.


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Mike Garcia said...

I would very like much like to get in contact with the person who wrote this. I was one Fr. Koller's kids over at Karl Holton (1983-1988).