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Davis, California

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Old time religion

The students of the Sunday school class that I currently help teach are perhaps some of the most difficult I’ve taught in terms of behavior, attention span and attitude. They’re a bunch of middle school aged students. That right there is enough. On top of that, we’re talking Vallejo’s middle schoolers. Added to the mix are about two handfuls of students that just really don’t want to be there and see religion as another form of academia. It’s a recipe for a test of will and devotion.

Three Sundays ago was Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, the entire school goes to the gym to watch a dramatization of Jesus’ crucifixion. After the play was over, a friend of mine fittingly named Rocky noticed my class’ lack of reverence. Rocky, being Rocky, had to say something about it.

In terms of personality, Rocky is the very antithesis of who I am. He’s extremely loud and social, hot-blooded, growing an afro and always ready with something to say.

Returning from the gym after the play, Rocky followed the students back into their classroom. I couldn’t be there, but I had heard about what he had done. He told me, Man, I just blew up at them! I don’t know. Uncle Errol said it was okay, but man! I yelled at them.

After class concluded, everyone went their ways to enjoy the last bit of Lent and the beginning of Easter.

In this time apart, the students and Rocky had some time to reflect on what had just happened. Rocky asked Uncle Errol, the teacher in charge, if he could come and speak to them again. Being given permission, Rocky prepared for the next meeting. I’ve been thinking about them a lot, he tells me. I even wrote a poem.

Divine Mercy Sunday rolls around, and students trickle into the class room. They were still a little scared of Rocky. Some of my fellow aides heard the students murmur as they took their seats, I hope we don’t get in trouble or else that guy is gonna come back and yell at us again.

The students sounded the same, acted the same for the most part. Some still cracked jokes at the expense of any real depth and thought about what we discussed. Others sat quietly and listened. It still took quite a bit of effort to get cooperation.

Then the time came for Rocky to come in and speak. When the students saw him, the countenance of the entire class changed. Backs were straightened, eyes were forward and it was quiet. It was quite a marvel.

I’ve been thinking about you guys a lot, Rocky began. I even wrote a poem for you. I don’t know if it’ll mean anything to you but it does to me, so… yeah! Here goes. And he recited his poem from memory, speaking about nonviolence, how Jesus waits for us like our admirer waiting for our call and choosing to be different.

Rocky suddenly broke into tears in front of the whole class. Many of the things he said were made inaudible by the shaking of his voice and the uncontrollable sobs. Other utterances were generalities about what one ought to do in life or standard phrases about the love of God. Then still some utterances didn’t seem to have much to do with what he was talking about at all, just pleasant non-secular jargon.

However, at that moment the message was clear and religion was taught in its fullness, if only for a moment. What religion often tries to teach through books became incarnated in Rocky. Perhaps it was best put by Mother Theresa when she said, In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. It didn’t matter whether his poem was award winning material, nor whether the following commentary was eloquent or even coherent. What really matters is the why and the how.

After Rocky was done, he left.

It was not long before one or two of the students reverted back to old habits, making jokes and making for a lighter fare. At that point it didn’t matter. They had seen for themselves what religion is about and why it is different from the world of academia.


Have any hows or whys you wish to express? Send them to JEREMY MALLETT at jjmallett@ucdavis.edu. XXX


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