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The Continuing Legacy of the Four Churchwomen & Oscar Romero at Cristo Rey New York High School

BY BILL FORD | December 14, 2017

Editor’s Note: The following is a reflection from Bill Ford, Cristo Rey New York High School principal, and Emily, Rashaun, Dayana, and Jacob, CRNYHS students and 2017 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice attendees. The student reflection was part of the homily at the school’s 2017 Founders Day Mass, during which the school annually honors and celebrates the 4 U.S. churchwomen who were killed in El Salvador in 1980.

Thirty-six years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my father received a phone call at home late in the evening from Sr. Melinda Roper, President of the Maryknoll Sisters:

His sister, my aunt Ita, was missing, together with Sr. Maura Clarke, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan, a lay missioner who was engaged and soon to be married.

This was a very dangerous time in El Salvador….

As Monseñor Romero had said prophetically, “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor. And in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, to be tortured, to be captive and to be found dead.”

Two days later…

From a focus on the death—horror, pain, outrage: who could do this? Our government was involved in this!

To a focus on their lives: who were the women? What work were they doing? And why had they chosen to do it in El Salvador, in so dangerous a place and alongside a people that was being brutally repressed?

The shift came with the help of friends and of realizing we had joined something bigger than just ourselves. As Jesuit Dean Brackley said: we see in El Salvador the drama of all our lives, it is a dying and a rising.

The seeking after answers to our questions about the women led us here, to East Harlem, and to the opening of Cristo Rey New York High School. In the first year of our school, from this very altar, Fr. Joe proclaimed the four women and Romero to be OUR founders in spirit.

We believe they are risen, they are present and they are watching over you, protecting you, believing in you and inspiring you to be what we know you are at your best: brave, smart, good, and generous.

It is our tradition each December to celebrate our Founders and to recall who they are and what they did to renew our own commitment to be our best selves and to offer who we are and what we have for the sake of justice in our place and time.

Today, I am delighted to announce we are not looking back but we will share what a group of our students and faculty are doing here, now, today, to embrace the spirit of the women and Romero and to carry on their work.

The Cristo Rey New York High School delegation at the 2017 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice.

Cristo Rey New York High School Student Reflection

[Emily] As freshmen, one of the first concepts we learn about in religion class is the message of our spiritual founders, the four churchwomen of El Salvador. Throughout their admirable journeys, they spoke of compassion and proactive action towards helping those who needed it most. These women were living, breathing examples of what it means to not only care about those marginalized but to have the strength to act in favor of them.

Last month, this group tried to emulate our spiritual founders’ mission by attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice.

The conference was a weekend where over 2,000 students from high schools and colleges across the country came together to understand how to genuinely make a difference. Along with 15 other Cristo Rey schools from around the country, we learned about issues of injustice including immigration, criminal justice, LGBTQ issues, and capital punishment.

Throughout our Cristo Rey IFTJ journey, issues that are too often cast aside into the formidable darkness were brought into the light. Ideas of racism, sexism, and LGBTQ rights were discussed and personal journeys were even shared.

We always hear the verse from the Gospel of John, “love one another as I love you”—sometimes it’s easy to simply hear and mindlessly agree. What’s more difficult is actually living out this concept.

As the weekend progressed, without realizing it, that very fundamental concept of human understanding was ingrained into every speech of the Teach-In. It led us to see how important basic connection is when it comes to fighting alongside one another against injustice. Although, there was no single “issue” that was addressed—as a group we all were given the opportunity to branch out and gain a true understanding of our society’s multiple injustices.

Understanding that there is more than one problem to fix in society is the first step, and today we are bringing the second step into light: inspiring action in our community.

[Rashaun] As a Cristo Rey community, we rowed into the deep. With our senior leaders steering, the juniors tightening the sails, and our faculty navigating, it was steady sailing. We took a leap and plunged into the waters; we left our refuge, New York City, to help those who are vulnerable and marginalized in today’s society.

People of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and all those discriminated against in society who were stranded in the deep, where the waves were strong. Wade in the water, we told them. Through God, we sailed through the rough. We were taught that hatred can infect communities. Getting sick is not our fault, but healing is our responsibility. We were taught that racism is individual acts of meanness and discrimination, usually (but not always) directed against people of color.

Racism and fear are strong and usually inherited from generation to generation.

Change can only be sought if we overcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with talking about the subject of race. By addressing the topic, together, we are all able to row faster and more efficiently into this deep.

[Dayana] These problems aren’t going to fix themselves. Together, we bring the last step into play. It is with a determined mindset that we are able to address the prejudices within our society. We should be able to look upon these struggles and make a positive difference.

Instead of wishing something would change, we should take it upon ourselves to take action to bring about the transformation we seek.

Even a small change, undeniably, is progress. So if we challenge the injustices in our government, our society, and in dealing with racism, we can and will make the world a better place.

Remember… Obstacles are only there to overcome and as high school students with passion and energy, we can be the ones to overcome them. It may be difficult to carry out such a task but it’s not impossible.

Developing awareness of injustice is the first step. Analysis is the second step. It lets us know what the root of the problem is. Finally, it’s up to us to take action.

Here are some concrete things we can all do: Advocate for more just policies with your senators and representatives; donate to fundraisers in school for great causes like Heifer International; make your voice heard and protest injustice, be accepting of others and perform random acts of kindness. And lastly, if you are interested in getting involved, you can join our new Social Justice Club which will meet for the first time on December 19th.

As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

In other words, leave a mark that others can follow.  

[Jacob] We would like to thank all those who made this trip possible, Father Parkes, Mr. Ford, our teachers, staff, parents, and sponsors, and finally, all of you who supported our fundraising and inspired us to speak on your behalf as well as our own. This Teach-In wasn’t just something for us to experience. We went as a delegation, as your representatives, to be your voice, and to bring back to Cristo Rey what we learned so that we can ALL take action together.

Just as the Holy Spirit inspired our Founders to work for justice, their spirit inspires us to continue to carry on their mission, as one community, as one Cristo Rey New York. Thank you.

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