I am driving through the Northwoods of Wisconsin, talking to a friend, a man I know very well, on the phone. Tall, snow-covered pines line the ditches; gray overcast hovers. The man and I are catching up, chatting about our lives. The tone of his voice becomes shameful, reluctant. My gaze moves over the wide, open road ahead as I hear his story. His words come slowly as he admits that he is on a leave of absence from his job after he said a racial slur while in a casual conversation with his colleagues. He is not allowed to work or earn money; he is expected to apologize to every one of his co-workers personally. He is humbled, broken. And yet he remains surprised. “I don’t know why I said it … I’m not that kind of person …” I keep driving. I don’t know what to say.
I am a newly professed sister teaching at a high school on Chicago’s South Side with a mission to serve African-American boys. I am learning to listen. I listen to my students when they explain why they need an extension on their assignments, when one says he spent the whole night in the ER with his cousin who was shot as they played ball in the park. I listen to my students when they come to class without…
I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.
But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.
I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.
When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”
I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.
The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”
I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”
“This is different.”
“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”
“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”
“He’s the best.”
“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”
They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.
“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”
“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.
I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”
They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”
“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.
I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.
When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback — but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students — many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling — that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?
“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”
We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.
Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.
“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”
At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.
“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.
“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.
“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”
“Tell us another one!” a third student said.
To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love — why you are in love — with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.
But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.
So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
What image of Mary. the mother of God, do you remember seeing as a child? When you close your eyes and imagine Mary today, who do you see?
What color is her hair? Her eyes? Her skin? What type of clothes is she wearing in your imagination?
As a kid growing up in a tight-knit Catholic community in the 1990s, most, if not all, of the images that I remember seeing of Mary were with white skin and brown hair. I can’t remember if her eyes were blue or brown, but I definitely remember her skin being the same pale white as my own.
Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too much about those representations of Mary until last year when a friend reached out to me to request a commissioned painting.
He was working as a high school teacher at a Catholic school and was interested in commissioning a painting of a “historically accurate” Mary for his course on the New Testament and social justice.
He did some research into anthropological findings about historical Mary and sent me some reference photos of young Palestinian women from that time period. He made a point that her clothes should be un-dyed, a representation of the poverty in her native Galilee and the humble social status of Mary and her family.
I was amazed. I found myself staring into the deep, dark eyes of these young women, admiring their beautiful brown skin and gorgeous, thick, black hair. I saw nothing of the pearly white Mary that I once knew. Had I been duped?
The answer to that question cannot be reduced to scapegoating some imagined mastermind who managed to dupe Catholics worldwide for decades, but I do think the answer has a whole lot to do with white supremacy.
So I accepted the commission, eager to paint this historically accurate Mary and humbled by the opportunity to play a part in this image, which would reach the classroom of young and impressionable (and likely white) Catholic high school students.
And I started thinking more about what I knew about this whitewashed version of Mary, which is so central to Catholic culture.
I remembered being taught in school about the Neave forensic anthropological reconstruction of Jesus, but how could that one lesson really compete with the whitewashed depictions of the Holy Family surrounding the rest of my Catholic upbringing?
And I realized that this is precisely how white supremacy works: whiteness dominates our everyday lives so completely that we almost don’t even notice it, much less question it.
Any historian, anthropologist, or high school religion teacher could tell us that the historical Mary was definitively not white. Yet how many whitewashed images of Mary go unnoticed and unquestioned in our parishes, homes and classrooms still today?
It is tempting as Catholic white people, I think, to reject any notion of white supremacy as other than us. We wish to associate white supremacy with the violence and hate that we see on the news and can hardly imagine that such violence has anything to do with us.
Many of us white people struggle to see white supremacy as an integral part of the culture we participate in daily.
But we don’t have to look any further than our white images of Mary to see the white supremacy alive in our communities today.
While it may be difficult to see the violence in a whitewashed depiction of Mary, maybe we can see the violence in the ways we outcast, punish and dehumanize the brown and black immigrants and refugees suffering at the hands of our countries’ domestic and foreign policies.
Maybe we can reflect on the ways that we admire and revere the white depictions of the Holy Family but struggle to empathize with people of color on the margins of our society.
Can we start by imagining how our concept of God and Spirit and community might have been transformed if we had grown up seeing the Mother of God as she really was, with beautiful brown skin, deep, dark eyes and thick, black hair?
Can we imagine how that transformation might have opened our hearts and minds to see God and Spirit in more than our white reflection?
What would it look like for each of us to start replacing the whitewashed Biblical images in our parishes, offices, classrooms and homes with historically accurate images? What other actions might we take to open up conversations within our white communities about the violence of whitewashing our faith and our history?
I believe that we have a lot of work to do as white people, and changing the whitewashed images of Mary in our midst is just one action we can take to dismantle the systemic problems of white supremacy and racism. Taking concrete actions in our faith communities and in our faith lives is one place to start.
Annemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.
My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.
A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)
Oh God, who desire not the death of sinners,
but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers
and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life
after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
(Prayer for Blessing and Distribution of Ashes)
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
dust, I am
we all are
a fragment of a larger whole
floating through the open air
only visible to the naked eye
when illumined by light
some days I am
certain I was once
a piece of His flesh
and now I am floating
trying to reunite
with my maker
my true home
most days I am
like a fragment
of an ignored
or crumb of
yet the grace
the dust of me,
of us all
is an offering
able to unite
to give life
may this true love