|Photo: Johny Huu Nguyen via AP, Oregonlive|
This Advent season, our nation is divided and confused—by grand jury decisions, Senate CIA reports, and riots in the streets. In some ways, the world has not changed much from first century Palestine, where the Prince of Peace was born into a region divided by religion, race, and political power. When Jesus preached that we should "love our enemies," people were perplexed indeed. In the face of such confusion, it is tempting to throw our hands up and go about the business of "getting ready for Christmas."
From the Ferguson grand jury decision to last Friday's school shooting at Rosemary Anderson HS, we at Jesuit have been trying to make sense of this troubled time. On the night the Ferguson decision was announced, junior Serena Oduro emailed me to say that she, her family, and her friends were experiencing deep hurt and disappointment, whereas many of her white classmates seemed not even to know about the grand jury's decision. Serena asked if she could read a prayer she had written over the PA the next day—a prayer for peace and healing, but also for illumination and awareness.
I was grateful to Serena for asking the Jesuit community to engage the complex issues of race and official power. Over the past three weeks, Jesuit students have asked for the chance to listen to one another, and to speak up. On December 9, as part of our year-long series of alums speaking on leadership, students heard from Sergeant George Weatheroy '73, a 25-year veteran of the Portland Police Department and now Chief of Security for Portland Public Schools.
Sergeant Weatheroy, a former member of the JHS Board of Trustees, has mentored African-American students at Jesuit and St. Andrew Nativity School for many years. Last Tuesday, Sgt. Weatheroy spoke at our Leadership Seminar about the importance of leading with integrity and Christian courage, about not shying away from "straight talk," and about seeing God in all things, including the "other." He reminded students that all of us are on a journey, and that God is with us every step of the way.
Two days later, on December 11, Diversity Director David Blue '93 and Christian Service Director Scott Powers organized a "Speak Up" brownbag lunch session. Over 200 students—freshmen through seniors, students of multiple ethnicities and religions—showed up to listen to one another "speak our truths."
After senior Chrisleine Temple created a sacred space with a lovely prayer, we heard the Speak Up ground rules: 1. Be respectful. 2. Speak in "I" statements. 3. Do not critique the statements of others. 4. Affirm the courage of those speaking up.
In the US, it is very difficult for adults to talk civilly about race. That's why I was so proud of our students' maturity, honesty, insight, and most of all, courage during the Speak Up. For many white students and for this white adult, it was eye-opening to hear students of color share their sometimes-harrowing experiences of being pulled over for "driving while black."
The Speak Up offered a chance for a teacher to say, "When I watched the video of Eric Garner, I just felt so terribly sad." A student expressed her support for the grand jury process, and stated that she "just can't understand the rioting." Another student noted that people of different races and generations seem to have opposing perspectives on recent events: "We seem to be living in two different universes." A junior lamented that "Eric Garner could have been my brother."
Mostly, students listened to one another. In the midst of great sorrow and discord in our country, I could feel the stirrings of hope. A song started playing in my head, one that we have heard on Encounters, in Mass, and at memorial services: "There is a light that can overcome the darkness; there is no darkness that can overcome the light…"
And so we vowed to continue these difficult but necessary conversations.
As we prepare for Christmas, let us remember that God sent His son into this world because we need His example, desperately. We need to love those who are different than we are—a challenge that seems to run contrary to human nature. But there is a way—the way of Christ.
We can only "love our enemies" when we realize they are not enemies. When we listen to one another, seek to understand one another, and speak our truths, we come to empathy. In the process, we invite the Light of the World to shine in shadowy places, and so reveal that we are all actually brothers and sisters, made in His image, yet possessing a glorious diversity.
O come, Emanuel, Christ in us, and make us instruments of your peace.
on Monday December 15