Saturday, March 17, 2012


. .
Maybe you saw or read that this past Wednesday a funeral was held for our U.S. congressional Representative Donald Payne. His body was taken care of by Whigham’s funeral parlor down the block (yes, the one that took care of Whitney Houston recently). Early this week our school received a phone call suggesting that our students might like to form an honor guard for the congressman (a friend of the school’s) as his funeral cortege passed in front of the school on Tuesday afternoon on its way to Metropolitan Baptist church just a couple of blocks up Springfield Avenue.
It was an honor, I thought, to be asked to participate in the funeral of such a good man, such a great role model for our students. So on Tuesday at about 3:30 the solemn funeral cortege came slowly down the street led by six motorcycles. Since the procession was going only a few blocks and the weather was sunny and mild, virtually all of the mourners were on foot.
The coffin was plainly visible on a flat wagon pulled by two black horses whose hooves punctuated the solemn silence with an eerie, repetitive clip-clop. Lined up along the curb in two straight lines on both sides of King Boulevard for a whole city block were our 540 kids dressed in their black school “hoodies.” That many teenagers standing at reverent attention in perfect order is a sight in itself, but coupled with the solemnity of the occasion the scene was elevated to something close to surreal. It was so impressive – I was so proud of our students.

The dozens of mourners walking between the two lines of students included Mayor Booker, the Newark City Council, the County Board of Freeholders, members of the Newark Board of Education, and many others. Two-thirds of the young men standing at attention were African- American, another large percentage Latino, reflecting pretty well the population of the people in the funeral procession itself.

I stood at the curb dressed in my habit alongside my students. One of the mourners in the procession actually broke ranks and came over to me. She whispered, “Thank you! This is so impressive! So beautiful! Thank you!” Then she scurried back to her place leaving me feeling really proud and grateful.

The reason I’m writing all this is not to brag about our kids -- well, okay, that too -- but to relate a remark that was made by one of our eighth-graders as the solemn cortege passed between the two rows of black-clad teenagers. "Wow! This is really nice! When I die, I wish they would have something like this for me!”
The youngster’s comment has been on my mind for the past few days, giving birth to all sorts of reflections. One powerful image that came to me was not of my funeral cortege moving slowly between two rows of people lined up along the curb, though. It was of me right now, very much alive, living and praying and working, struggling and rejoicing on my Christian journey. I’m thinking of Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

I imagine that along the route of my life’s journey right now are arranged in two rows facing each other, all the people who have helped me to become who I am: brother monks, professors, colleagues, relatives, and friends. They have all gone to glory ahead of me and are now cheering me on, encouraging me.

But there are countless other people, too. It took me a moment at first to realize who they are. They're my ancestors in the faith, the mothers and fathers who over the centuries passed on their religious faith to their children, who in turn passed it on to theirs so that ultimately I could receive the gift of faith as well. I don’t recognize any of them, of course, but they're all cheering for me. Among them are poor Irish peasants who struggled as subsistence farmers. There are Germans, too, who may have had to struggle to keep their Catholic faith in a Protestant area of Germany in the 1600’s. They’re shouting encouragement to me when I get discouraged, telling me not to grow weary, not to give up.

The line of witnesses keeps stretching down the street and back over centuries, with the countless mothers and fathers in the faith who each kept the faith alive in their hearts so that I could believe today. They are like the spectators lining the route of the New York Marathon to spur the runners on with their shouts of support.

Frankly, I don’t really care if I have kids lining the curb for my funeral procession; what’s important is the cloud of witnesses, those who who are pulling for me right now when I need the encouragement. At my funeral it’ll be too late for encouragement.

One day I trust that I’ll take my place in the great grandstand and become part of the cloud of witnesses to cheer on the following generations who are still in the struggle. But then, it occurred to me, WHY WAIT UNTIL I'M DEAD to cheer people on? Why can’t I be a source of courage and strength right now to that student of mine who recently started cutting himself? Or several of the kids who were standing on that curb Tuesday afternoon angry and depressed because their father is not in their lives? Couldn’t I be of more help, too, to some of my brother monks? Cheering from the heavenly grandstand is easy; the hard work is cheering people on right now despite my own tiredness or busyness or other distractions.

The reason so many people loved Donald Payne was that he acted exactly that way during his life, and used his elected office to be a source of help and encouragement to people many of whom who very few others they could rely on. He spent his life being that kind of a “witness” for others. His example is an encouragement to me to try to do the same myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment