The Spirit that has Animated Our Mission

tom nolanIn late February, our Regional PD Day for the Midwest Region featured a keynote address on “The Founding Spirit of our Mission” from Tom Nolan, founder of Loyola Academy and Access Academies there.  As we pause to consider our personal and professional ministry in context of Holy Week services, I offer the first half of his address as a fitting reflection.  (The second half will follow in a later post.)

What is the spirit that has animated the NativityMiguel mission? It seems to me that there is a common source of the spirit that has animated the NativityMiguel mission. I suspect, at bottom, that this animating spirit, this urge, this internal demand that we do something, that we do schools for children who’ve been short-changed, who’ve been placed in circumstances that impede their flourishing, is a sense of social justice.

There are lots of ways to consider social justice but let me use a framework developed by David Hollenbach, an ethicist at Boston College. Hollenbach proposes a set of priorities, based on the Catholic human rights tradition that can be used in judging social policies and social systems. I think that this set of priorities may well describe elements of social justice that pertain to the mission of the NativityMiguel schools. 

The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.

In my experience, you, and all of us involved in the NativityMiguel schools, have said in no uncertain terms that the needs of our students and their families, the need for an education that will lift them out of the morass of poverty, is more important than the educational wants of the affluent. Not that we begrudge rich kids a good education – especially if that education is one which instills in them the need to sacrifice on behalf those less fortunate. But we have taken a stance that our students should have an education that goes beyond the normal. That’s why we have a longer school day, a longer school year, a method for ensuring high school completion; that’s why we operate with small school enrollments that foster a sense of community and full human growth, not just meritocratic and individualistic accomplishments. We’re serious about this commitment to the poor. That’s why our cost-per-student rivals some of the most affluent public school districts in our metropolitan communities – money that comes not from the easily attained property taxes, but on the hard sought, generous support of our donors, many of whom make serious and enduring sacrifices for our children.

The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerful.

I think it’s safe to say that among the powerful in this nation, many are not particularly committed to the freedom of the dominated. As but one example, here in Missouri, in a state that is already notorious for its unwillingness to help those in need through publicly funded social programs, we recently had legislation proposed that would pay for improvements to roads and bridges with funds taken from programs for low-income children. From resistance to increases in the minimum wage, to cuts in food stamps, to the maintenance of school district boundaries that isolate poor students – there is no question that the preservation of the status of the privileged is often maintained on the backs of our children, and millions of others who make up the more than 20% of American children who live in poverty. So how are we attempting to “free the dominated?” I think we do so by following the standards that guide our schools. We set forth a path for our students that is more than an economic escalator. It is a path that sees faith development, holistic education, engagement with families and a range of other factors as essential contributions to the full formation of students. We “free the dominated” when we equip the children of the underclass with the an education that allows them to excel academically, that affords them a level of self-confidence that permits them to see the privileged as their equals, that moves them toward real equality of opportunity as they move through college and into the world beyond. In the end, “we free the dominated” when we work, in the words of Pedro Arrupe, to fashion the faith of our students so that they are “…..completely convinced that love of God, which does not issue in justice for others, is a farce.” 

The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over the preservation of an order which excludes them.

More than 25 years ago I ran for a seat on the St. Louis Board of Education and spent six years attempting to improve a district that had over 90% of its 45,000 children qualifying for free and reduced lunch. I had very few successes, sometimes because of my own shortcomings, but in many cases because the deck was dramatically and intentionally stacked against us.   I became convinced then, as I am now, that systems (educational, legal, economic, whatever) which exclude the marginalized – and they often do so by isolating rather than formally excluding – cannot be fixed but must be fractured and refashioned. Again, I think that you who are engaged in the NativityMiguel schools are fostering the participation of the marginalized in systems and structures from which they have been excluded. You do so with family engagement – showing parents and guardians that they are welcome as full partners in the task of education, showing them that they can make a fundamental difference in the schooling of their children. You do so by showing your board members and your donors that their engagement, their sacrifices, can improve not only the lives of specific children, but they can set an example that other private and public schools can imitate. The very participatory nature of your schools, with its focus on spiritual/moral formation in the context of community, is a challenge to systems of exclusion that place decision making in the hands of the few.

So, if our mission is basically a quest for justice, how do we keep it dynamic, how do we keep it vibrant, in our lives and in the lives of colleagues and collaborators? I have two suggestions: first, stay “needs driven” and, second, “keep up the quest for the divine.”

Needs driven.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I suggest that you are motivated by your students and that keeping their needs fresh in your minds is essential. It’s essential because the daily exposure to children who bring a lot baggage to school, much of it unpleasant, can become tiring. Our students are messy. They can give new meaning to the terms “unruly,” “at-risk,” “under-serviced,” “emotionally-challenged,” “academically-deprived” “economically-disadvantaged” and so on. But most of us got into this business because we learned about the hardships, the obstacles, the impediments that the students we serve face every day. Because of our sense of their needs, and because we have been moved by their willingness to struggle with and overcome their needs, they stopped being “those kids,” and became “our children.”

So how do we keep fresh a sense of their needs? Again, you know this probably better than I do, but we must listen rather than lecture, we must ask rather than advise. We must get into their homes and their neighborhoods, we must interact with their parents and their guardians; we must avoid the temptation to presume that we know all about their circumstances and, instead, we must immerse ourselves, as best we can, in the fullness – for good and bad – of their lives. And, if we do this, we’ll find that rather than contempt, familiarity breed fondness. If we take the time, and in many cases the psychic energy, to better know our students and their families, I think we will continue to find ourselves moved by their needs. I think, too, that our connection, our solidarity, with them will lead us into a greater unity of effort, and our sense of mission will flourish.

Quest for the Divine:

I think that an ongoing effort to seek God, to find God in all things, is a natural correlative of being attuned to the needs of our students. For as we get close, and stay close, to our students, we may find that our faith, our religious rootedness, is both enriched and expanded. But it takes positive effort: We must look for the transcendent in the temporal, the eternal in the everyday.   We must give ourselves the time and space to see that, as the poet Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Simply put, we will keep our sense of mission alive by looking for God in the particulars of our lives as educators in the endeavor that is NativityMiguel.

Now, sometimes God’s presence, God’s “fingerprints” if you will, aren’t always evident. Or if they are kind of evident, they don’t fall into the categories that we think they should. I remember one summer morning at Loyola Academy years ago. The 6th graders were preparing to plant a garden next to the playground. They’d put together the wooden boarder around the plot, raked and prepared the soil, measured off equal sections so each student has his own small area. Now it was time for each of them to be given the seeds for his section. Mr. Magee, the science teacher, had a variety of seeds and was standing by the garden, flipping through the packets, obviously uncertain about who would get what seeds. As you know the uncertainty of a teacher is always an invitation to bedlam on the part of students. So the boys were pretty animated and began shouting out their preferences. William, a tall boy, wanted corn. Magee agreed and gave him the seeds for corn. Another boy, Laron, was asking for carrots, and after finding the right packet, Mr. Magee handed those to Laron. But it was the most excited and vocal of the boys, Kenneth, who stumped Magee when he kept demanding: “Mr. Magee, Mr. Magee, I want the one that grows bacon.” Yes, sometimes the revelations that we discern aren’t profound or pious and sometimes they’re humorous, even goofy.

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