October 2021 President’s Pen

“We had no idea what we were doing!” is what my friend and colleague, Fr. John P. Foley, SJ likes to proclaim when asked about the founding of the Cristo Rey movement. What started as one school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has blossomed into thirty-eight schools nationwide. Being part of the founding leadership of that first school, I used to chafe when he would say those words. But now, I respect his honestly and candor. Of course, we didn’t know what we were doing because no one had ever done it before! The notion of a college prep school for low-income families paid for by a unique and innovative work-study program was one thing; bringing that idea to a working reality was quite another.

Believe it or not, being in those uncharted waters liberated us. There was nothing else we could do but be in the moment, listen to people in the community, learn from the students we recruited, and then, literally make our best guess as to how we could support their hopes and dreams. Not knowing was gift. A passage from a prayer by Ken Untener (frequently misattributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero) echoes this sentiment:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

In those early days of the first Cristo Rey school, as our students started to demonstrate success both in the workplace and in the classroom, John would often marvel, “This thing is bigger than all of us.” That became another common refrain. It was his reminder that the secret to the school’s success was putting students first and taking our egos out of the equation. A successful school can’t be focused on the adults, it must be student-centered – if we continue do that, then we continue to hopefully be doing something God wants. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, OP, “All [we] can do is check [ourselves], again and again: Do [our] actions look like love? If they are truly loving, then they are part of the grand movement of love in the world, which is the movement of God in the world…”

At Cristo Rey St. Martin, we experienced a similar lack of knowing when the COVID pandemic hit. Making the decision to shut down on March 13, 2020, “We had no idea what we were doing!” And that gave us the chance to do something.

The shift to remote learning went relatively smoothly for our students. They already had individual Chromebooks since CRSM went 1:1 with the devices back in 2016. Abruptly becoming physically separated in those first months and migrating to remote learning, it was some relief to have every student on the same type of device. We only needed to focus on making sure everyone had Wi-Fi access, rather than figuring out how we could connect with one another. Campus Ministry started scheduling community food distributions in our parking lot. They became a rallying point for students and staff to come together and respond in a positive, supportive way to our greater community. As the pandemic wore on, we found a way to hold summer school in-person and start the next school year with a hybrid schedule that allowed students to spend part of the week in in-person classes with masks and plenty of distancing. We also discovered that our teachers’ jobs were much more manageable if we scheduled classes in such a way that they were either teaching all students in a particular class period remotely or all in-person, so we modified schedules accordingly. When rapid tests became available, CRSM filed with the state to become a certified CLIA testing site and began weekly testing for students and staff. When vaccines became available, we held clinics for the community and eventually for our faculty, staff, and students. Since the very beginning of the pandemic until today, CRSM has not had a single transmission of the virus traced to our campus. This school year we are 100% in-person. As we end the first quarter, 99% of our students have a 2.0 GPA or higher and 87% have at least a 3.0!

It’s been a murky journey through the pandemic and COVID is not finished with us yet. We never had a clear, grand plan about the best way forward, how could we? It has been a little like St. Paul’s conversion. St. Paul was known as Saul and he persecuted the early Christians relentlessly until one day, in a flash, he was thrown off his horse and struck blind. As he tried to gather himself, a voice said, “Go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” Little did he know he would become one of the most influential figures in Christian thought after Jesus’ death. The lesson we learned at the beginning of the first Cristo Rey school we learned again at CRSM during COVID: Go where your students are, be with them, listen to them and you will figure out a way to support them.

“It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” We don’t have to have all the answers. In the grandest sense, we can never have all the answers. But that frees us to do something – to take a risk for others and ask ourselves, “Do our actions look like love?”