The morning of my first day of high school I sat in an auditorium with about 300 other freshmen boys. There were going to be a lot of speeches from a lot of Jesuits. First, an older priest with beige hair came striding out onstage. He had a kind of JFK look about him. He meant business. He said, “Boys, we have a motto at Saint Xavier High School. Men For Others. What’s most important to us is that you learn who you are and what you can do with who you are, to help anyone who could use it.”
I felt like the Jesuits recharged my batteries that day. They were Catholic like I was Catholic, but they seemed to be talking about it in a much more vital way than I’d heard before. As I came to think of it, they were speaking Jesuit. See, in grade school I cherished my religion, but when the nuns taught us that religion was about having a relationship with God, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around that.
To me back then, being Catholic was that warm glowing feeling of singing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, or this almost weightless sensation I remember having kneeling before our parish replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta at Easter. I loved being Catholic because I loved the art but the art was always about the same thing, these transcendent incidents. You know, God would have his favorite children and one day he would bestow on one of them an epiphany. Or sometimes a quick trip to the Twilight Zone, like Saint Margaret having great debates with dragons or Saint Denis pulling his head off his neck for whatever purpose that served. These people got to step out of banal reality and experience extraordinariness. And the nuns taught us to call those moments religious experiences.
Of course the guy who got the ultimate religious experience was Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection and I was especially obsessed with that story. This man endures pain and more pain and more pain until he’s obliterated like when a rocket breaks the sound barrier and vanishes into the stratosphere. Sister Adriana said the cross was a portal to another realm, a place so remarkable you can’t even imagine it. And I remember being maybe nine and watching the rain trickle down my bedroom window one Saturday afternoon and wondering what were the thoughts that were going through his when he was hanging up there? How did he feel when he expired? And then what was his experience? I mean, what was the change? Because of course he comes back. And when he does, he’s something beyond human. Now he’s completely God. That’s a religious experience. And I wanted one too.
But as of that first day of high school I had an opposing desire. I had Father JFK in my head saying, “Make the change away from fantasy toward doing things as a Man For Others!” And I did not. I just started fantasizing I would. I pictured myself spoon-feeding grandmas and teaching kids on crutches to walk again. The worst part is I’d even daydream of ways I could be a little showy about it just to make sure some Jesuit would notice me doing these things. Then I could daydream about people walking through the halls of Saint X saying, “That Kevin Allison! He’s like a redhead Saint Francis!”
Meanwhile, there were weekly opportunities to do community service through my school but I just stuck to the fantasy. Then at the end of junior year, Father JFK called me to his office. Now, I’d never actually met this man. I didn’t even know what his job was. But he impressed me again. He spoke with just as much purpose as he had that first day. He said, “Kevin, I think you’d be a good candidate to go on our seven week summer trip to some of the most poverty stricken areas in Peru.”
I thought, Wait. Fuck. He’s got the wrong Kevin. I knew of at least one Kevin who was huge in the community service program. The only thing I was known for at school was doing musicals. He said, “I’ll tell you, Kevin, you can look through a copy of Time Magazine, see pictures of starving kids in some far off country, but what if you could open your own wallet and see a picture you took of some kid and say, ‘There’s Miguel and I’ve done good things for him.’”
I liked that thought. It fit in well with my redheaded Saint Francis daydreams.
So, it was the summer of 1987. There were sixteen kids and six adults. The first ten days the trip were kind of a bust. The politicians and donors to the Jesuits in Lima didn’t want us to see the dark side, so they had us staying in a rectory with gardens and falling water. This is what I wrote in my journal back then, “I’m frustrated. Now that we’re here I want to see what I can do. There are people in serious need very nearby. Now, what can I do?”
So, the Jesuits said, “Okay, kids. Plan B. We’re going to improvise.” We ended up taking a 20-hour bus trip across the Peruvian desert to get to this small town called Arequipa. About 14 hours into this ride, we stopped to get water. There was a shack, mostly just random pieces of wood nailed together with nothing but the flat dirt ground surrounding it on all sides for miles and miles. But what stuck out was that a sign had been tacked on this structure that read, “Hawaii.” It almost seemed like a joke. Like it really meant, “Yeah, I’ve got your desert oasis right here.”
So, everyone, kids, Jesuits, translators jumped off the bus and ran to the shack ahead of me. That’s when I saw that, other than the guy selling water in the shack, there was one other human being out there. This nomad, this filthy skeleton of a man in rags. Perhaps he was in his 20s. But he may as well have been 60. He seemed shell-shocked to see us. He didn’t seem aware that drool was stringing from his chin or that tears were tracing through the dirt on his cheeks. Or that two vultures were circling over and over about 50 feet above his head, just waiting.
And he stared. He just stared with these milky eyes like the eyes of a stricken dog, desperate, dying in the road. I was frozen. When he looked at me, I looked away. Then my friend, Steve, another kid on the trip, he came up behind me and said, “That’s God over there. And he’s staring at us.” Part of me felt like rolling my eyes. I thought Steve was being showy. Another part of me was probably a little envious that he’d come up with such a good Jesuit line. But part of me knew he was right.
Steve gave me a bottle of water and I was about to say, “What can we do?” But the bus driver started shouting, “Vamanos! Vamanos!” and we were all jumping back on the bus and we were on our way again.
The rest of the ride I stared out the window thinking, “Kevin, what did you do? If that guy wasn’t in need, who is? You’re a sad excuse for a redheaded Saint Francis.”
