Catholic Campaign: God on Their Minds

I had never approached a telephone call with such trepidation as I did on that Friday in the middle of July when I called Sister Theresa, the principal of St. Luke High School in Jersey City. A month earlier she had hired me to teach sophomore U.S. History—but I had not checked the school calendar and did not realize that the first day of school fell on Rosh Hashanah. As an observant Jew, I would have to miss the first day of school.

Did Sister Theresa even know I was Jewish? My religion had not come up in the interview, but maybe she had simply assumed I was Catholic. It would all come to a head now, I thought, the first time in my twenty-two-year-old life when I would be faced with the fact that I was a religious minority.

But Sister Theresa made this potentially awkward situation as pleasant as listening to the choir in synagogue. She asked me if I needed to take off the second day of the holiday as well, and added that she was looking forward to working with me whenever I started. In doing so, Sister Theresa began a year where I would not only develop a great respect and affection—indeed, reverence—for the Catholic Church, but where my own Jewish faith would be deepened and strengthened as well. Sister Theresa began the year by setting a tone of respect for religious practices that would be continued throughout my year at St. Luke.

The kids at St. Luke lived through the same tribulations and had to overcome the same obstacles as their neighbors in the Jersey City public schools and their peers in inner-cities across the country. One morning during my first week of work I noticed that Walt, an outgoing, gregarious student, arrived at school dressed in baggy pants, a designer sweatshirt, and lots of chains instead of the traditional St. Luke uniform of a collared light blue shirt and black polyester pants. It was then that I realized that many of the students came to school dressed in street clothes. This was perhaps my first lesson in the realities of inner-city youth. I learned that if they wore their uniforms on the way to school they would be ridiculed and face serious physical harassment from neighborhood thugs. Knowing this, they arrived in clothes they knew they would have to change out of by 8:15 a.m.

Fortunately for Walt, he was able to attend a school that believed the idea that while clothes may not make the man, they do make a difference. At St. Luke’s, Walt would not only be encouraged to dress properly, but could prosper in an atmosphere where diligence, academic achievement, and intellectual exchange were expected by his teachers and encouraged by his peers.

Early on it became obvious that the best way to get the kids to behave during school was to bring them to Mass. I never knew exactly why but perhaps the reverence and spiritual peace that exist at Mass were able to transcend the classroom setting even after the closing hymn was sung. In a secular society where public acknowledgment of religion often goes no deeper than the question, “What are you doing for Christmas break?,” I was surprised and delighted to be in an environment where the students spoke freely of their love of God and the everyday impact he had on their lives.

The importance of this environment for inner-city kids cannot be over-estimated. Maura, for instance, was one of my best students. She devoured the chapters of Democracy in America that were assigned in class, was always full of questions and frequently full of answers.

Maura herself was Catholic, but most of her classmates were not—most were Protestant, some were Muslim. The reality of this ecumenical flair is common to Catholic schools throughout American inner-cities. The amazing fact is that the Catholic Church devotes enormous financial, spiritual, and personnel resources to serving kids in American inner-cities who may or may not be Catholic.

Whenever I brought this up with any of my Catholic colleagues on the faculty, I was met with bewilderment, as they commonly understood the Church’s ministry to be a call to service of one’s brothers and sisters. Many of my colleagues thought that the Catholic Church could continue to do even more in inner-cities. There is the realization that these Catholics don’t just serve other Catholics, they just serve. Even the sisters who ran the school did not see themselves doing anything extraordinary, as it is ingrained in their vocational response.

As an Orthodox Jew, I felt so at home and found so much in common with these active, faithful Catholics in this inner-city school. We had much in common, save for the fact that they saw their work as simply service while I saw it as an extraordinary vocation.

Author

  • Mark Gerson

    Mark Gerson is author of In the Classroom: Dispaches from an Inner City School that works (Free Press).

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