“There Is a Miracle on the Other Side of Your Storm”!

There are several who may be aware, that this is the busiest time of the school year for me. We are currently in the midst of the new student recruitment season. My responsibilities serving as Verbum Dei High School’s Dean of Admissions, requires my exclusive attention and some very long work days. I enjoy the work! Until recently, I never imagined myself in another position. However I see myself working here in the same capacity as that of a weather newscaster and think of the Verbum Dei experience as having the same characteristics as those that could be described in a perfect storm. A few weeks ago while attending church I focused deeply on the Pastoral presentation extended to the congregation, “There Is a Miracle on the Other Side of Your Storm”! As the minister offered the message I began to reflect on the Verbum Dei experience from a multidimensional perspective. The work for which I am accountable, my vocation, the other duties expected of me as a student advocate, mentor and one of those on campus who offers the “encouragement” our boys require. By continuously holding myself accountable to these responsibilities I experienced extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Although, there are those of you who are reading this composition and sincerely appreciate the expression, I want to be clear, my goal is simple. I am using this Leadership Blog contribution to take the necessary time to self-medicate, to encourage myself and extend encouragement to you for the effort that you all produce.

Faithfully, we have genuinely served as agents of change. We each have placed both hands to the plow. Accurately, we have produced an exceptional effort to change the status quo of this community for our students and their families. We certainly have gained the knowledge that many of our boys would not have had these opportunities without the agreement that is stimulated on our campus. In consideration of the manner in which all of our boys can claim educational triumph, there is no reason for regret. Yes, it is exhausting work. The pressure we feel may be similar to, or can be compared to the characteristics of a storm, but with all of our collective effort we will continue to succeed. Whether the weather is clear or stormy we all can lay claim to victory. Please do not allow the storms you experience overcast your greatness. Our boys are watching and need positive examples from which they can learn. Weathering storms are normal in the occurrence of our lives. It is our responsibility that our boys grasp this understanding so as they encounter the challenges life offers they each have a skill set which includes an umbrella, raincoat and boots to move beyond the storms. Our collective goal is to assist our boys with an ability to reflect on the effort required to get to higher ground. Let me remind you “There Is a Miracle on the Other Side of Your Storm”!

Peace,

Lorenz B. Willis, M.S.

Dean, Admissions, Outreach and Recruitment

Theology and Black Lives Matter

As a requirement for the junior Social Justice course, the students complete a project (semester long) on a social justice issue they would like to explore in greater depth and/or they are deeply passionate about. It was not surprising that many students were compelled to write about police brutality, racism, or poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles. For the young men of Verb, these realities have shaped the horizon of their being, their identities forged at each crucible of injustice. Yet, they are often afforded little to no opportunities to reflect upon these experiences and find their concerns underrepresented or completely neglected. Unfortunately, this is also the case within the Church, which often lodges concerns for the life and dignity of each human person within narrow arguments about artificial methods of contraception or abortion, the result of which is a neglect of life issues related to dehumanization: state sanctioned murder, and the incessant individual and systemic violences, both material and ideological, that affect persons of color.

Recently, a local parish advertised a “Respect for Life” mass, which clearly indicated that “Black Lives Matter” would be the focus. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and hardly had the patience to wait for the date of the mass to arrive! I told my juniors that this mass may be a wonderful resource for them, particularly those researching and writing about racism and police brutality, who may benefit from a sermon on the theological implications of what it means to say that “Black Lives Matter.” Unfortunately, the homilist neglected to mention how, or whether, “Black Lives Matter.” The homily began with a heavy focus upon personal sexual morality, particularly pre-marital sex and concluded with a reflection on the ills of divorce, and how the family is being destroyed by these practices. Nevermind that, as one of my colleagues noted, his audience may have been through situations where the dissolution of marriage was necessary to keep their very selves intact (situations of intimate partner violence would function as prime examples here), and therefore, they may have been left wondering if the broad brush stroke of the social ill of divorce applied to them. What immediately sank in for me was that issues of respecting life were yet again couched within issues of sex, marriage, and divorce. At times the homilist made borderline vulgar statements with sexual implications, you know, to really drive the point home. All I could think of is that this “vulgarity” was not vulgar at all—it was rather safe. It is safe to talk about premarital sex, about marriage, divorce, and vocation. It would be much more vulgar to have actually spoken about the broken and murdered black and brown bodies in society. It would have been much more vulgar because we may need to face our collective indictment for complicity in such social sin. So, instead of scandalizing the audience with the possibility that black lives do indeed matter and that we must do what we can to act in solidarity, the homilist opted for the easy and cheap grace that comes along with nestling issues of life into sexual morality. In his neglect of addressing the real issues surrounding the “Black Lives Matter” movement, he also refused to acknowledge just how well a theo-ethical analysis of this movement coincides with the core of our own Christian faith, and therefore rejected how theological discourse can prove prophetic in times of tremendous suffering.

They are crucifying again the Son of God’(Heb 6:6).

Both Jesus and blacks were the ‘strange fruit’ (that Billie Holiday sung of). Theologically            speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on         American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black (and             brown) people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused        to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and             claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified          body of            Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. They lynching   tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross (J. Cone, The            Cross and the Lynching Tree)

The above quote taken from black liberation theologian James Cone truly does reveal the scandal of the cross. We cannot see or know God until we lament and act in solidarity with the brutalized and broken black and brown communities. The lynching tree and the indiscriminate violence meted out against persons of color, often leading to their deaths, evokes the memory and tragedy of the cross. This is part of the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement—we must recognize how we continue to crucify persons of color. By refusing to engage in the vulgarities of such violence, particularly in our Church, we forget our executed God, and his complete identification with those who suffer. Additionally, we fail to evidence how theology can be meaningful to the young men of Verb. It is time that we get vulgar. I invite teachers in all disciplines to accompany me on this journey. I certainly did when I offered my classes the homily that our theological tradition lends itself to—one that says loudly and clearly that Black Lives DO Matter. The young men of Verb desire this, they have a right to reflect on their own experiences, and to hear their advocates, mentors, teachers and clergy members provide insights that resonate with their own horizons of understanding.

