Early in the coronavirus crisis, and in this summer's wave of chaos in American streets, Rachel Bulman began paying close attention to the faces in news reports.
She also found herself thinking about a hero: the Black Panther.
Born in the Philippines before being adopted, the Catholic writer has lived her life -- as a daughter, wife and mother -- in white America. As a child, she didn't look like her family. Now, her children are growing up "knowing that they just don't look like everyone else," she said. "Our family has its own story."
Bulman responded by hanging images of saints from Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in their home. There was St. Josephine Bakhita from Sudan and an icon of St. Augustine with darker skin since his mother was from North Africa's Berber tribe. There was St. Juan Diego of Mexico, who encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Sister Thea Bowman of Mississippi, the granddaughter of slaves, whose cause for sainthood has been endorsed by America's bishops.
"I wanted my children to see all kinds of saints and heroes, including some with faces kind of like their own," she said.
Bulman had also become interested in the Marvel Comics universe and the symbolic role of King T'Challa -- the Black Panther -- for millions of Black Americans, especially children. She was stunned when actor Chadwick Boseman died this summer at age 43 after a long, private fight with colon cancer. He endured years of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries while filming "Black Panther" and related Avengers movies.
Searching through press reports, Bulman noted colleagues referring to Boseman as a "man of faith," a "beautiful soul" and someone with a "spiritual aura" about his work with others -- including children with cancer.
At a memorial rite for Boseman, his former pastor at Welfare Baptist Church in Anderson, S.C., said even after fame arrived, the actor remained the same person he'd known as a young believer.
"He's still Chad," said the Rev. Samuel Neely. "He did a lot of positive things. ... With him singing in the choir, with him working the youth group, he always was doing something, always helping out, always serving. That was his personality."
Digging deeper, Bulman said she "cried all the way through" a video of Boseman's 2018 commencement address at Howard University, his alma mater. She noted the actor's adept use of Scripture, especially when describing a lesson learned when he questioned violent, hopeless themes in one of his first roles.
"I was let go from that job on the next day. ... The questions I asked set the producers on guard and perhaps paved the way for a less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me. As the Scripture says, 'I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God kept it growing,'" said Boseman, citing 1 Corinthians 3:6.
The actor noted: "Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you. God says in Jeremiah, 'I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"
Spiritual themes emerged in other appearances, including Boseman's remarks at the 2019 American Film Institute tribute to a mentor, Denzel Washington. He thanked the superstar -- a Pentecostal pastor's son who is open about his faith -- for helping young people in civic groups, theaters and churches, saying "an offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington."
Boseman closed with Ephesians 3:20: "May God bless you exceedingly and abundantly more for what's in store than He ever has before."
Bulman stressed that Boseman kept playing roles that "looked past the color of someone's skin and into their search for purpose." It was "a bonus that he didn't look like other movie superheroes. ... I also thought it was important to learn that his faith made a difference in his life and his work," she said.
"What Chadwick Boseman offered us was a chance to see that nothing is completely secular, that everyone has a chance to be reclaimed and redeemed," Bulman said. "He was a different kind of hero."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.