In the cozy cove of Hillside Cafe, University Spokesman Jack Dunn stood before an overflowing crowd of students at Tuesday night’s Agape Latte. In a talk titled “Love Actually,” Dunn asked students to give a different kind of gift this Christmas: love.
“Tonight I want to tell you two stories,” Dunn said. “One of love lost, and one of love unrealized.”
As a student at Boston College, Dunn was a big brother through the Big Brother Association of Boston to a 10-year-old boy from Dorchester named John. John’s father abandoned him, his mother, and two brothers at Christmas time a few years before. At first, John was quiet around his new brother, unsure if he was trustworthy.
Slowly, John became comfortable around Dunn. The brothers would go out for walks in the neighborhood, play catch, and occasionally go to wrestling matches at the former Boston Garden. They spent four to five hours with one another each week. Dunn said that John felt like a real brother to him.
John struggled in school, but Dunn encouraged him to put more time in, to “become a student.” A few weeks later, on report card day, Dunn drove to Dorchester. He watched as John sprinted down from the top step of his triple-decker apartment, report card in hand. He’d made the honor roll.
“I told him I was so proud,” Dunn said. “Then this tough little city kid burst into tears. No man ever said that to him.”
John was an usher at Dunn’s wedding. He started school at Northeastern and struggled at first, but as he grew in self-confidence, he began to thrive.
Before the start of John’s sophomore year of college at Northeastern University, he went to the Dunns’ apartment in Quincy for dinner. He told Dunn he wanted to be a lawyer and get his mother out of the projects.
“But that night was the last time we ever spoke,” Dunn said.
After dinner, John went out with his friends in Dorchester. His big brother pleaded with him not to go, but as a kid born and raised in Boston, a place that prizes loyalty above all else, John went. He and his friends went to a house party where a fight broke out. John was stabbed to death on a street corner just a few steps away from where he was born.
John’s murder shattered Dunn’s heart. He turned inward and isolated himself. He did not want to confront the pain of grief. Yet one day, a Jesuit that Dunn knew from Boston College High School came to visit him at home. He was worried about his former student.
“He told me, ‘I know from my own experience that it costs a lot to love someone, to give yourself away. But what’s the alternative to living your life without loving?’ I want you to honor John’s memory by loving again,” Dunn said.
The Dunns followed the priest’s advice and had four children, the first of whom they named John.
Even though Dunn suffered a great loss when his little brother died, he still professed a message of giving selfless love.
“I want you to know that the perfect gift is you,” Dunn said. “Give yourself away to someone who needs your love. That’s the spirit of Agape.”
The crowd was still, processing Dunn’s words. He then transitioned into a second story about his grandfather.
Dunn’s grandfather was put up for adoption at birth, but knew nothing else about his past. Dunn described him as a difficult man who fought a lifelong battle with alcohol addiction, carrying the weight, Dunn said, of feeling like his mother never loved him.
“I want you to know that the perfect gift is you. Give yourself away to someone who needs your love. That’s the spirit of Agape.”
—Jack Dunn, University Spokesman
Dunn’s cousin Maureen, heartbroken about her grandfather’s sadness, began to investigate his past. Eventually, after working through Boston’s public records, she found a folder with the name “Bridgette Nevins” on it. This was her grandfather’s mother.
Nevins was an Irish immigrant who worked as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthy Boston family. She was paid $3 a week. After a few years in the states, Nevins met a man and became pregnant. But that man abandoned her. She approached the Catholic Charitable Bureau of Boston (CCBB), hoping to place her son in foster care until she could reclaim him.
Every week, Nevins sent one of the three dollars she made to the foster care system for her son. She visited him, and tried to follow her son throughout his various moves and her changing jobs.
After a fire in his foster home, Dunn’s grandfather, Francis, was moved to a placement far away from his birth-mother, and eventually, Nevins could no longer find him.
Nevins died shortly after her son moved away. For his whole life, Francis believed his mother did not love him, but the love he coveted was there all along.
“This can be a place that is, at times, unloving,” Dunn said. “The greatest gift God gave us is our ability to love, yet so often, love is the gift we’re most reluctant to give away.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor