If ever a month belonged to Cristo Rey St. Martin, it would be November. We start out with the Feast of St. Martin de Porres on November 3 and end on the last Sunday with the Feast of Cristo Rey. What an appropriate time of year to reflect on who we are as a school community named for Christ the King. Here is a King who leads by serving, whose power comes from choosing complete vulnerability: a King whose dying conquered death; who turns the world upside down; who puts the last, first; who meets hate with love and insists we counter violent behavior by turning the other cheek. Cristo Rey is the ultimate countercultural figure: the builders’ rejected stone becomes our cornerstone, the foundation on which everything else is built.
Christ the King defies all human expectations and our students certainly follow His example. They are finding success in the face of statistics that say otherwise. Over half the young people in our community drop out of high school, less that 12% get a college degree. In contrast, 86% of all CRSM students who started with us in 9th grade graduated with us and 63% graduate college. That’s higher than the graduation rate for the general US population and about 4 times the rate for Waukegan and North Chicago. They are turning their world upside down in the best possible way.
Our students and their families are also finding hope when so many aspects of daily life send messages of hopelessness and rejection. As I look out my office window across the old Kmart parking lot, a large air quality testing tripod stands in a roped off area. CRSM is practically “ground zero” for ethylene oxide emissions in Lake County – our campus is situated right in the middle of two plants using this known carcinogen in their manufacturing processes. A similar chemical plant in the more affluent western suburbs was shut down almost immediately and is permanently closed. Unfortunately, in lower income communities like ours, it seems the debate between tax revenues and residents’ health is more drawn out. The situation is simply less urgent. Similarly, the coal-burning powerplant in Waukegan continues its operation and pollution even though the same company shut down two other plants in and near Chicago years ago due to well-funded protests. Despite threats like these, our upbeat students continue to move their lives forward.
In the last 6 months, at least three CRSM parents have been deported. We don’t ask but it can be inferred that an overwhelming majority of our students come from mixed-status families. Can you imagine waking up each morning and living with the possibility that there is a better than 1-in-100 chance you or a loved one might be picked up and not come home? Some people actually think that our immigration system offers a legal way for them to enter the US and that they are simply choosing to break our laws instead of following them. Many people fail to understand that for thousands and thousands of really good families looking for opportunity in America, there is no way to legally enter the country. When your choices for your children are abject poverty, the threat of harm or even death; or breaking immigration law, which would you choose? When people you love are caught up in the dark side of our broken immigration system, you see things differently.
There are two folk paintings hanging in our cafeteria: one of St. Martin de Porres and the other of La Virgen de Guadalupe. These are strong images of faith and goodness. The mother of a couple of our students painted them for CRSM when we moved to our new building. She was deported over the summer and her family continues to deal with the fallout of being ripped apart. When I look at those paintings, I think about a woman who sacrificed so much to give her children a better life – someone I would be proud to have living next door to me but who now may never be able to share in her children’s successes.
Christ lived in exile for part of His life. Despite working miracles and preaching the Good News, Jesus had people ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Society found it hard to conceive or accept a King born in poverty in some decrepit farm stable. Ours is a God of contradiction who asks us to see beyond our own assumptions, to see into the hearts of those we encounter and not turn a blind eye based on appearances. This time of year, God reminds us that He is a Christ who defies our limited expectations and invites us to see Him in unexpected ways and in those persons society ignores or persecutes. God challenges us to find traces of His divinity in our humanity, to see beyond the appearances of people, beyond their situations, and see to their hearts… to find in them something of ourselves and to discover we are kindred souls – brothers and sisters in Cristo Rey.
As we end November and move into Advent, may God bless us by defying our expectations and turning us on our heads.
¡Viva Cristo Rey!