The Hot Potato Shop, with the initiative of Oliver Thorne (Yr 12), secured this week’s guest speaker, Luke Kennedy. It was among the most powerful, pastoral and practical presentations I have listened to in a long while. I was wondering why I was drawn to the story being told. Sure, Luke was an engaging speaker – in fact, devastatingly honest – and this was a very dramatic story. But it was the story of a journey. And it was a journey reflecting so many Ignatian themes. And without trying to draw too long a bow, this was Ignatius’ story told over. The young Ignatius, we know, was “a lad”. He was a street-fighter in his youth. He regularly drew his weapon in conflicts. He wore all the right attire that marked him out as a member of a particular gang. He faced court for his offences. But, in time, he found a new way forward. This was Luke’s story, too. In sharing his story, Luke kept returning to a constant theme: the search for the true self. The voices that draw one away from that true self. And the masks that we wear – masks of expectation, masks that protect, and masks to hide our true self.
As a young boy growing up in Sydney’s south-west, Luke (whose family had a boxing background) soon earned the title of a fighter in school. So many fights, in fact, that he was expelled before his School Certificate. The first mask of the fighter, he said. He gravitated towards the streets of Redfern and Kings Cross, establishing himself in a gang. Working his way to the top by his prowess in the streets. Fighting and robbing. He would note the difference in language and tone of voice with his family compared with his ‘mates’. The mask of the gang member. A violent one-on-one with an opposing gang member, and being close to death, bequeathed him the mask of the stab victim. Then the cocktails of drugs that characterised the lifestyle. The mask of the drug-dealer. There followed the heart-rending story of an innocent young friend being plied with drink at Town Hall, having an altercation with the Transport Police, jumping between train and platform only to have an arm and a hand severed. It resulted in a distraught Luke then fighting with police and an arrest. Now the mask of the criminal. Many, many more chilling and saddening episodes. Through all of this, Luke said he knew what his ‘true self’ was, but powerful voices within were calling him away. So often in his mind, “I don’t want to do this”, “I don’t want to be here”, “I don’t want to be like this”, but expectations and patterns drew him elsewhere.
When Ignatius speaks about discernment of spirits, he is talking about the movements of spirits, of feelings, of ‘voices’ within, which can pull us in different ways. He knew of their power to draw us to God, to our true selves, or to draw us in other ways, less than life-giving ones, even death-dealing choices. Discernment is testing these voices, sorting the true from the false, and following the former. In time, and capped by a long hospital stay recovering from a drug-influenced road accident in Thailand which resulted in most of the major bones in his body broken (shades of Ignatius?), Luke was able to sift through all these ‘selves’, all these characters and masks, to reclaim his true self.
Luke went from a 120kg directionless street fighter, shedding nearly 50kg, to become a NSW Amateur Boxer of the Year and take a State title. He has written a book, Stabbed Ego. Luke and his wife started Punchys gym in Oatley. It specialises in nutrition and training, and won Best Start Up Business in the Asia Pacific Region 2013. What is more, young people with disabilities or otherwise doing it tough get a special welcoming. Not surprising – a ‘conversion’, a return to core values, so often leads a person to outreach, to a concern for the other, to help them physically and emotionally.
It was an address that left its mark. Our young men were riveted. Meanwhile, through the talk, Luke’s dad was sitting at the back of the McDonald Theatrette. He was intermittently reading a small bible. I quietly said to him later that he must be very proud of his son. He was. He also told me it was the first time he had heard his son speak, and the experience brought him some tears. “I prayed for my son every day,” he said. He knew the source of the transformation. As for Luke, he has a large cross tattooed on his leg, but he is “still searching”.
The Danish philosopher, theologian and poet, Søren Kierkegaard, once remarked, “We create ourselves by our choices.” Luke offered the boys such a life lesson this week.