“Out in the street, you don’t survive by being weak. This is our time, walls were made for us to climb. Don’t you try to lock us out ’cause we’re breaking down the doors and, oh, we’re prepared to fight, baby. There’s no stopping us (no stopping). No one does it better.” These are lyrics to a 1980s song “There’s No Stopping Us.” I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn with this music blasting from car windows and boom boxes. It was a fun time. Music had messages and this one was clear: be strong, fight for your goal, no matter how high the wall.
Growing up in Brooklyn, you had to be tough. You needed to have street smarts, or at least know how to fake it enough to survive. Every neighborhood had street gangs. We had ethnic neighborhoods which had clearly delineated boundaries, and if you happened to invade another’s turf, chances were you would have to fight your way out. It might seem an unlikely source for spiritual reflection, but consideration of this warlike world helped me to a deeper understanding of our spiritual war.
The World of Gangs
So what were these gangs about? Mostly they were about belonging to something bigger than yourself. For some the gang provided protection, for others a family they didn’t have at home; for others it was about money, power and rebellion. In any case, the thread that bound these kids together was identity, fear and the need to belong.
However, this lifestyle seldom provides anything truly wholesome or fulfilling, or any stable, genuine relationships. So many of these kids wound up in organized crime and later realized that the myth of the gang family is just that: a myth. Many of them grew up to find themselves in jail, betrayed by a brother gang member, or murdered by the older men who used them to commit crimes they themselves wouldn’t commit.
In this spirit of cruelty and betrayal, the gang world is similar to another underworld most people fail to consider: the spiritual world of the demonic. I loved reading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. In a nutshell, it’s about a gang of demons with particular demonic spiritual charisms that are sent out into the world to fight the enemy (God) by influencing His most beloved creation, humanity. The demons work together, but have nothing like charity towards one another; they are held together only by their shared hatred and vindictiveness. Of course, members of human gangs are also very different, as they have goodness in them, but their bond is founded on something violent and dangerous.
For example, watching the news recently, I learned of a Latino street gang in New York called the Trinitarios, a Dominican gang whose name has its roots in the establishment of the Dominican Republic—how ironic that it invokes the Blessed Trinity. Several of these young men were arrested for killing an innocent young man named Junior in a case of mistaken identity. It is sad on so many counts, but this is the nature of gangs, both human and spiritual. So much innocent young blood has been shed over the years, for nothing. For young men, machismo takes over and every insult, every wrong look is a challenge. “There’s No Stopping Us” sums it up for gang members and kids growing up in violent neighborhoods: “Out in the street you don’t survive by being weak.”
As Christians, we understand strength and weakness differently. St. Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). When we are confronted with our own weakness, we can then be spiritually strong; for we are strongest when we rely not on our own limited strength, but on the strength of Christ.
Taking Heaven By Force
Matthew 11:12 records Jesus saying, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” The 1980’s song intones, “Don’t you try to lock us out ’cause we’re breaking down the doors and, oh, we’re prepared to fight, baby. There’s no stopping us.” Is the Kingdom of Heaven under attack like many of our inner city neighborhoods? Yes, it is. Jesus tells us so.
He goes on to explain that St. John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah, the herald of Christ the King. Good men can also take heaven by force, and we are encouraged to do so by Jesus Himself. Besides the Good Thief, the greatest example for me is the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34). She reached out and touched Jesus’ garment, and so was healed. She drew power out from Him.
Evil wishes to prevent us from going to be with God. They try and take heaven by force too, as they did at the first rebellion when St. Michael the Archangel and his angels fought against Lucifer and his angels and cast them out of heaven. We must battle for heaven; that is our duty and our right.
Street thugs use force, thieves use force, Satan uses force. Believers also need to use force against the evil ones. We have weapons and backup in these spiritual battles. I witnessed an extraordinary spiritual victory this past June, as my father-in-law was dying from lung cancer. My sister-in-law, her husband and son, and my wife and I were present throughout the night as we sat vigil. We watched him suffer and we watched him die. The fruits of smoking! Yet my father-in-law, who was a a strong man, stronger than I ever realized, took heaven by force.
