As one in the crowd

In my imagination, I am a girl of 10 years old, playing tag with my older brother. We are running through the stone streets of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. My calloused feet are well-accustomed to the alleyways and paths, to the steps and hills; I know my way around and am familiar to the rhythms inside these city walls. I know all the best hiding spots and my body is small; I have an advantage over my older brother and can easily jump out to tag him when he runs by.

Photo by Dan Gold, Unsplash

The crowds swarm through the streets, many people still lingering after yesterday’s Passover feast. They have sacrificed much to come pray near the wonder of the temple, I know, but its might and grandeur is ordinary for me. I see it every day. The pilgrims are in my way, they’re making it tough to watch for my brother. Hiding under a cart, I think a bit about this. I see another criminal in chains walk down the street, guided by guards most likely to his trial. Some rabbis walk in front, their faces scowling.

Something is strange about this man. Compared to others, he doesn’t seem to be wicked at all. He isn’t tense or yelling insults at anyone near by. He isn’t cursing the guards. He actually seems to be loving everyone around him, to be at prayer, to be in peace. He seems like he is peace.

I no longer feel interested in tricking my brother, of outsmarting him in our game. I am much more curious about this strange criminal. I decide I am done, and I will meet my brother at home later. I crawl out of my hiding spot and join the crowd, a group of adults who are walking with the strange man, looking gloomy. Some are crying, softly. I can tell from their accents that they are from out of town. Galileans, perhaps?

There is something unusual going on here. I feel drawn into the crowd that I was annoyed with moments ago. I begin to follow along, moving down the road. I tuck my body between the adults, trying to get a look at the man who seems so mysterious, so different. I catch a glimpse of his face and notice how brave he looks.

I wonder if this is the man I heard my mom and grandma murmuring about, Jesus the Galilean, who came to town the other day. People gathered in the street yelled out “Hosanna!” They cheered and waved palm branches. It was a bit of a counterprotest to Pilate who came into town from the other direction, on a big horse, horns announcing his arrival. At least I heard mom say something like that — she was so excited when she talked about it. My grandma laughed in my mom’s face. “Just another one thought to be the Messiah! Ha!”

The chains around his arms and ankles don’t seem to bothering this man now. “Who is he?” I ask a lady wearing blue, her face twisted with concern. She doesn’t really look at me, her gaze is fixed on him. “Jesus, from Nazareth,” she whispers. So it is the Galilean! Why is he in so much trouble now?

I’ve never attended a trial before. I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to enter along with the rest of the crowd. I think about this as I follow the people to the place where Pontius Pilate stays when he’s around. “He has to maintain the illusion of control …” I think how my dad mutters this every time Pilate comes into the city to meet with the rabbis and the troops. I don’t really know what Dad means. I do know, though, that I doubt they care about me or my family at all.

The man, Jesus, stands still. He isn’t grinning but he continues to seem content, as if he is fine with what’s going on. Pilate comes outside to the courtyard where we all are gathered. He looks bothered, like he’d rather be doing something else. He speaks with some of the rabbis — are they the chief priests from the temple? — who I can see now are angrily directing the guards.

“We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Christ, a king!” one of the rabbis says this loudly to Pilate, more like an announcement than a complaint.

Pilate turns to Jesus who still stands quietly, wearing his chains. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks him.

“You say so.” Jesus almost seems unworried as he says this, so calmly.

Pilate then speaks loudly to all of us. “I find this man not guilty,” he says.

One of the priests seems really upset. “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began, even to here!!”

“He’s a Galilean?” Pilate asks. I see that the people are nodding, muttering “yes.” I feel myself nodding too, for I knew the answer as well.

“Well then, take him to Herod! I heard he’s in town now too!” Pilate says.

The chief priests seem frustrated, but they apparently agree that this case falls under Herod’s judgement. They tell the guards to go bring Jesus to Herod, and all of us in the crowd follow along through the streets, past the market. We can’t go inside and see Herod along with Jesus, but I want to know what’s going to happen so I stay close; I wander through a nearby street.

For awhile I join some other children who are chasing birds. When a lady sees that I am admiring the cakes she’s baking over her fire, she offers me one. It is steamy and delicious, almost as good as my mom’s. I thank her with a big smile.

I didn’t wander too far away from Herod’s place, so I could hear the screams when Jesus reemerges. I run over and see that someone has forced some strange clothes upon Jesus. He now wears resplendent robes instead of his simple grubby clothes from before. He’s a little swollen and bloody too. Were they beating him? Some lady in the crowd looks really upset; she was probably the one who screamed. Herod was making fun of him! I doubt Jesus did anything to incite it. Why are people being so mean to him? I am upset too.

The guards begin pulling Jesus forward; the chief priests are close by. The whole crowd starts moving through the streets again. Where are we going now? Oh, back to Pilate’s place, it seems. Some of the people in the crowd are muttering. Are they planning something?

When we get back to Pilate, he stands next to Jesus and makes a big announcement, gesturing to the peaceful man as he speaks. “You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”

As soon as Pilate says this, the people begin to shout. “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!!” So this is what they were planning! They keep shouting it over and over. I am surprised that they’d want Barabbas instead of the gentle man, Jesus. I heard about Barabbas. He was leading all sorts of violent protests, trying to take over. He even killed some people! “Not a man to mess with!” My dad had said.

Pilate seems as confused as I am about their request. “Really? Well, if I do that, what do you want me to do with Jesus?” he asks the people around me.

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” the people all around me are shouting.

Pilate looks at Jesus. Jesus still stands tall, bravely accepting his fate. He pauses before he speaks again. “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore, I shall have him flogged and then release him.”

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” Everyone shouts this phrase over and over. The chant is catching. I am surprised to notice I am yelling the words too, even though I don’t really know what I am saying.

As we shout, I watch Pilate shrug his shoulders and talk to the guards. After a while, a gruff man –Barabbas? — appears among us, looking smug. The chief priests and guards lead the way, and the crowd moves through the streets again. As I follow along, I start to feel frightened. What are they going to do with Jesus?

When I realize that we are moving toward Golgotha I remember that Mom and Dad told me, their tones haunting — that I am not allowed to go there. I start to wonder if I have been away from my home long enough. I am starting to get hungry for lunch.

When I see that they are making Jesus carry a cross, I figure out they are going to kill him. My body clenches in horror. I feel scared and upset. I want to be close to my Mom. Jesus is so peaceful and brave. He seems so good and kind! Why do they want to kill him?

Without understanding, I turn toward home.

Photo by naaman frenkel, Unsplash

White supremacy and me and you

1.

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.

2.

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…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

(Dreamstime / Ben Gingell)

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.