Saturday, April 1, 2017
ECHOS OF SLAVERY?
I have to run to New York this morning to make a presentation as a panelist at a symposium entitled “Slavery on the Cross: Catholics and the ‘Peculiar Institution,’ Praxis and Practice,” at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Here’s my fifteen-minute panel presentation.
I have been invited to speak about St. Benedict's Prep, a school for boys in grades 7 through 12, staffed by the Benedictines of Newark Abbey, located in the center of Newark New Jersey's largest city. We have 560 students: 51% African American, 34% Latino, and 9% white.
St Benedict’s had been a highly regarded boys preparatory school for over 100 years when it closed its doors in 1972 because of declining enrollment, a lack of new vocations in the monastery, and the changing racial makeup of the student body and the neighborhood, from all white to an increasingly minority population.
When the school closed in 1972, half of the monks transferred to another monastery, leaving behind a dozen of us who felt that, because of our Benedictine vow of stability, we shouldn’t simply walk away without asking if, perhaps, God still had more work for us to do in Newark.
Analyzing our situation, we saw that we had empty school buildings, a group of dedicated teachers, most of us with advanced degrees, and, in our city, plenty of young men who were in need of a good secondary education. So, we decided to open a small school for boys. This may seem like a logical, reasonable step until you realize that we had no money, no students, and only a vague idea how to run a school.
Our lack of administrative experience would prove, however, to be a great advantage, because we didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas of how a school must be organized and structured. One thing we were sure of, however, was that the school had to be racially integrated, firstly, because the gospel demanded it, and a racially integrated school would be a Christian counter-witness to the racial strife that was poisoning our city in 1972, and also because we believed there would be an advantage to having students from a wide variety of backgrounds learning together, So, we sat down with a blank sheet of paper and set about shaping a school that made sense to us, always thinking in terms of what would be best for the students. Then, in July 1973, in the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, we welcomed 92 students, about 75% of them African-Americans, into grades 9 to 11, and started to teach them -- and to learn from them as well.
At the time, we younger monks, who were providing the energy for the project, had been breathing the heady air of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and reading Liberation Theology, and Stanley Elkin’s book, Slavery. We also acted, inevitably, on the principles of our Benedictine spirituality and on our assumptions about how to live the Gospel.
To be honest, our educational philosophy was articulated mostly after the fact, as we introduced and tinkered with different approaches. Our sophisticated planning strategy went like this: “On your marks, go, get set!”
I want to share with you four vignettes from the past 44 years, and let you draw your own conclusions about their possible relationship to the terrible legacy of slavery in our country.
My first story comes from the earliest days of our new school. An african-American freshman named Robert handed me a homework assignment that was terribly sloppy and totally unacceptable. So, in my practiced teacher’s voice, I screamed at him, “You expect me to accept this? This is crap!” But instead of being provoked to do better, he stared at the floor and mumbled, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s crap.” I heard in his voice “Yeah, I’m crap!” I was shocked at this response. Was this a distant echo of the institution of slavery robbed people of their dignity and worth as persons?
Whether it was or not, we began to make a special effort to encourage in our students a sense of identity and self worth. Over the years, for example, we have developed many practices and programs that offer opportunities for our students to confront and overcome challenges, and so develop a sense of competence and self-confidence. Take, for instance, the Freshman Orientation Week, during which all the freshman live at the school for their first week of classes, sleeping on the gym floor, and facing carefully calculated, difficult challenges, academic, physical and emotional; by the end of the five days they have discovered that they can overcome seemingly impossible challenges, with the help of their classmates and older students.
At the end of freshman year, every ninth-grader backpacks 53 miles on the Appalachian trail with his team of six classmates. Completing this challenge is one of the most important experiences of the student’s time at St. Benedict’s.
A second story comes from several years later, when a black alumnus was made Assistant Headmaster in charge of discipline. And African-American mother came to school to speak to someone about her son’s continental disciple problems. When Mr. Green came to meet her at the front door for their conference, she was shocked to see a Black man, and immediately demanded, “Thank you, but I need to speak to speak to someone in charge.” Was this a distant echo from the days when slavery made Black people powerless to be in charge of anything, especially of control their own destiny? In any case, we offer our students as many opportunities as possible for taking responsibility for their lives. A crucial underlying principle here is that an adult should never do anything for a student that a student can do for himself.
The best example of this is our system of student leadership. About three years after our 1973 new beginning, one of our new monks, a former scoutmaster, showed us how to arrange the day-to-day running of the school on the principles of the Scouting movement, that is, by making the students responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the school. Student leaders run morning convocation, take attendance, decide when adjustments need to be made in the schedule for some reason, and have charge of keeping order in the lunchroom.
A third story will illustrate another important aspect of our approach. We have a student residence that houses 64 students. A couple of years ago, a sophomore who had gone home for the Christmas break, came back to school and as he stepped into the residence hall breathed a sigh of relief and said “God, it feels so good to be home!” Was that possibly a distant echo of slavery’s destruction of the African-American family? We realize that a school cannot be a substitute for a biological family, but we spend a lot of time and effort creating a warm, supportive and safe community in which our students feel a strong bond with their brother students as well as with the faculty and staff. Over the front door of the school is a large wooden plaque that displays the motto: “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me!” The soccer coach hung as sign on his office door that read, “Their team versus our family!”
We start each day with a “family meeting or “convocation” of the entire school, run completely by the students. It includes a scripture reading, prayer, and lots of enthusiastic singing followed by attendance-taking by the students, and announcements by faculty and students.
Another way of fostering a sense of belonging and commitment is our method of dividing the student body into smaller homeroom groups of twenty or so, each led by a student leader, and containing members from all grade levels, who will belong to that group for their entire time at St. Benedict’s. During homeroom period, older members of the group are expected to help their younger brothers academically and in other ways.
A fourth and final story. Many, even most public high schools in the inner city now have a majority of black and minority students, but no one shares with these new students the stories of the students who attended that school long before them, no one refers to the sometimes illustrious past of their school. The story-telling stopped as the minority students arrived. Is this a dim reflection of the institution of slavery that robbed Black people of their history, their story, leaving them with no definite sense of being rooted in a line of ancestors?
In any case, Saint Benedict’s helps students feel a part of the school’s 150-year legacy by retelling the stories, some of which are even true, by naming its homeroom groups after famous people in the school's history, by having alumni return to visit and share tall tales; a number of our graduates come home to join the faculty, while others send us their sons to be part of a new generation of the St. Benedict’s family. When graduates return to visit St. Benedict’s, they fully expect to talk with the monks who taught them 30 or 40 years ago. This is another result of our Benedictine vow of stability of place.
In conclusion, perhaps this vow of stability is what makes this whole story possible: when other institutions were fleeing Newark in the 1970’s the monks stayed, and handed on to a new generation of young men the deeply rooted traditions of an institution that was founded in 1868, three years after the abolition of slavery, and that now stands like a beacon of hope to the descendants of slaves, and a pledge of God’s continued, permanent presence among the people of Newark.