He had not been to confession for 60 years, scarcely went to Mass, and as far as I knew did not pray. During the last 6 months of his life, I had the opportunity to encourage him to go to the Lord. I was afraid that, if he died thinking God was mad at him, he would not be able to approach the light, as it were. I believe our consciousness continues even after the brain waves stop. The soul has intelligence and awareness. If a person dies thinking he is unworthy of God’s forgiveness, who knows what can happen on the other side? His health was very precarious and he was constantly on death watch.
I called a priest and had him anointed while he was unconscious. When he regained consciousness, I asked him if he would make his confession, and he agreed. Father Al, a wonderful priest from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Red Bank, NJ, came running. My father-in-law received Last Rites, Confession and Holy Communion, and experienced an inner peace and true reconciliation with the Lord. It was beautiful. We were all so happy. He took heaven by force. God’s mercy is unfathomable.
I called Father Al and thanked him after my father-in-law died. I told him that he saved a soul and that he will save many more. The love and compassion this wonderful priest showed to a dying stranger and his family made this whole horrible experience almost beautiful. Dad reconciled with God. That was better than a physical healing as far as we are all concerned. I told Father Al my father-in-law stole heaven, and he chuckled and said, “Yes, like the good thief.”
What a great example of a priest living out his vocation, truly acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Even though our call came on Memorial Day, he came at a moment’s notice, without hesitation. He is truly an inspiration to all of us. He answered the call of his vocation and bridged the gap between my father-in-law and God, a bridge only a priest could build. I am so grateful for good priests.
Our Spiritual Army
I advise everyone: when a person is dying, call a priest immediately! So many good Catholic families, even families with priests for relatives, neglect this act of mercy. It may be the last opportunity the dying will get to save their souls. Could you imagine knowing that a person lost his or her soul simply because you did not make a call? Don’t worry about scaring them—hell is a lot scarier.
I have strict instructions for my family and friends. In an emergency, call the priest first, then the doctor. I exhort everyone to take heaven by force. In a life and death situation, make sure to call the priest first. The last moments of a person’s life may require the greatest strength to battle the evil one who wishes to snatch the soul. The evil one cowers at the very sight of a good priest and will flee.
But it’s not only priests who have important roles to play. All of the faithful are called to take part in this spiritual war, to win Heaven for themselves and others. Numbers can be an advantage in our battle, as they often are in earthly fights. Generally, the greater the army, the stronger it is, and the more it inspires courage in its members and fear in its enemies. Sometimes the very size of a gang or army is enough to dissuade others from challenging it. Demons work in gangs. They attack weak spots. They work in secret and are unseen, although many times their evil influence can be felt.
However, what counts most for us is not numbers but faithfulness, love, and openness to God’s grace, which is our strength. The souls most closely united with God, even if they are few, can do the most in His service, because His power works most strongly in them.
Furthermore, the deeper our lives of faith, the more we will come to know and use the gifts God has put at our disposal. God loves us all and avails us of powerful weapons and backup. We have prayer, Scripture, the sacraments and sacramentals. We can call on the saints and angels. Jesus spoke of the legions of angels He could have called down to smite His enemies. Most of all, we have the Blessed Trinity, Who loves us with an everlasting love. No force of evil could come against such love.
We also have the love of family and friends. Our church friends can be our prayer warriors, our army against evil. Every faith-based organization should encourage their faithful to form such relationships. As Christians, we should be praying for one another daily. I have friends at my parish who are available day and night to pray for me. I’ve texted people at three or four in the morning to pray for me, and they text me back immediately saying that they are praying the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet or the Shoulder Wound prayer. They assure me they have my back and I have theirs. These folks are available to pray for me night and day, and I am available for them.
We are God’s fighters—one might even say, God’s gang members, called to be courageous and determined and even to do violence, not to human beings but to evil in ourselves. We are strong in Christ, and numbers don’t matter much when Christ is fighting the battle for us. We unite in prayer, single-minded and single-hearted, and we too take heaven by force. “There’s no stopping us (no stopping). No one does it better” than God and those who love Him. We have a responsibility to love one another, pray for one another, and help each other take heaven by force, to wrench the souls of God’s people from the hands of the devil. Every priest can do it, and so can every lay person. Even if you only have the faith of a mustard seed, that’s all it takes. Jesus said very clearly that He will not turn away anyone who comes to Him. Hebrews 3:13 exhorts us to encourage each other daily while it is still today.
Let’s take heaven by force for God’s people. There is no stopping us.