The light of Epiphany begins its rise in the afterglow of Christmas. As the Nativity story unfolds, a father watches in wonderment the small procession paying homage to the hope of humanity. In the simple imagery framed by the birth of a child, the revelers who make it to the stable in Bethlehem include only two types of seemingly opposite people: shepherds and kings.
In one troubling week not too long ago, a different kind of procession unfolded. I had the opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and the devastating duty to deliver a eulogy for a fallen student back home in Little Rock. The student and I had become close due to unpleasant chance.
"Santiago" untucked his shirt to prepare a donation for the Red Cross blood drive at school. In doing so, he exposed a knife stuffed into his belt. I dragged him to my office and asked why in the world he needed a knife.
"For protection," he said as his dark eyes welled with tears.
"Protection from what? Is someone bothering you here?" I asked, incredulous.
Santiago shook his head. "I get off work late at night. The men in my trailer park sit in the courtyard and drink. They say bad things to me. They pound on the door to get to my mother and my sister. I'm the man of the house," he said, his voice trailing.
I sat in silence as those words drifted to the ceiling.
After a bit of prodding, Santiago told me he worked 40 hours a week in addition to school. He told me that he helped with rent, food, and his school supplies.
"Santiago," I said gently. "That's too many hours. You need to pay attention to school."
He looked me in the eye, expressionless. "I'm the man of the house," he said once more.
I leaned back, rocking in my office chair with my hands folded in my lap. "We are going to do two things. First, you will start working here right after school so you can fulfill your hours but get off earlier."
He looked up. "Second, you are suspended. You can't bring a knife to school for any reason. But, during your suspension, we'll teach you how to do the job you're going to be doing here. Deal?" I stood and extended my hand. He stood and shook it cautiously.
Santiago was a good worker and became a better student. It's not that he was without fault. He had brushes with temptation and did things that were beneath him from time to time. But he worked hard. He threw himself into his studies the best he could. He made plans to join the military after graduation so he could learn a trade while continuing to take care of his family.
Santiago continued to work 40 hours a week and signed up to take a studio art class his senior year. His artwork was personal and stunning. He purchased a senior ring. He made plans.
In late January, Santiago was in a terrible car accident and suffered a severe head injury. I watched silently as the doctor explained to Santiago's mother and sister that it didn't look good but they would know more in the next few hours. By morning, Santiago was gone.
I had been invited to represent my school at the National Prayer Breakfast on the same day as Santiago's funeral. Because the prayer breakfast was in the early morning and the funeral was at 7 at night, I planned to attend both.
On that morning, I put on a suit and attended the impressive prayer breakfast. Sitting among senators, congressmen, ambassadors, and celebrities, I felt out of place but awed by the grandeur of our government. The president of the United States spoke, as has been tradition for more than 50 years. At the conclusion of the breakfast, I grabbed my belongings and headed to the airport.
My plane landed in Little Rock that evening in time for my wife to drop me at the small church in southwest Little Rock. I sat with Santiago's classmates, more than 100 in attendance. Half of the funeral Mass was in Spanish, the other half in English.
During the Lord's Prayer, both sides of the church spoke at once, in unison, in languages different but equal. There was no separation. There were no boundaries, no divisions, no walls. Neither side tried to outdo the other, to rush the other, or to silence the other. Instead, the voices blended together in a language mystic and new, a language that everyone there understood.
Toward the end, the priest motioned for me to come forward to deliver the eulogy. I moved to the lectern wearing the same suit I had worn that morning in the presence of the leaders of the free world.
The separation between our country's most powerful leaders and a poor Hispanic boy from southwest Little Rock is staggeringly small. There is a common thread that binds us all together as we interact and understand the power of belonging as one. If only we accept this, if only we realize.
This season, as remembrances of the Nativity and the Epiphany abound, we might allow ourselves to continue our thoughts, to further them beyond the stories of old. As the shepherds and kings together paid homage to the Christ-child who embodied the hope of humanity, there was one truth that pervaded that Bethlehem scene.
It's the truth that in the shepherds, we find our kings.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 12/29/2018
Print Headline: STEVE STRAESSLE: A common thread