So, I had this whole follow-up to the Better Angels piece underway to my July 30th question using my own thoughts, as well as additional wisdom from Steven Pinker’s 2011 book,The Better Angels of Our Nature.
On August 8, I received a message that Matt Sanchez, former gang leader, and good friend – who not only turned his own life around, but helped hundreds more at-risk youth do the same – had “…peacefully passed away surrounded by his family.”
While I had known for months that Matt was battling liver cancer whenever I saw him he looked well, optimistic and had e-mailed another in a long line of crazy jokes to me.
You never know how big a loss can be until someone you care about is gone.
Matt’s memorial service was held in the center of the community where he served at-risk youth through his AllForOne program for the last 20 years of his life.
In helping to arrange his memorial service, his brother-in-law and best friend, Rich Munoz and I were talking about the turnout, expecting at least 600, perhaps 800 friends and family to attend. On August 25, approximately 1,800 people filled the orchestra and balcony levels. People were standing in the isles, the back of the theater while additional crowds packed the lobby out to the street. Matt would have been pleased.
In preparing my own tribute, I revisited Lincoln’s words and was struck by similarities in the character issues both Lincoln and Matt faced.
With a great Civil War alarmingly at hand, Lincoln spoke to those seven states that had already left the union. He spoke of responsibility, commitment and honor. Although the language was different, in dealing with confrontations, Matt spoke to his AllForOne youth with equally powerful words articulating that same ethical values.
Lincoln: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Matt: “Look, this is the time, right here. This is where everything that we’ve done in the program; this is where it counts, right here.”
“You better tell everybody, right now, how much you love ‘em because, if you go through with this, you’re not going to see them again.
“Now, if you really love ‘em, you wouldn’t think of yourself right now. You’d think of him, then you’d think about his parents and everybody else because that’s who’s going to be left.
“And so they knew. They knew that when I tell them, or when some of our mentors talk to these kids, they could see it in our eyes; they could hear it in our voice, that what we’re telling them is true. They know that we’ve lived it; that we’re still living through it.
“They looked at each other… And they walked away from the fight…. And I was proud of them.”
Lincoln: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched – as surely they will be – by the better angels of our nature.”
“Matt was not a perfect man,” I told the audience. “None of us are. But time and again, he demonstrated those better angels. He stood for peace over conflict, courage over fear, compassion over indifference, humility over arrogance, and love over hate.
“The best way we can keep Matt’s legacy alive is for each of us to demonstrate those qualities in our own lives. And when we are tested – as surely we will be – to ask ourselves: What would Matt do? How would he handle this?
“All of us here have been the beneficiaries of Matt’s many acts of selflessness, and our lives are all the richer for his commitment to that same excellence he saw in each of us – our better angels.”
For his dedication to at-risk youth, Matt was honored in 2000 with a Certificate of Commendation from the State of California, The California Wellness Foundation’s California Peace Prize, and the Santa Barbara County Probation Department’s 1999 Distinguished Service Award.
And he was an invaluable friend.