Chaplain's ministry breaks through to those scarred by violence

March 15, 2013



The first gunshot hit his shoulder. The second shot took him down. The third shot got jammed.

Still Cesar Galan was sure he was dying.

"I thought, 'Here we go,'" recalled Galan. "I looked straight up at the moon and I was at peace. I noticed the moon and sky and thought to myself, 'It's such a beautiful world. Why am I only noticing it on my last day?'"

Only a few feet away, his brother was dying, shot by the same assailant, a neighborhood thug with a grudge.

Galan, 28 at the time, and his brother were brought to St. Francis Medical Center located in Lynwood, Calif., in one of Los Angeles County's poorest and most violent neighborhoods. Chaplain Br. Richard Hirbe, fsp, told Galan his brother was brain-dead.

"I asked him if I could see my brother one last time," recalled Galan. "I was just in the next room over, but I was in bed with all of those machines. They rolled me there so I could say good-bye. It was the turning point of my life."

Eleven years later, Galan is now Br. Galan, a member of the Friars of the Sick Poor of Los Angeles. Although he did not fully recover from the shooting — Galan is paralyzed from the waist down — he found a new life serving as a chaplain to the patients of St. Francis.

"He's been doing a lot of magic," said Br. Hirbe. "His credential is his chair. He does things no one else can do simply because he has the experience of living in the neighborhood and people can relate to him."

'Teach me to fly'
As chaplain, Br. Hirbe had ministered to hundreds of victims of gang warfare, drive-by shootings and senseless acts of brutality. Still, he never encountered a patient like Galan.

"After we came back from his brother's room, I told him it's not over," said Br. Hirbe, director of spiritual care and ethics at St. Francis. "I said this is the day you wish you were never born because there is a lot pain coming. That's when I told him he was paralyzed from the chest down and that he would never walk again. He said to me, 'Brother, if I'm never going to walk then teach me to fly.' It took away my breath. It was an incredible moment of grace."

Galan embarked on a grueling year of rehab and Br. Hirbe stayed by his side. During this time, Galan started to contemplate a new life helping other patients.

To be honest, his old life offered few options. A former gang member, Galan had no education or money. The kids in his neighborhood never aspired to college. Rather, they weighed the pros and cons of the various penitentiaries that housed their friends and relatives. Gang members from the neighborhood would return from jail with bulging muscles, connections in the drug trade and the respect of the neighborhood. It wasn't until Galan was 15 years old that he realized the ex-cons actually lived a pathetic existence.

"I was at a party for a guy who just got out," recalled Br. Galan. "I really looked up to him, and he asked me for $40. That was the moment when I connected the dots. This is a guy who had to ask a 15-year-old kid for money so he could get by. I knew I had to separate myself."

Galan married and had two children, but his marriage failed before he was shot.

Street cred
Galan started as a volunteer at St. Francis helping patients with spinal cord injuries. Then Br. Hirbe hired him part-time to counsel other young victims of violence. St. Francis treats an average of six to eight drive-by shooting victims every week. Ultimately, Galan completed his clinical pastoral education and now serves as one of the hospital's 10 chaplains.

"Sometimes there are these kids who don't want to talk to anybody," said Br. Galan. "I don't always share my story because I want the experience to be about them. But other times I do, and it opens a door. It's trying to get them to see beyond today."

Br. Galan recalls one patient — 21 years old, a father, a shooting victim and a paraplegic just like him.

"I went to go see him, and he said, 'All of this over stupid s---,'" said Br. Galan. "He died two days later. We see a lot of terrible things here. But someone needs to provide comfort."

Better man for it
Br. Galan's experience also gave birth to the Friars of the Sick Poor of Los Angeles, a community of Catholic men Br. Hirbe started in 2001 shortly after meeting Br. Galan.

"I told Cardinal Mahony that I wanted to open a flight school — a place where the blind could see, the mute could speak and the paralyzed can fly," said Br. Hirbe.

Most of the community's nine members work in health care. They strive to give patients meaning to their suffering.

"God is not in what happens to us; he's in what we do with what happens to us," explained Br. Hirbe. "God doesn't send the heart attack, but he gives you the grace and the stamina to work through it. Your baby didn't die because God needed a baby in heaven. That's bad theology. Your baby died because (the baby) had a congenital abnormality or you were on drugs. We can work through that."

Br. Galan shares that belief, and he joined the Friars of the Sick Poor as a novice in December 2011. Ultimately he hopes to enter the priesthood once his youngest son starts college.

Br. Galan said that when he was first injured, he considered getting married again. "The more I thought about it, though, I started to think maybe I should surrender myself to God and see where does that take me. It has taken me to a wonderful place. I'm thankful for my experience. It has humbled me 100 percent and has made me the person I am today. I would do it all over again except for losing my brother. It has made me a better person, a better father, a better friend."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.