Eulogy for Oscar

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Oscar Esparza

(May 30, 1992-Aug 8, 2009)

In the final minutes of his life, driving a car that had been stolen at gun-point just eleven hours earlier, Oscar raced ahead of a pursuing police officer. Running through a stop sign at perhaps 90 mph, he collided with a family of seven in a pickup, sending both vehicles flying into an orange orchard. All five children in the pickup died, as did Oscar and two friends riding with him in the stolen car. Oscar was 17. I had not seen him in two years. For that last meeting, I’d waited in a visiting room at juvenile hall while officers marshaled in a line of hardened teens. Oscar was polite and friendly, but kept his emotions well guarded. At the end he thanked me for coming and took his place in line to march out. I cared about Oscar, had long feared that it might end as it did, and hoped fervently that it wouldn’t. I cannot make excuses for Oscar: what he did is inexcusable. At best I can offer his story.

I took this smiling picture of Oscar eight years ago, on the day I met him. As a third grade teacher, I decided I wanted to meet every student in my class before the first day of school. I called him on the telephone and invited myself to his home. We had a good time. I met his two older brothers, two younger brothers, two younger sisters, mother, and the mother’s boyfriend. Oscar was a handsome kid, but I recognized that, even as a nine-year old, life had not been easy for Oscar, nor would he be easy to have in class. Walking back to my car, I stopped to talk to a student I’d taught the previous year. He told me that Oscar had stolen his bicycle, and after the police returned it, Oscar stole it again.

I had a special reason to spend time with Oscar. During the previous year, I had been asking God for one troubled boy I could come alongside and try to point in a more positive direction. I had read that when the Department of Corrections wants to predict how many prison beds will be needed down the line, they look at how many third grade boys are reading below grade-level today. Each year, I could look around my third grade classroom and see eight or ten boys reading below grade-level, some of them quite far below. At that time, 93% of all incarcerated adults were males, most of them still comparatively young. I’d read that 95% of them had no positive relationship with a father-figure, nor had ever had one. I could look around my classroom and see five or six boys in that situation. I attended a presentation on how to pick an individual to pour your life into, and came away with three principles: a) pick someone who is open, b) pick someone well-known in the community [whether famous or infamous], and then, c) wait for God’s supernatural confirmation.

For a year, I had watched and prayed. I spent extra time with a couple of boys, and then met Oscar. He was open. He was “the worst boy in the whole class” and next-younger brother to “the worst boy in the whole school.” After school hours, Oscar and I began meeting for a session that doubled as one-on-one reading lesson and Bible study. My principal approved as long as I took it off-campus. I began to see the kind of coincidences that point to supernatural confirmation.

Early on, I began to focus our Bible study on the problem of anger. Oscar had many reasons to be angry. Anger is the human response when something has not been fair, and life was never fair to Oscar. But anger did not serve Oscar well. When life has been unfair, anger is often Satan’s way to take away whatever we have left. Often, it even destroys what good things others have.

In my first lesson with Oscar, I had him memorize James 1:19, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Soon after, Oscar came in from a recess, explosive over something that had happened on the playground. I got down at his eye-level, took him by the shoulders, and asked, “What does James 1:19 say?” He thought a few seconds. Then I watched all the anger drain out of his face. He smiled sheepishly at me and recited it, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Fully relaxed, he was able to enter the classroom and go to work. It is my favorite memory of Oscar.

After a couple of months, the next-older brother joined our Bible study. Then, when the family moved to another neighborhood and Oscar no longer attended my school, I began picking the boys up twice a week for Sunday school and my church’s children’s program. The boys and I took an occasional hike, or some other field trip, I attended Oscar’s basketball games at the youth center, and I have an old wood pile in my back yard that Oscar worked with me to stack.

We continued to work on anger.

When Oscar had been about five, both parents went to prison for a year and the four boys went to live with an uncle in another state. That was the year we expect students to learn the basics of reading. Oscar didn’t.

When the boys returned to their mother, she told them that their father was in prison in Mexico, and they would never see him again. I do not know the truth, but in retrospect, I wonder if Oscar suspected at the time that he was being lied to by someone he loved.

One boyfriend came for a while and then left. Another came to stay. The family grew to eight siblings. When she was sober, or when I visited, Oscar’s mother was attentive and loving. Only the kids witnessed her other side. I have a file with some of the worksheets we did. Here, in his own 4th grade handwriting is a description of a situation he knew well:

Oscar also had to struggle with being the younger brother of “the worst boy in the whole school.” Oscar both idolized his brother and resented the lopsided share of attention that the brother’s behavior garnered. A week before Oscar died, the brother called about something else, and then ended the conversation with, “If you see Oscar, tell him to come home. He’s still trying to be like I was.”

