13 Jul 2014
“[My word] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Isa 55:11b) In the name …
On the front of your song sheet is a copy of a Normal Rockwell painting that hangs not far from here in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It depicts a little six-year-old African-American girl by the name of Ruby Bridges on her way to school. She was the first black child to attend a previously all white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was 1960. This was even before the Civil Rights Act of 50 years ago this year. I don’t know if you can make out all the details in the copy of the painting, but scrawled on the wall beside the child are the initials of the Klu Klux Klan and the word “nigger.” There are also the remains of a tomato thrown at the child and smashed against the wall. The little girl is carrying nothing but school supplies.
It’s daunting for any child to head off to the first day of school at that young age, but how much more so it must have been for six year old Ruby Bridges. Rockwell’s painting shows her being escorted into the school, but what happens to her for the rest of the day? Well, most of that was determined by an 82-year-old retired teacher who now lives in Boston by the name of Barbara Henry. The school was technically desegregated when Ruby walked through the doors, but all of her day was spent alone with her teacher and the Federal Marshals. Barbara Henry did everything she could to make Ruby’s day as normal, educational and fun as possible.
Ruby Bridges as an adult remembers only going to school. She said she knew nothing of racism and prejudice. Children, she said, have to learn these things. That’s why her teacher was so important. Many, many years later an adult Ruby Bridges and an older Barbara Henry were reunited. And when that retired teacher was telling this story to a reporter from the Boston Globe, she noted, “It’s so powerful for teachers to realize – how quickly children absorb the attitude of their teacher … The ripples are endless.” (Boston Globe Magazine, 6/29/14, p. 13) And where did Barbara Henry find the courage and conviction to be this little girl’s teacher? From her own teachers. She has credited her schooling at the Girls’ Latin School in Boston where every student was given respect and a sense of worth, and it didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor, black or white. She said this message was never explicitly taught. It was absorbed from the people around her, and it stayed with her, and she passed it along to little Ruby Bridges, and now the two of them pass it along to school assemblies all around the country. The ripples are endless.
Think about this message when you think about your faith and your church. God has said through His prophet Isaiah that His Word will achieve its end. And Jesus said centuries later that we are blessed by God because we hear that Word. Just like the teachers that inspired Barbara Henry, who then inspired Ruby Bridges, who then inspired students all across the nation, God’s Word is given life and purpose through us and how we live the Word. This is why, as we recited earlier in the Mass, the Word of God is a living and abiding presence, and one that is now at work in us who believe. The visionaries who started the Girls’ Latin School in Boston in 1877 as the first college preparatory high school for girls in the United States surrounded each of them with respect and a sense of worth because girls didn’t necessarily receive this when they wanted an arduous education in 1877. The school’s founders could not have foreseen that their respect for women in Boston would translate through one of their students into respect for a black child in a New Orleans elementary school.
This is what it means when we say that a message is a living and abiding presence and one at work in us. It’s not just memorizing the words and re-telling the same stories. It’s making the message our own. It’s putting it into practice in how we live our lives. It’s re-telling it in all of the different, unexpected and new situations in which we find ourselves. The respect that was taught in Boston was taught under unexpected circumstance in New Orleans. The circumstances were different and unforeseen, but the lesson changed so that it could stay the same. When we understand the Word of God in this way, it is immensely empowering and also an incredible privilege. God has entrusted us with the translation of His Word so that it can remain meaningful and effective. To be true to the Word of God is not to lock it onto the page of a book and to say He spoke once and now all we can do is reminisce. To believe in the Word of God as living and abiding is to hear His voice in our lives as we live in our world.
Norman Rockwell painted the picture you see on your song sheet for Life Magazine. We usually associate Norman Rockwell with the cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, but Rockwell left that magazine the year prior to this painting. He had grown increasingly frustrated with their limitations on anything controversial, such as racial prejudice. Rockwell took the same themes of all that made America great that he used in his earlier paintings and translated them into the painting of that little girl bravely walking into her school. The Federal Marshals were testimony to what is good about our government. The little girl is as all-American as any child Rockwell ever painted. The message in her stride is as proud as any patriotic poster he created. Rockwell had to change publishers to stay true to his art because just keeping things as they were would have been a lie. Change maintained his message.
If we really believe in the living and abiding presence of God’s Word still working through us, then we have the responsibility and privilege of translating that Word for our world in all of our unexpected situations so that its ripples may be endless. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo