Tipping Points

I think I reached some sort of tipping point today, in terms of information overload, reading in recent days about the anniversary of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine, and the riots in Ferguson. On the centenary anniversary of World War I, we hear talk of World War III. My friend, a neo-conservative and a devout Catholic, emails me: “Given your belief in nonviolence, what ought to be done about ISIS? What says the nonviolent position in the face of genocide?”

Knowing he supported the invasion of Iraq, I snap back, “Do you have any theories or thoughts as to how this situation might have come about?”

He replies, “I’m not asking you about the past. The question is: What should we do now?”[amazon asin=0306822954&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Never forget. But never look back. More bombs rain. “We” seem to have no other answers. Despite my contentious reply, my friend’s question has been haunting me. What do we do? I read recently that the word “do” is used by Jesus more than any other verb in the New Testament.

We ask: What are we going to do about this ISIS problem? What are we going to do about this communist problem? What are we going to do about this terrorist problem? Though the questions look different, the answer is all too often the same. St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose Feast day is August 14, asked, “What am I going to do about this Nazi problem?” Maybe in the midst of all that suffering, he just hit a tipping point; then he did something creative and courageous. Sometimes I think we forget about the importance of creativity in the Christian life. Love is, essentially, a creative force. Love and death can go together, but love and destruction do not. Love makes all things new, and brings new things into the world. Love is a real power, believe it or not, that can explode bigger than any bomb.

I logged on to Facebook, because in the last few days it has been a huge relief. You may have heard of Humans of New York. This guy, Brandon, got fired from his job in finance, and now walks around the streets of New York taking photographs of people and publishing them alongside little snippets about their lives. It’s fascinating. He is now doing a 50-day trip across ten countries in the Middle East. Right now, he is in Jordan. To say what he is doing is refreshing would be an understatement. I see in my Facebook feed a shoe shiner, a kid on a bike, a mother with her daughters, a shepherd. Some of them are refugees. Some of them are students. Some of them are [amazon asin=B000G2R1S6&template=*lrc ad (right)]restaurant owners. Some of them seem happy, some of them are sad.  Brandon doesn’t write about them. He records what they have to say about their own lives, in their own words. I find myself heartened by how much “Humans of New York” resembles “Humans of the Middle East” (well, except for the shepherd)! I wonder what made him wake up one day and decide: “I’m going over there.”

One person commented: “I’ll say it again, Brandon has done more to humanize the Middle East in the past couple of weeks than years of mainstream media coverage ever has. I fully believe he deserves a Pulitzer Prize for his work.” It is so true, such a relief to see these humans written about and photographed in such a way that is not framed by any particular agenda, program, or ideology. So that’s what some guy named Brandon is doing.

It got me thinking about other people I know who are doing things, creative things, courageous things, and it brought to mind the folks over at St. John Bosco Academy in Atlanta. I’ve been meaning to write about them all summer, but time has gotten away from me. If I had more time, I would research. I would tell you about how the Catholic population in Atlanta has been growing in recent years. I would tell you about the cost of private education here, and how much it would cost to send four or five children through sixteen years of Catholic school. But I’m going to skip all of that because time is of the essence. Rest assured there are a lot of Catholics, it is expensive, and it would cost a lot. It’s no humanitarian crisis, of course, but it is a problem, especially for those with large families.

A few years back I had just moved to Atlanta and finished writing a book and was kind of looking for my next step in life, asking myself: What am I going to do? I had been teaching writing online to homeschoolers, but I also [amazon asin=0805088091&template=*lrc ad (right)]had an interest in teaching literature, maybe in a classroom, but I didn’t have the government certificates required to teach at a “real” school and I was nervous about the potential rigidity of the education “system.” I’m not big on systems. Neither are homeschoolers. That’s one reason we tend to get along. Not to mention, many of them take their faith very seriously, care about their children’s spiritual formation as well as their formal education, and have a bit of a nonconformist streak. They like to do their own thing. Hey, I dig! They also tend to raise children who are just straight up awesome and a delight to teach. Bonus if you’re a teacher! So I attended a homeschool conference, hoping to meet families who might be interested in my services. Instead I met a group of women who were starting their own school.

