I became a theologian because I relished the epiphanies I experienced studying the Catholic tradition: the “aha!” sensations when a gift from that tradition would rock my theology nerd world. A big part of teaching at two Catholic institutions over the past 15 years has been the joy of creating epiphany experiences for my students.
In the last six years working at La Salle University in Philadelphia, however, I have also found myself to be a student again, one on the receiving end of epiphanic experiences. La Salle has an applicant pool that looks dramatically different from when I was applying to colleges in the early 1990s. Today, it is the rule—not the exception—that there are at least as many students of color in my classrooms as white students. In diverse classrooms, epiphanies do not necessarily come from the Catholic tradition itself but from the people trying to be together while engaging it.
There was Nasir, a black student who offered the gift of re-centering a course’s authoritative texts away from readings and toward students’ lived experiences. “When it comes to racism,” he said, “I just wish people would believe me.” And so I try to educate around the stories of the people in the room and not just of those in the tradition.
In diverse classrooms, epiphanies do not necessarily come from the Catholic tradition itself but from the people trying to be together while engaging it.
During a community organizing course, Miguel, a Latino student. requested that we make time and space for practices of self-care. Many of the students were not just examining social problems like cash bail or unequal public school funding but rather trying to live—study, work, take care of siblings—in the midst of them. Now I make time for the students to write haikus or practice mindfulness breathing exercises or name and celebrate our wins, no matter how small.
Then there are the epiphanies that disrupt us when the worlds within Generation Z collide. Exchanges among young people reveal chasms of estrangement. White student teachers describe deplorable conditions in the public schools where they are doing their field work, only to discover that a fellow classmate graduated from that school. A white guest speaker from a radical Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia spends five minutes describing the neighborhood—in the presence of a student who tells him she lives there.
Diverse classrooms reveal the truth that the Catholic tradition has often been used in a city like Philadelphia to keep us separate.
In these moments, diverse classrooms reveal the truth that the Catholic tradition has often been used in a city like Philadelphia to keep us separate. We have become strangers to each other, whether through generations of church-assisted segregation in housing and schools and universities or through a mindset that approaches disadvantaged people primarily as people in need.
I also constantly need to remind myself that expecting students of color to teach me and their white peers about the injustices of a racialized society burdens them with yet another responsibility. Students of color deserve more than that. They deserve to see more people who look like them doing the teaching and agitating with them for structural changes that will make straight the crooked paths of higher education.
My epiphanies have taught me that white students also deserve more. They deserve more white educators willing to push them out of their comfort zones, to help them recognize the false boundaries and constructs they have inherited from several generations of racially segregated housing and education.
Last month, Maria, a Latina alumna, came back to campus. In talking about how to prepare for life after La Salle, she quoted a mujerista theologian who had given me one of my first epiphanies as a student. But Maria used her in an entirely new way. I encountered that theologian and her truth, myself and my vocation, and Maria’s wisdom. The next day, I took a breath to reset and headed back into the classroom.