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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Confirmation: The birth of an activist

I was in Confirmation Class, a dutiful if not dissatisfied young Roman Catholic, when Sr. Mary Clement announced that our class was going to take a field trip to Washington, DC.

It was emphasized that the purpose of our trip was to tour "this magnificent City, our Nation's Capitol" - the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, Congress - the highlight of the trip was, of course, to attend Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Sisters had worked it out so that the entire trip cost $10 (we had been saving for this all year), which included the cost of the bus - at a special rate by one of the members of the congregation who owned a transportation company - breakfast served by the Altar Guild before we left, and sandwiches packed for us by the St. Martha's Guild of women, and - Oh, joy! - the promise of a hot dog a bag of chips and a can of soda for supper, the cost of which had been donated by the St. Joseph's Guild of men. Imagine! All this and "going out to eat"!

We would stay overnight in one of the sister-convents, have breakfast and then leave bright and early the next day for the return trip home. The sisters would pack us lunch and we'd be home in time for dinner. What a deal!

The date just happened to be August 28, 1963. Great time for tourists to visit our Nation's Capitol. Lots of kids would be heading back to school, so probably not a lot of crowds. 

Oh, and by the way, while we were there - I mean, you know, "as long as we were there" - to take part in one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history. 

The nuns didn't tell us about the last part until we were on the bus. If most of our parents had known - if MY parents had known - they never would have let us go.

We left before the very crack of dawn. I remember it being like, 5 AM. It was going to be a loooong trip.  Seven hours, I think.  We would have the whole afternoon and early evening in the City.

I was so excited I could barely sleep that night and had no problem staying awake for the entire trip. I had never been out of New England - just a few "day-cations" with the family to visit relatives in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

This was a Very Big Deal.

Before we started the actual trip, we had to say prayers for safe travel.  We said the whole, entire rosary with an Act of Contrition thrown in, you know, just in case we were in an accident. Sr. Mary Clement had a bag of brown scapulars which she handed out, just in case we had forgotten our own, so if that accident happened and we were killed, we were promised to go directly to heaven.

Nuns have such a way of providing comfort and solace.

When were on the bus, maybe about 20 miles away from home to be certain that our parents couldn't hear, Mother Superior took to the microphone. That's when she told us that, while we were there, we would be "attending" the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" as it was originally known.

This raised neither concern nor excitement among us. As immigrant kids whose parents worked in factories, we were used to being on strike lines or playing softball or Jax or skipping rope in the church parking lot while our parents were in the Parish Hall attending a Labor Union Organizing Meeting. This sounded no different.

Our parents did this, they said, because they wanted to make the American Dream a reality for us. So that we could live better than our parents and grandparents did "back in the old country". Making dreams a reality takes "hard work and sacrifice" they said. So, we worked hard and sacrificed. It was just part of the reality of our lives.

We thought - I thought - okay, we'll make an appearance and then onto the White House. I so wanted to see President Kennedy. Maybe he'd be out on the lawn playing with Caroline and John-John. Maybe we'd be able to see Jackie in the Rose Garden.

My grandmother had two pictures over the kitchen table. One was of Jesus - his high school graduation picture, with his hair neatly combed and appropriate back lighting. The other was of John F. Kennedy - young, handsome, the Irish Flag written all over his face and the American Flag in the background. Oh, and Roman Catholic, so you knew he was in tight with Jesus.

We didn't see the White House. Well, we saw if from the bus. We also drove by Congress and a couple of Museums and we DID attend Mass at the Basilica, but mostly we walked. Miles. Miles and Miles and Miles.

We got off the bus about ten or twelve blocks from the Washington Monument and the Mall and, after some appropriate prayers and instructions about holding each other's hands and "making Mary, the Mother of God, proud of us", we started walking.

The place was buzzing with people. I had never seen so many people in one place in my entire life.

Suddenly, gradually, it dawned on me. I had never seen so many Black people in my entire life. Well, then, we called them "Negroes". That's not what my father called them. It was an "n" word, but not "Negro". I began to realize that this was not going to be the same as a Labor Union Demonstration.

While I was used to - sort of - being an ethnic minority as the child of Portuguese immigrants, I had never been in a situation of racial minority. It felt strange. I remember being a little bit scared. I looked ahead to see Mother Superior and some of the other nuns and they were smiling and waving to the people, engaging other participants in the March in conversation.

I remember thinking that while it all felt foreign to me it all felt natural and right.

It was the first time that I realized that my parents were wrong. I had considered the possibility many times - mostly about disciplinary stuff. This was different. Very different.

I knew that they were wrong to think badly of people because of the color of their skin. I knew that they were wrong to keep people of color out of the labor union movement, and the ballot boxes and the lunch counters. I knew they were just as wrong to call them the "n" word as the light-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired girls in the Public School were to snicker and laugh at me and move away from the lunch table when I tried to join them, calling me a "Dirty Greenhorn".