Just after Oscar’s eleventh birthday, this older-brother/sibling-rival/best-friend/idol went into juvenile hall for violence within the home. They never lived together again. About that same time, a boy standing on the corner two doors from their house was killed in a drive-by shooting. On the way home from church, Oscar pointed out the front yard where a friend’s uncle had been killed. After Oscar’s death, a newspaper quoted a police officer remarking about the teenager’s “callous disregard for human life.” It’s true. But callouses form to protect a tender place from frequent injury.

When Oscar was twelve, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles, both to get away from an abusive boyfriend and to give Oscar a fresh start at another school. Six months later, she returned to Visalia. Unable to afford a place of her own, she moved the family into the home of a friend. Even with one brother from each family locked away, it was two mothers and thirteen kids in a three-bedroom house, in the same bad neighborhood. Oscar started spending days at a time with his buddies. If he was home, he’d smile and greet me when I came to pick up his younger siblings for Sunday school, but he’d lost interest in going himself.

Meanwhile, his mother began a downward spiral: alcohol, days spent at the casinos, a string of boyfriends. On the day I saw a black eye on the younger brother and knew I had to report her to CPS, someone else beat me to it. CPS discovered old warrants. She was arrested, sent to prison, and then deported. I believe Oscar saw her just once again (by running away from a guardian and trying to adjust to life in a country he had never before visited), but he never again saw any of his five younger siblings, nor his oldest brother.

After years of working with young people of all ages, I know that children under ten or eleven tend to be flexible enough to move and adjust. Older teens often have the maturity to do so. Children in their early teens seem to be the most vulnerable. They are so wrapped up in their peer groups that uprooting them can send even the most secure into a tailspin. Oscar never had the chance to start from that kind of height. He ran away from the foster home, and hid with his buddies. For Oscar, it was the closest he could get to creating a “home.” As near as I can reconstruct, he spent most of that first year out of school, even though he was already so far behind. When authorities found him, they put him in juvenile hall. Whenever they tried placing him outside its walls, he went looking for either his buddies or his mother.

For these last few years, I had to try and follow Oscar from his occasional visits to MySpace. He used the screen name “Killer.” He listed his emotion as “Angry.” The last time I saw Oscar, he told me the main thing he wanted in life was to eat his mother’s cooking.

If life was fair, every boy could eat his mother’s cooking. He would live securely with two parents who loved him and would learn to read well (and read first in the language he spoke at home). If life was fair, no boy would be locked up for trying to find home. But certainly, if life was fair, Oscar’s pain and confusion would not have brought such pain and confusion to three other families, and to their entire community. As father to my own five children, I think especially of the Salazar family, who seem from newspaper accounts to have had everything that Oscar didn’t, and were raising their kids just as Oscar could only have dreamed of. The newspaper quotes an aunt as saying, “We’re trying to be as strong as our Christian faith allows us to be.”

As a Christian myself, I acknowledge that Christians have a special problem here that materialists do not have. In dog-eat-dog “survival of the fittest,” there is no expectation of fairness. If we are just the sum of our charged particles, the collapse of a family or the collision of two cars should carry no deeper moral questions than the collapse of a star or the collision of two asteroids. Indeed, the death of a youth who had so few of the skills or aptitudes for gaining adult success might be viewed as simply “natural selection.” The fact that mankind longs for fairness and responds angrily to its absence is, by itself, evidence that we are made in the image of a moral, fairness-seeking God. But for Christians, the challenge is to answer how a moral God could allow such unfair things to happen.

I do believe God wants fairness. However, “fairness” requires moral choices, which in turn require a standard that can be either obeyed or disobeyed. We are not simply charged particles moving always in the right direction, held in line by the narrow confines of inescapable obedience. We stumble. We drift. We rebel. We take that which we know is not ours. We sin and are sinned against. We come into life victims (some more than others) of a tide of sin that surrounds us. Then as perpetrators, we propagate and perpetuate that tide so that it washes against both those we love and those we don’t even know.

On discussion boards after the crash, I saw comments thanking God that scum like Oscar got what they deserved in the crash. I saw mention of someone's hope that Oscar had gone straight to Hell. I also saw racist pronouncements about the occupants of both vehicles, and their ethnic disregard for seat-belt laws. I lump each of these attitudes into the same category as the sin that entangled Oscar.

One who truly understands Hell cannot wish it on anyone. Hell was never created as a place for human souls. It was created as a prison for Satan and his demons, a place of never-ending loneliness, pain, and regret. It is God’s desire that every human soul spend eternity with Him, in Heaven. But God honors the decisions of individuals. When someone chooses to walk away from God, Hell is the farthest away from God one can get.

