A review of
Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood
Paperback: Chalice Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Ryan Johnson
Racism, violence, hatred, shootings. Headlines are filled with these injustices and most believe there is little hope to enact lasting change. For many this is the narrative of American society. This is the day-to-day life for millions of individuals. We are left asking the question what do we do? More than that: What are we called to do? This question leaves many of us without an answer, or with still more questions. It is a question that cannot live solely in the theoretical realm but must be lived out through practical action. Thus, Patrick Reyes’s book Nobody Cries When We Die serves as a step toward answering that question with the urgency it deserves.
Simply perusing the comments on the back cover, it is easy to grasp Reyes’s main thesis: to discern one’s calling through the investigation of one’s narrative. Yet to end the reflection there would be to miss out entirely on Reyes’ true goal of the book. Through the investigation of his own narrative, he asserts that his personal vocation is to call others to life. This vocation is then lived out through the writing of the book. In other words, Reyes is simultaneously persuading us to discern our own calling and issuing a resounding call to life.
The introduction sets the tone for the book. He introduces a seemingly harrowing scene where his friend is holding a gun to him. It turns out that this was a proposed way of beginning a lecture at an academic conference. Reyes decides against that approach but does share his sympathy for his friend and the motive behind it. The academy is often a breeding ground of well-intentioned theories that are often removed from reality. As any seminary-trained pastor can attest, there are a host of things encountered daily that earn the label: not taught at seminary. Reyes makes the point that the issues he faces and fights for are not simply theories to be discussed but life-and-death issues that need practical and immediate action.
He takes us into some of the most poignant moments of his life grounded in scriptural analysis and deep theological insights. In the first chapter we are thrust into the painful situation of a broken family and the introduction of “the Stranger.” Reyes recounts how this man abused him and his siblings and recounts a story where he (Reyes) was suspended off the ground as the Stranger attempted to choke him. He recounts the intense suffering of that moment and the consequences of feeling powerless in his own home. He also recounts the “Christian Brother” who walked alongside him immediately after this event. It was the first of many individuals to call him to life.
As if the physical abuse he endured as a child were not enough, Reyes recounts what it was like to try and survive in Salinas, CA. He tells of a drive-by shooting that was meant to take his life and instead resulted in the death of a little girl. The guilt that he felt for this incident and the incredible example of his grandmother called him again to life. This time the violence that he witnessed and experienced was calling him out from where he was to a new life. Furthermore, there is the recurring theme of an individual who had the courage and strength to stand alongside him amidst horrific events.
Many in Reyes’s shoes would consider throwing in the towel and indeed many have done so through addictions, violence, and other forms of escape. Reyes discusses several individuals who had bought into the false identities that had been communicated to them through various societal systems. In one such reflection he says, “We were working class; to operate otherwise was a challenge to our fragile equilibrium and our own control of what we could be good at.” (48) He goes on to recount his own experiences of buying into that narrative in graduate school.
The remainder of the book focuses on creating that call to life. Throughout the book, but especially near the end he uses theological investigations and scholarly analysis of scripture from a liberation point of view. He uses these and other experiences to illustrate how it is only through the help of community that he finds strength to survive amid the injustices that he frequently faces. In a beautiful analogy, he looks at the Sequoias and how their root systems don’t go down, but instead branch out and intertwine with the roots of other trees thus providing each other support. It is this example that he sees most clearly in the Latinx community. Later, he also addresses the “ground” that such communities are built on and poses the statement, “We need to know whether the ground on which we stand will provide life.” (89) Individuals need to have ground that is rich in mentors who can nourish and encourage them. Reyes was fortunate to have many such individuals which called him to life and have helped nourish him along the way.
Despite the many takeaways this book offers, there is something missing. Reyes shares many different stories from academia which attempt to show the inherent injustices present there. Unfortunately, several stories fail to achieve their desired effect, which seemingly is due to missing background in the story and therefore the full injustice of the situation is not revealed. This is unfortunate as it detracts from the book and robs the author of his intended message.
Today’s society is filled with people shouting over one another and striving to be heard. Reyes offers a voice that is not often listened to and speaks for those who have suffered injustices in their lives. His work forced me to wrestle with things that I have not experienced and to look at suffering that I am ignorant of. For those who know the realities of the marginalized and who desire change in the world, this will serve to motivate you further. It is a book that stresses the urgency of our situation and forces us to look at the things that we choose to ignore. May we listen to the voices of others so that we may be called to life and call others to life.
Ryan Johnson is an insatiable reader who enjoys many different genres. He also currently serves as a Campus Pastor at CrossPoint UMC in Harrisburg, PA. He blogs at https://muddlingspirituality.wordpress.com/ and can also be reached via linkedin.