Ten years ago this fall I started my PhD program at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. Because my degree is in Pastoral Care and Practical Theology, I needed to do some clinical hours. As a former high school teacher, I looked for something working with high school students. After a few emails and phone calls, I ended up meeting with the principal of a new Catholic High School in South Minneapolis—Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. Cristo Rey is a network of high schools around the country, strategically located in economically impoverished urban neighborhoods with one goal—to get every student enrolled in some type of post secondary education.
During my year at Cristo Rey I worked as a tutor for a young man named Muhammad. He was a sophomore Somali student having a hard time with his internship, and he was failing geography. The first few meetings were awkward. He didn’t say much, and some days I had to search for him. It wasn’t hard to find him, he was usually on the basketball court. (He told me he wanted to be the Muslim Josh Smith.) Our relationship came to be based on two things: basketball and advocacy. Muhammad and I often played one on one before we did homework. I’m tough down low with a wicked fade away, and nasty elbows. One time, I cleared him out of the lane with an elbow to the chest and made an easy lay up. “That’ a foul!” he cried. “No way, just a post move. Just part of the game.” The next Monday when I saw Muhammad I asked him how his AAU tournament went that weekend. “I got T’d up and thrown out of the game,” he said. “What? Why?” “I used your move – I cleared the guy out with my elbow and they called a foul. I said, ‘That isn’t a foul – my tutor said so!’ and they kicked me out of the game!”
The advocacy came at a time when Muhammad’s internship was going poorly. During a meeting I sat next to him and spoke up —arguing he deserved another chance. After the meeting he came up to me and said, “No one has ever spoke up for me like that before. Thank you.” I’ll never forget my time with Muhammad, and I’ll never forget my time at Cristo Rey. For the first time in my privileged life I was a minority. Most of the students—99.9%—were African American, Latino, or African. I stuck out—a big white bearded dude. When they asked me to talk to the seniors about going to college, I showed them pictures of my kids. A look of horror came over their faces. Finally, a young woman raised her hand. “You have kids?” “Yes,” I said. Another one raised her hand, “Are you married?” “Yes,” I said. “One last hand went up, “Are you a priest?” Apparently, my attire of black shirt and tie made everyone think I was a Jesuit.
I owe so much to the students of Cristo Rey. They taught me more than I could ever hope to have taught them. They taught me about other cultures, other religions, and helped me experience what it’s like to be a minority. Most days I was out of my element, most days I made a fool of myself, and it was one of most glorious educational experiences of my life.
Why do I tell this story? Because Cristo Rey is on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. Cristo Rey is located in the heart of the neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered. Cristo Rey is located in the neighborhood consumed by protests and riots. Cristo Rey is the presence of Jesus for many young people who’s houses have been burned to the ground, and family businesses looted. I tell this story because I love the city of Minneapolis, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the people of South Minneapolis. If you want to make a difference, support Cristo Rey Jesuit High School as they help young people and their families rebuild during this difficult time. Click here to make a donation—designate it for the emergency fund that goes to helping students and their families.
And may we, like Muhammed, learn to throw a few elbows to clear the way for our neighbors.