Now, I knew. My parents were wrong. Really, really, really wrong.

I remember that revelation surging through my body like a bolt of lightening. It changed and transformed me and I was never again the same.

We didn't see or hear much that day, except lots of other kids from lots of other Confirmation Classes who were there with the nuns from their church. And, lots and lots of other People of Color - mostly African-Americans but some Hispanics and people of Asian descent.

At one point, we ran into a group there from the Baltimore sister convent of our nuns. There was a joyful reunion of these women in black, who didn't seem to break a sweat even though they were all bundled up in their starched white wimples and long flowing veils. I remember the sound of their rosary beads, which hung from their thick, black belts, clanging together.

There was this one African American girl, about my age, who was with that group. Indeed, most of the kids from that Baltimore Catholic School were children of color.

She looked at me suspiciously. "Here with the nuns?" she asked.

"Yes," I said timidly. I had just had this revelation about my parents and was trying to figure out what that all meant and was a little intimidated by her confidence and poise and sense of self.

"You Catholic?" she said.

"Yes.....yes, I am...." I said, suddenly - probably for the first time - pleased to admit that. My parents may have been bigots, but clearly, my church was not. Well, obviously, not on this issue.

"Well, good!" she said and smiled. "So am I. That's my pastor over there."

I looked where she pointed and was mildly surprised to see a jovial old Irishman in clergy shirt, glad-handing everyone when his arms weren't wrapped around several African-American children.

"We're not going to see much today," she said in a voice much older than her years, "but after everything is over, we're going to have hot dogs and a bag of chips and a whole can of soda."

"Me, too!" I said, excitedly.

We giggled and squealed at the very thought of it. I mean, how great was THAT!?!"

She put her arm around me and gave me a hug and said, "We'll walk together. You stay with me. Then, after the speeches and stuff, we'll have our hot dogs together."

I shook my head in excited agreement and we held hands the whole rest of the day. Somewhere during that day, I remember thinking that I had never held the hand of a person of color when she looked at me and said, "I've never held hands with a white girl before."

"Me, neither," I said. "I mean....well... you know....."

We both giggled with embarrassment and delight.  "I can't wait for that hot dog, can you?" she said.

"No, I said. I've seen some people eat them at the lunch counter at Kresge's Five and Dime, but I've never had a hot dog outside my house. Or, when it wasn't in my mother's hot dog stew. She puts green beans and carrots and peas in it. Yuck!"

"Mine, too," she said, skipping over the fact I remembered only years later: she wasn't allowed to eat at lunch counter at Kresge's Five and Dime. Now was the time for finding things we shared in common.

"Why do mothers do that, anyway?" she asked, disgustedly. "Must be to torment kids."

"Exactly!" I said. "All mothers are the same."

"Yup," she said. "You're a lot like me. I'm a lot like you. Turns out, we're all really the same."

Martin Luther King, Jr. was up there - way, way far away - talking about his dream, which we couldn't really hear because we were so far away.

It didn't really matter. We had already started to live it.

On August 28, 1963, more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars converged on Washington. All regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses were also filled to capacity. Police estimate that there were over 200,000 people who attended what is now known as "The March on Washington". March organizers estimate more than 300,000 were there.

Although I did not hear them, I remember hearing that some of my heroes like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary sang at the Lincoln Memorial. The nuns were especially moved by Mahalia Jackson singing "How I Got Over". I had never heard that song in church, and wondered if we'd start singing it. We never did.

I did not actually hear Martin Luther King say, "I have a dream", but I heard it repeated by people of all races who were all around me. It became a mantra. We repeated it softly to ourselves, like saying the rosary. Only better, somehow.

I do not remember the name of the little girl whose hand I held that whole entire day, but I do remember waiting for her to get her hot dog so we could both take a bite out of it together. I remember the look of ecstasy on her face, and I knew that my face mirrored it. 

I remember than some mustard got on her white blouse and I took my napkin over to the fountain to blot it with water so the stain wouldn't set it and her mother wouldn't be as angry as I knew my mother would be.  Later, one of the nuns whipped out a bar of Octagon soap from her pocket (Who but a nun would carry a bar of soap in her pocket?) and we got the stain out.

I don't remember much else about that day - not even the convent where we spent the night or much about the ride home. I never told my parents about that day. As far as I know, they both went to their graves not knowing what I really did that day. Maybe they did. I only know we never talked about it.

One hundred and forty-nine years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Forty-nine years ago today, hundreds of thousands of people Marched on Washington.

And, forty-nine years ago today, I held the hand of a young woman just my age and marched into the realization that an activist is someone who realizes that her dream is different from the one her parents gave her, and is willing to "work hard and make sacrifices" in order to make that dream a reality.