“It’s a school for homeschoolers,” they said.

“Like, in a building? Or a home?” I said.

It had started as a small group of two or three mothers and their children around a kitchen table. I think they had something like 15 children between the three of them. A few more families joined up, and soon they found that they were outgrowing their homes and needed a place to go. They thought about starting a school, but they didn’t want to give up on homeschooling. They discovered the hybrid model, which allows children to attend school two days a week, and homeschool for three, which costs a lot less than a 5-day a week school.[amazon asin=0061146668&template=*lrc ad (right)]

St. John Bosco Academy (SJBA) was born.

Turned out a small Christian school down the road had been losing students and had some extra space. SJBA came up with a creative solution, and rented out one floor of the school, then the following year, two. Both schools coexisted happily for a few years, until SJBA outgrew that space as well. The school is now at full capacity, with over 250 students and a long waiting list.

It is no surprise to me that this school has grown so rapidly. The spirit of life, the spirit of love, the spirit of hope there is infectious, and the women that run the school are nothing short of inspirational. (If you met them, you would never guess they are raising umpteen children and running a school, something I don’t believe any of them have ever done before. I was amazed that they never seemed edgy or frazzled. They ooze confidence, optimism—faith! You just know they’re going to make this thing work. And they have. They must pray a lot. They certainly laugh a lot.  Sometimes when I would hang out with them in the tiny room they called an office, I wondered how they ever got any work done.) Now they aim to raise $800,000 by September 1 to purchase their own building so the school can continue to grow. More parents will have the opportunity to give their children an affordable Catholic education and all of the benefits that go along with attending a “real” school without having to sacrifice the special blessings of homeschooling.[amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (right)]

With the hybrid model, they can run a five-day school in this new building, but rotate students on different schedules, some attending Mon-Wed-Fri, some Tues-Thurs., thereby doubling the capacity of a regular school. Pretty cool, right?

I had the pleasure of teaching there for a year, and the experience meant more to me than I can explain. SJBA wholeheartedly embraces St. John Bosco’s “Preventive System” of education, built upon the core ideas of reason, religion and kindness, and it really shows. John Bosco knew that true discipline comes from within and not from without, and he taught that, “Without confidence and love, there can be no true education.” This was in contrast to the repressive system of fear and punishment in most schools of his day. He believed education to be a “matter of the heart” and taught that children must not only be loved, but know that they are loved.

I witnessed the fruits of this love at St. John Bosco Academy every day when I taught there. I saw it in the patience and fortitude of the school’s founders, in the dedication and joyfulness of the teachers, and most of all in the students I taught, who surely knew they were loved because they were so kind and loving themselves (straight up awesome really).

After class, many of them would actually say, “Thank you for class!” on their way out the door. I asked my cousin and her husband, who both teach in public schools in Charlotte, if this was normal. They said, “Um, no.” When I would have to send a note home to the parents about talking in class or some other minor infraction, the student would sometimes come in the next day with a written apology, a hug, and a promise to do better. I asked my cousin and her husband if that was normal. They said, “You are allowed to hug your students?!” I said, “Of course! Why? Is that not normal?” SJBA surely spoiled me as far as teaching in a school goes. I eventually just stopped asking my cousin and her husband if anything that happened there was normal! (Did I mention that with their classical curriculum, I was assigning my students Plato and Homer in the ninth grade? And they were actually reading it?)

With vision, love, hard work, and trust in God, these families have created something truly special in a suburb of Northern Atlanta, not just a school but true Christian community. I was so lucky to be a part of it for a while. If you are feeling gloomy today, I urge you to watch their fundraising video, share it on social media, and make a donation, no matter how small. Good people are out there doing good things, every day! They are getting closer. You can help them reach their tipping point. And — boom!—there will be a school, where there wasn’t one before.