The Beginning: Burning Bush Story

I had been living with this sage-like friar named Fr. Benedict Groeschel - discerning a call to the priesthood. This other guy, Joe Campo, invited me to come help at an event that touched all of us beyond words, but here is the story at the heart of a movement.

It all began on a hot, Summer day in the Bronx. 100 degree hot. Kids everywhere. All the time. Nothing to do. Except for what "the street" could offer. Drugs. Gangs. Vandelism. Violence.

Word got out that something was going on at the local church. Kids just started showing up. Mostly out of curiousity.

When I got there, music was flowing. I followed the sound and found a large, regular gym the size of two basketball courts with hundreds of kids kneeling or sitting on little carpet squares. In their midst was this unique structure about six feet tall. A pyramid with shelves. Candles all around. On top was this thing called a "Monstrance." They said it was Jesus. Called it a Burning Bush. Something about God's Holy Presence.

The event was led by Friars of the Renewal. Men young and older committed to living for Jesus Christ in the manner of St. Francis. They were like the candles. Radiating something genuine, different but real. More. Hard to explain.

So let me tell you about James and Rocco. James was a skinny kid with a quick witt. Rocco was a humungous Italian kid. Built like a bull. Each had a sense of swirling inner rage. Each commanded the respect of their respective gangs. Yes, gangs. Throughout the day and into the next, leaders were doing their best to keep James and Rocco - and their gangs - separated. You could feel the intensity. The hatred.

On the second night it happened. A priest read the gospel about the woman who touched Jesus' cloak. She was healed. The homily was simple: All who touch Jesus' cloak are healed. The priest said he would process with Jesus. He challenged them to reach out with expectation.

You have to picture the setting.  An ordinary gym. Hundreds of street-wise kids. Pitch black, except for a multitude of flickering candles around the Burning Bush. The priest processed with Jesus. As he passed the left corner I noted James reaching out, like a joke, if not a dare to the promise of God's present power.

When James touched the priest's garment, something happened. He put his head down. His shoulders began to shake. Just a little at first. Then violently. What initially seemed like laughter came pouring out... a growing crecendo... him trying to hold it back... head in hands, rocking back and forth, then finally just crying out in uncontrollable sobbing.

Who knows what kind of pain, anger, shame, bitterness, hatred, alienation those tears contained, but all were aware of the undeniable, overwhelming Presence of Someone, embracing him... and all of us, beyond what we could see.

What happened next was even more incredible. From across the room, the furthest corner, Rocco stood up. All eyes watched as this towering figure made his way slowly over to James.

Rocco reached down to his nemesis, took hold of his shoulders, seemingly lifting him off the ground... and embraced him. Amidst the music and sobs now joined by many others in the room, Rocco shouted with an abandon I've never heard before, "I'm sorry. I'm SORRY! I'M SORRY!!" James reciprocated the embrace. Heaven's floodgates opened.

Later on someone shared that a member of Rocco's family had killed someone from James' family. That day the seeds of war, hatred and violence -- of lust, prejudice, indifference, pride, selfishness -- all those things we battle with somewhere in our depths, were proven no match for the love of God in Jesus Christ.

And if He can do that for two gang members in the Bronx, what is He prepared to do for us?

Jesus Christ. Beyond cliche. Beyond mediocrity. Beyond externals. Beyond obligation. Beyond club. The name above all names. His very Presence. Breaking through. Awakening us to our true identity. Life-giving, transforming, revitalizing power to change the world. This is what He came to do. And it begins with us.

I got the message. The next year I found myself studying for the priesthood at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. God sent me with the seeds to plant this transforming Encounter with Him in the form of a weekend event called Mount 2000. Since then, 17 years ago, over 1500 kids a year have come to know Jesus Christ.

Going back to the Bronx, back to the Cross, back to the heart of God at the very beginning of time... God's providential hand continues up to this very moment. He sees you reading this. Now. It was planned.  (In fact, while writing this-- I checked out the site. Check out their chosen theme for this year).

There is a truly awesome, unveiling, epic movement of faith.. While it is taking a concrete shape yet to be unveiled in the coming months, the heart is far more than logistics, but the Logos-- Jesus Christ Himself, inviting us to come Encounter Him... to find ourselves transformed in Him.

Let the WORD go out.
Transformation of the world begins with us.