It was quite a Confirmation.


Muthah+ said...

Awesome story, Sistah. Which nuns did you go to? I am so thankful for the nuns who aided in my activism too.

I was already in college and becoming radicalized by the Black students in Jim Crow Texas. In just 2 more years I would go to Selma only to be terribly frightened and angered by the Klan.

We have been s**t stirrers all our lives only because we have known the reality of God's truth and had the gumption to teach it. Don't think that we will ever stop. Amazing things, God does!

DeanB said...

You continue to be able to tell those great stories!

That explains (if indeed any explanation were necessary) why you feel so strongly about the Vatican messing with the LCWR. I've never spent any time talking to nuns except in the Tuskegee dining hall when I was working in summer programs two and three years after your story.

Mary Beth said...

This is phenomenal. Thank you for sharing it.

IT said...

Ovation, standing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah - Josephites. Philly, I think. Those nuns are the reason I'm the priest I am today.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

DeanB - I am grateful, every day, for the lives, examples and models of the nuns who taught me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary Beth - Thanks so much. Wish I could remember more. I know there's stuff in there. I just need to think about it some more. Like, the name of that girl. She was awesome. I secretly hope she remembers me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much, IT.

RENZ said...

Holy sh....crap! Awesome anecdote. I don't think I've ever known someone who was there. Thanks!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RENZ - I'm really not THAT old. Really. But, thank you.

Anonymous said...

This wonderful story illustrates something of the paradox that is the Roman Catholic Church. I grew up with the Mercy nuns and Jesuit priests and brothers. Through them and my segregationist parents, I learned to love God, to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and to seek to serve others ("to be a man for others," as the Jesuits frequently reminded their students). Near the end of his life, Papa accepted that segregation had been wrong, and, I believe, repented. Mama died young, before it was even an issue.
When I graduated from Jesuit High School in 1960, it was 100 percent segregated. When I finished at Loyola New Orleans there were a few transfer students from Xavier and some Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament took summer classes. Joan Baez had refused to perform at Loyola to a segregated audience. So even in 1963, the RCC remained a bastion of Jim Crow in the Deep South, at least. In fairness, the nuns were way ahead of the priests on that score.
There is in Catholicism what I believe to be an over-emphasis on the role of Mary in the "economy of salvation." The RCC has declared "infallibly" certain extra-scriptural beliefs about Mary, and
regarding those who cannot or will not accept these teachings, "let them be anathema (cast out of the Church -- and into hell)." But Mary isn't the false idol of Roman Catholicism; the RC Church is.
The brown scapulars of Elizabeth's story are a pre-Vatican II practice that is essentially superstition. Wear one and, if you die, you go straight to heaven (or some such--it may have been a bit more complicated). First Fridays and plenary indulgences; but also it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday, meaning if you died not having confessed it, you would go
to hell.
Vatican II came along and swept aside a lot of the nonsense. The current tension in the RCC is essentially between those who want to bring back the nonsense, Jesus the punisher, and the absolute authority of a monarchical pope with those who cannot accept the nonsense, see Jesus as our most intimate, tender, and compassionate lover, and for the collegial relationships between bishops and pope, priests and laity and bishops promised by Vatican II.
Among ex-Catholics (the second largest group of Christians in the US) many have found the Episcopal Church a refuge from the insanity and demand for mindless obeisance to questionable authority. I count my finding the Episcopal Church as a precious gift from God.

Lori said...

How beautiful, it made me tear up with joy. Thank you,what a wonderful thing to read before going off to bed.

Unknown said...

Wonderful story, Elizbeth. Thank you!

RENZ said...

Old? The expletive was simply cause I was so excited. Age never crossed my mind...I just thought it was cool to finally have a personal connection to such a momentous event. And God bless those nuns.

Robin said...

Thank you, Mother Kaeton! I wasn't very racially aware then, tho' I missed the worst of the bigotry thanks to my parents' defense of my friendship with the little black girl on the next hill. I had a similar 'confirmation' experience, however, with similar mentors (nuns and priests) as I was pulled into the anti-war movement in St. Louis in 1968.

Indie Pereira said...

That's the kind of confirmation I wish we'd give our young folks.

whiteycat said...

Thanks for this inspirational story!


Oh, Elizabeth! What a fabulous memory. God bless those wonderful nuns.

Mel said...

Elizabeth, you can tell a story that is so full of truth that my eyes sting with tears!

textjunkie said...

Thank you for that. I hope when it comes time for confirmation classes I can still point people to it!! Though it keeps making me cry... ;)

Pat Klemme said...

Thank you for taking us with you all on this journey with you, your schoolmates and the sisters.

I not only hope your young friend remembers you; I hope someone calls this to her attention and she finds you again. I won't be surprised at all.