I was born in Mishawaka, Indiana. I attended Saint Joseph’s grade school from first grade until fourth. My family lived just a few short blocks from the parish where they owned a small neighborhood grocery store. I remember walking to school every day along with classmates who lived nearby. The scene seems now like something from another era. Well, I guess, the romantic notion of such a serene neighborhood is just that.
That neighborhood is just minutes from the University of Notre Dame. After the fourth grade I grew up in Edwardsburg, Michigan, a few minutes away over the Indiana state border. A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit all of those places. I drove around the familiar blocks in Mishawaka and sat in the car gazing at my parent’s old store. The blocks from the parish to my folk’s business seem smaller than ever. It all seems so long ago, but what a gift to remember my roots especially in this time of pandemic, when real reflection about our lives is so essential.
During my home visit, I received an email from Michal. He and I were in the second grade together. I remember him well, since he moved into the neighborhood, about three blocks from where I lived behind our grocery store. In fact, we made our First Communion together. He was the new kid in the class where we became fast friends.
I have not seen Michael since those early years. We never stayed in touch. So, you can imagine, how much I appreciated seeing these two photos of Michael and me. We are at his home, a duplex in Mishawaka. His email stirred much reflection for me. We bounced emails back and forth a few weeks ago struggling to remember some of the details of those early years. Since I was back in Mishawaka, I went back to his old house and took a picture. It is still standing and really does not look much different. There, I could still see the two of us in the shadows of memory and in the fading light of all these years.
When I got back to Colorado, I found our class picture from the second grade. I also found other class pictures and confirmed that we were only in the second-grade classroom together. For third and fourth grades, we were in different classrooms. I know there is a picture of us at First Communion, but I have not found that yet.
These photos are treasures for me. Since I move across the country as a priest, what a gift to see these small tokens of memory given to me by someone else who also remembers. I think our world-wide pandemic has given us time to think about our past, the value of life, and the consequences of all of our relationships. Michael was sorting through his old photos and decided to reach out to someone he had not seen since the second grade. I will take this as a great gift.
During these past months, I have cleaned out my closet and sorted my belongings one more time. I am not much of a saver. I don’t have much that would tell the story of my past. In fact, I try to make deeper cuts in my possessions as the years go by. Now that I paint from my years at Sacred Heart, I have many supplies. The magazines from my writing and publishing are in the basement of the parish center where I hope they can remain as an archive even after I leave the parish.
COVID-19 teaches us many things. If we take this time seriously, we can reflect on our past, what we truly hold as value and meaning. If we sit in the mystery of life, we can learn to value the truth of who we are and let go of meaningless possessions and even poisons we carry within our hearts. If we are truly living, then we can let go of how our lives have been possessed by the stuff we own. We need to sort through our junk, find the treasures and live freely in love on this earth. We just need some time alone and some time to reflect with our family members about things that really matter, far beyond the ordinary routines that numb the human spirit.
I worry about people who have not learned anything in this time of pandemic. They are missing out to find the real meaning of their lives and the meaning of our future together. I know many people are living in fear these days. I understand the threat of potentially being ill and the threat of losing a job or career. However, even our fear needs to be sorted through. Even our despair needs to be brought to the light of faith. We are living in a time when faith is real and actually change our lives. We can turn our loneliness into true solitude where pray makes a difference. This is the time in life not to just go through the motions of the every day. Today, we need to really come to terms with what life is truly about and our place in it.
We can overcome our differences in the Church and in society today. We can let go of our political arguments and differences about the earth we stand upon. We can learn to see beyond different skin colors or the differences in our speech patterns. Perhaps we all need to sort through the old photos we have tucked away in a trunk. Just maybe, we need to go back to the people we learned with in grade school and learn those basic lessons all over again. We need to learn how to treat each other, how to walk a few blocks with friends and how to befriend the stranger just like we did in the second grade. Life is not that difficult if we let go of our anger, our resentments, the old stories we tell ourselves, the hard opinions we harbor so to be better than others, the possessions we cling to, and the ideas in our heads that we think we cannot change. Change after all, is life.
I hope our young people who are receiving First Communion at the parish this year will remember this time fifty or sixty years from now. I hope as a parish, we will help them believe that Jesus invites us into an amazing and beautiful life no matter the obstacles or disappointments. In this year of pandemic, I am sure these children will not forget the details. I just want to make sure they remember the miracles.
I am not sure if I will ever see Michael now as an adult. He has a family and is retired. However, I will leave all of that to God, who I know has a plan for me in these days of pandemic and beyond. I will still befriend the stranger and maybe I need to continue to sort through my photos and try to contact someone else I have not seen in many years. This pandemic is teaching me how incredibly beautiful we all are no matter the miles apart or the difference we think divide us.
Thank you, Michael for inviting me to your house in the second grade.
Peace in pandemic times,