I have reason to hope that Oscar isn’t there. On the first Sunday of June, 2002, I heard Oscar say a simple prayer. He asked God to forgive him his sins, and come into his life. Someone once approached a famous evangelist and said, “I saw one of your converts last night, drunk and in the gutter.” The evangelist replied, “Yes, it must have been one of mine. It couldn’t have been one of God’s.” Maybe Oscar was only one of my converts, and never one of God’s. But I have hope.

It is easy for someone to compare themselves with Oscar, and say, “At least I never stole cars or killed innocent kids,” but no one gets into Heaven by comparison with others. Heaven is perfect and the standard for admittance is perfection. Even the best of us misses perfection by a great margin. As a Christian, the good news is that Jesus offers to pay the full price for all of my sins, and in return, to credit me with His perfection. The only requirement is that I must accept the gift in faith. Of course, once I’ve been relieved of my load, I can’t begrudge Christ for relieving anyone else of theirs. For many of us, that is the hardest part: We continue to clamor for fairness, even when God wants to trump fairness with mercy and grace.

To be sure, Christ desires changes in the lives of His followers. I saw disappointingly little change in Oscar. Two passages in I Corinthians (3:10-15 & 11:27-32) seem to teach that when God’s patience runs out with believers who continue in gross sin, He finds it necessary to end their earthly lives prematurely. They arrive in Heaven, but without any of the rewards other believers will receive.

No one can see the heart of another, but I hope to see Oscar in Heaven. It will be the home that on earth eluded him.

“(God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev. 21:4)

I know nothing about the two teens riding with Oscar, but I do expect to see the Salazar children in Heaven. At the end of the Book of Job, when God restored Job to double of everything he had owned before Satan took it from him, the one total matched but not doubled was Job’s 10 children. The implication is that these ten later children were not to replace the first ten—children cannot be replaced—but came in addition to the ten who would be waiting for Job in Heaven when he arrived. I pray that God blesses the Salazars accordingly. I also pray that they will find a way to forgive Oscar, on this side of Heaven, not for Oscar’s sake, or mine, but for their own. Anger rarely serves any of us well. Instead, it is only Satan’s way to take away what we have left.

In the month since Oscar's death, I've wondered what else might have been done. I gave him my best shot and folks at my church went over-and-above to minister to him. The public schools did the best they could, as did the foster community and the juvenile justice system. At the mortuary I met some of the young men Oscar hung with. In their own way, they tried. My theology tells me that no one is ever beyond God's reach, or the ability to change, but that ultimately each person is responsible for their own decisions. The Bible also explains that a parent's poor decisions wreck consequences to the fourth generation (Exodus 34:7, etc.). There's more here than I can sort out in a month. I will leave it at this: I cared about Oscar, and I mourn his death. Right now it hurts. But I have already found someone else I will love in the name of Christ. I invite you to go and do likewise.

* * * * * * * *

Some of the themes I touched on in this eulogy come up in a novel that I still have a lot of work to complete, maybe two or three years worth. For anyone who is interested in hearing about that novel when it is finally available, I have a Kontactr button in the left hand margin of this page. Please leave your name. I will treat it with care.


Thank you for this. I have been working with inner city kids in Los Angeles for 9 years. this post encouraged me and tore off some of the callouses that had developed around my heart, seeing these kinds of things so much.
God is working in the youth of our cities, but the field needs more faithful workers like yourself. May Jesus be your strength, brother.

jrf said...
September 9, 2009 at 9:57 AM  

This is heartbreaking and I'm very sorry for your loss, Brian.

Damian said...
September 9, 2009 at 10:50 AM  

Thank you John. I see you're headed to Europe. Have a good time and come back to the battle refreshed.

You, too, Damian. I know you won't agree with the theology of this piece, but you and I are pursuing a lot of the same things, just through different means.

Brian said...
September 9, 2009 at 7:09 PM  

This is a very moving commentary on a sad but instructive event.

Your paragraph on materialism is simplistic and unfair. Someday when I am not so sleepy we can exchange some correspondence on that. In short, we Humanists care about sad events just as much as Christians. We don't see life as just molecules zinging around. It's a lot more complex and wonderful than that.

Other than that, thanks for the lessons.


Anonymous said...
September 10, 2009 at 9:11 PM  

Thanks for showing the 'other side' of the story. Young men like Oscar are not summed up as simplistically as a newspaper caption might want us to believe. Thank you for showing all of that what we see in the life of Oscar is the symptom of a chronic condition known as sinfulness. Anger is to the nature of man as sniffles are to the common cold, indicators that something is intrinsically unsound in the person. Christians care and love 'unsound persons' and your eulogy demonstrates this clearly for any who read.

Scott Bird said...
October 17, 2009 at 3:16 PM  

Thank you Scott. I appreciate you stopping by.

Brian said...
November 16, 2009 at 9:33 PM  

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