Well, the Jesuits did a bang-up job of finding us less comfortable accommodations in Arequipa. Our new retreat house was an abandoned prison. No electricity. Infrequent and freezing cold water and, because of the way it felt, I came to call the little cot in my cell the Saltine. But I was into this. I said, “Okay, Kevin, maybe living like a poor person will kick you in the ass and get you interacting with them.”
But that first night as I was trying to drift off, I looked toward the doorway of my tiny room and I saw a shadow there in the shape of a small man and then those eyes. Those milky eyes staring. Of course I knew I was just imagining things. I turned and looked out the window but I could still feel those eyes behind me. I tried distracting myself, singing a song. And then I closed my eyes. But inside my eyelids, like he was right on top of me, I saw those eyes. I jumped out of bed, I started pacing the hallways. I never doubted it was all in my head. Obviously it was all in my head. But it wouldn’t get out of my head.
So, I went to the little room they’d designated the chapel to maybe pray it away. This room had been empty when we got there earlier that day but now I found there was one candle on one little table in the center of the room and it was shining up on the goriest, screamingest crucifix I’d ever seen. And on the face of this butchered little figure were those eyes.
If only this was a daydream. I remembered what this atheist kid said in religion class one day at school. He said most of those saints when they were having their religious experiences, they were really just people whose own brains turned against them. They were really just going insane. Maybe so. Those religious experiences, there’s not a lot of evidence on the ground. They happen in the mind. Or some place you can’t even pinpoint. So, you walk away wondering, “Am I really making solid sense out of what actually is? Or am I just telling stories?”
Then I noticed someone had left a yellow legal pad and a pen in a corner of the chapel. So, I sat down on the concrete with that horrific crucifix glowing above and I wrote at the top of the page, “Man At Hawaii / What of me gives you to be? / Who in me gives you to dance in my nightmares / to breathe in my ear chilled depths? / Are these my hands that strangle and pulse…”
The pen never left the page. No revisions. Just a torrent about how I would rather drive nails through his hands and dig thorns into his forehead and stab a spear into his side than to have to keep seeing his eyes in my brain. And it was a rush. It was like rapture, the writing,
Of course it was filled with the melodrama that comes with the author being 17. And of course some part of me hoped, “Now I’ve had experience. I can show great art to the world!” But also, in my heart, it was a prayer. I was admitting to God or at least to myself that I just wasn’t what I’d hoped to be. I am not what I hoped to be and probably never will be.
In the last few lines of the poem I predicted even more failing to live up to my ideals. I pictured what it would be like to return to Ohio and I wrote, “And when I am there, home and warm / I will not be seeing you / only comfortably killing you / thousands of miles away.”
The rest of the trip went as planned. We got the ball rolling on the building of a school for the kids on the outskirts of the city and I did come home with pictures of those kids in my wallet. I don’t know how much of a difference I made in any one of their lives but I remember them.
Anyway, I shared that poem with my friends on the trip and a few months later in my senior year, a copy of it made its way to the desk of Father JFK. He called me into his office again. He said, “Kevin, you know what next Thursday is?” I did not. He said, “We’ll celebrate a mass for the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier in the gym. The student body, the faculty, all 1,300 of us. I want you to give a speech during the service. I want you to read that poem and tell the story.”
I felt electrified. I thought, “Okay. I’ll show him I know how to speak Jesuit now. I’m going to Martin Luther King this thing.” And I did. I gave it my everything. I still have these old cassette recordings of me rehearsing the speech.
Sometimes I feel that wholeheartedly talking to God is something I need to get psyched up for, it’s like my faith is only a mood I’m sometimes in, an occasional inspiration. I think I may never stop seeing those eyes, everything I was wrestling with in Peru seemed to be in those eyes. If perhaps while I read this poem you found somewhere in your imagination the faintest image of those eyes, I’d like to remind you that’s God and he’s staring at you. As I stand here today and look up at these 1,300 or so pairs of eyes, I can say that also is God and he’s still staring at me.
You could certainly say my performance was showy. Sometimes it was downright Shakespearian. Just like the poem, it had all the melodrama that comes from the author being 17, but my heart was in it. And from those 1,300 people came a standing ovation in the middle of a mass. And the rest of the day, people I’d never spoken to before — jocks, Goth guys, people I was scared of — they kept stopping me to say, “Hey man, that was a hell of a speech.”
That night at home, I was doing the dishes in the kitchen and I was still hearing the applause in my head and at one point I turned and looked out the kitchen door and there he was with those eyes. Of course it was all in my head again, my brain turning against me, but this time I thought I could hear what he wanted to say. He was saying, “You think you’ve done something, telling stories about how for me you did nothing?” And he was there that night when I was trying to get to sleep again and I started pushing him out of my mind all over again.
But a couple months later I ran into Father JFK in the hallway of the school and he said, “Congratulations, Kevin.” I thought, What praise am I going to get now that I’m not sure I completely deserve? He said, “This year we had five times as many applicants for the Peru retreat and seven times as many applications for the Appalachian retreat. And at Jesuit schools in Chicago, Indianapolis, and New York where we sent copies of your speech, they saw increases in applicants for mission retreats too. The one thing damn near every young man said in his application was that he knew he had to do something because of your speech.”
It was too much for me to process. But then he said, “See? This is what we mean. When you told that story, you were a Man For Others.”
And I thought, Okay, then. That I can do.
Kevin Allison is the creator and host of the RISK! live show & podcast. RISK! podcast is the winner of an ECNY Award for Best Podcast, and has been downloaded tens of millions of times to date. Kevin started his comedy career on the legendary sketch series The State on MTV. In 2011, Kevin and co-created The Story Studio, a school dedicated to teaching people from all walks of life to turn their most meaningful experiences into powerful self-expression.