High-End Computer Questions with Which I Don’t Immediately Have an Answer To

Over my 5+ years as Tech Director at Verbum Dei, I’ve experienced a rather remarkable change in my regard towards our students’ learning capabilities.  It’s been a revolution of sorts, and probably speaks more to my own misunderstandings than to the students themselves, but ultimately reflects positively towards our intrepid young men.

My background previous to Verbum Dei was in the private sector, so I had no previous experience in education and working with high school students. Any interactions with students early in my first year were tainted with a mindset driven by a belief that these guys were young and probably hadn’t benefitted from the exposure to technology compared to many other middle class communities.   I believed in my own semi-tainted mind many of our boys had matriculated through school districts that were poorly funded and under-served.  So when students approached me with technology questions or problems they were facing, I approached my solutions for them in learning contexts – assuming these were great “teaching” moments for them – as well as I.  And this is how I handled those types of questions when they came to me for assistance.

My point for sharing this is most interesting –not that those types of questions have gone away over the years.  I still get those questions.  And it is also true that Verbum Dei students haven’t always benefitted from many of the economic teaching advantages you’ll find in most other communities.  But what’s interesting about my interactions with our Verbum Dei students is that – when I look back at these teaching moments over the years – I really haven’t had as many as I anticipated.  When I reflect on it, those basic questions rooted from inexperience or under-exposure are vastly in the minority.  If I were to be completely honest, the most common requests I get from students are probably password resets to their computer and email accounts!!  And even though those requests are somewhat annoying – yet easily correctable – problems, they are certainly not necessarily reflective of young peoples’ learning competencies (I dealt with password resets just as frequently in the private sector)! Generally though, those issues that provided basic teaching moments for students haven’t cropped up in huge numbers, and thus are not something reflective of a general lack of educational quality or opportunity.

Furthermore, what’s even more fascinating and revealing of our students’ technology acumen is the other type of questions/problems I am frequently tasked with.  I categorize these as the “High-End Computer Questions with Which I Don’t Immediately Have an Answer To!!”  Yes, I get a bulk of tech questions that start from a very high level of understanding from the start.  The Tech Director being challenged by his students for computer solutions is a real thing at Verbum Dei.  Here’s a recent example:  I had a student asked my about formatting text and pictures in a Microsoft Word brochure he was creating for an assignment.  The formatting question was sensible, but the perfect solution had proven elusive.  I asked the student if perhaps doing the brochure in PowerPoint might offer a better variety of formatting, and he began to show me – because he clearly was well-versed with the options and had worked through the issues earlier – that Microsoft Word possessed more dynamic and full-featured brochure templates.  I admittedly did not know any of this.  He began to show me how both products compared to one another!  The tables were turned, and I was the student now.  Finding this as an exceptional learning moment for both of us, we worked together to find the formatting solution that was eluding us – and we did.  And truth be known – this wasn’t the first time this has happened.  I run across this constantly – students bringing a solid understanding of technology to the arena.  And I love it.

The message here is I’ve learned a boat-load of tech stuff from our young men.  Yes – they’ve taught me. They are extremely savvy in the ways and features of today’s technology and devices.  They know the in-and-outs of social media and interactions with the vast realm of knowledge on the other end of our monitors.  I’ve relied on them to show me how certain features work on Smartphones, tablets and Apps.   They – themselves – are daring teachers; they’re that good.  These young men are outfitted for success more than I ever believed when I first came to the school, and their abilities to adapt, retain and learn should encourage all of us.  There’s no doubt in my mind  — they’re equipped for tomorrow’s challenges.

A Resilient Spirit in “APUSH”

During the summer, I attended an Advanced Placement summer institute in order to prepare for the upcoming AP US History course that Verbum Dei added for the 2015-2016 academic year. Upon arrival, I was quickly made aware by the instructor that the hurdles were going to be plentiful; especially for students that struggle with literacy. While there was a sustained focus on different strategies that teachers can implement in order to assist students with literacy competency, I was caught off guard by a unique hurdle Verbum Dei academics has as it pertains to the AP tests: time. The instructor handed out an outline that listed the amount of days he would dedicate to each unit, totaling in 159 days. After looking at the Verbum Dei calendar I realized our students would have a little over 100 days to cover the same amount of material!

In my mission to create an atmosphere of resiliency and urgency, I shared with them this obstacle. After I presented my game plan in attacking this time constraint, which included occasional Saturday sessions, in unison they replied, “Sounds good, Mr. Jovel”. Though I was pleased with their quick optimistic response, this Saturday really spoke volumes to their determination. On Saturday, September 26th we came together at eight in the morning for a study session that lasted a couple of hours. Not one person was absent. What came after meant the world to me. While most students would have their parents patiently waiting for them in the school parking lot, excited to start the weekend plans, half of my boys were waiting on separate bus stops along Central Ave. It was inspiring to see our boys not use the excuse of lacking transportation as a reason to not come in for an early morning Saturday session.

They are giants, and in many ways encompass the resilient spirit of the Verbum Dei and Watts community. This is true testament to, not only the educators at Verbum Dei, but the families that these young men come from. I am inspired by their winning spirit and their optimistic minds. The hurdles won’t decline for our boys but on Saturday I witnessed how they will approach those obstacles.

“Blessed is the man who preserves  under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” – James 1:12