Running on Plenty

From the moment “McFarland, USA” begins, you know how it will end. So the scenes described here do not quite qualify as spoilers. You can guess that Jim White, the gruff yet big-hearted running coach (whose surname also matches his ethnicity) played by Kevin Costner, will have a hard time adjusting to his abrupt move to the largely Mexican-American town of McFarland. You suspect that his team of Mexican-American high school kids will treat him with some suspicion. And you know that by the end of the film, they will all come away changed by their encounters with one another,.

But what you might not guess before seeing the film is that director Niki Caro won’t take any shortcuts to the eventual happy ending. You will be pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful attention to the back stories of the runners, who struggle to help support their families by working in the fields when not in school. You will be glad to see that the relationships among the team members and their families are in fact real and loving and solid, though not without struggle. You will be relieved to learn that the kids are not portrayed as helpless cases in need of a savior in White.

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“McFarland, USA” is based on a true story; the events took place in 1987 in McFarland, a real town in California’s Central Valley. In many ways, the movie is a welcome one for our time: an earnest, sincere film in an era when irony, snark or edginess can seem to dominate so many creative pursuits or conversations. It allows joy to exist alongside difficulties, and hope alongside discouragement. Even its predictability is a comfort; you can watch knowing that good will win out, that the hills will be overcome. It encourages us to acknowledge the reality of our struggles but to keep moving forward.

Although the terrain I have tread, both along the race course and in my home life, has been quite different from those depicted in the film, the racing scenes still brought me back to my own days as a high school runner in Massachusetts. Though the boys of McFarland joined their team largely to get into or out of trouble, my own decision to join my high school cross country team was largely inspired by Michael Johnson’s speed on the track in the 1996 Olympics. His gold racing flats also motivated me to cover my mother’s old New Balance sneakers with gold glittery puffy paint before trying them out on my first run around our neighborhood.

On my first day of practice, I was nervous. But almost as soon as I arrived, we were told to start running. We were told to just move forward, just keep going, all at our own paces, all of us trying to better ourselves while also letting go of ourselves for just a little while.

This tension between the shared journey and individual identity exists in McFarland, too. The beauty of the relationships in the film is that as the team grows in skill, its members also grow into their own skins. They become more confident, not simply because of their victories, but because they acknowledge how much they have always been capable of.

This sort of transformation is perhaps particularly relevant during Easter, as we are reminded of our call to be transformed and to remain true. The risen Christ models this for us in Scripture by being both revolutionary and recognizable. He is someone totally new, and yet constant. Christ’s resurrection tells us we will not always be as we are now. Better things are on the way.

In our daily lives, we sometimes feel this tension of being in transition, that pull of what was and what will be and what we wish for. But from that stretching there comes real growth.

True Christian community asks us to recognize those qualities in one another that we might not be willing to recognize in ourselves. We are called to support one another and challenge one another along our shared path, even as we sometimes desire to sprint off on our own diversions. Yet even those tangents are part of our journey; there can be continuity even in the wrong turns. Slowly we are strengthened, not just by our own will but by those who love us. And this transformation is not the fulfillment of our own desires but of God’s desire for us.

The events of our own journeys in faith are anything but predictable, but the paschal mystery helps remind us to keep moving forward in faith. There are better days ahead.

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