By Kara Davis
St. Vincent de Paul told the first Sisters, "Your convent will be the house of
the sick; your cell, a hired room; your chapel, the parish church; your cloister, the streets of the city or the wards of the hospital."
|Stained glass window at St. Stephen's Church in New Orleans, LA.
In August 2014, I began my Clinical Fellowship Year as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) with Jefferson Parish Public Schools, and was assigned to work full-time at Estelle Elementary School in Marrero, Louisiana. This Pre-K through seventh grade school included approximately 1,000 students and served the highest special education population in the Parish. It was located within a low-income neighborhood and served a predominantly African-American population, with some Latino, Vietnamese, and Caucasian students mixed in.
Quiet, early morning breezeway at Estelle
Occasionally there were days I would arrive to school early, before any teachers or students even grazed the parking lot. Before entering, I would walk past one of the locked gates separating the school from the parking lot, and stare at the peaceful campus, silent breezeways, and thin layer of fog blanketing the field. Yes, behind these bars existed a piece of heaven.
I was reminded of my visits to the Carmelite monastery, where the serene mystery of what existed behind the grill captivated my imagination. When visiting the Carmelites in Avila, Spain, the prioress, Madre Carmen, told a story about her nephew’s visit to the monastery. She shared that this young boy looked at her from the other side of the grill and asked, “Auntie, why are you in prison?” and Madre Carmen answered, “I am not the one in prison, for on this side of the bars is heaven.” The boy responded, “I want to be in heaven. I want to be on the side with you.” I remember sitting in my chair in the monastery echoing this little boy’s words. I too wanted to experience that piece of heaven on earth. I too longed to escape behind those bars.
I felt that same intriguing curiosity when I approached the school early in the morning, but in this case, I held the keys to enter the cloister at Estelle. As I walked through the gates, I entered my cloister. I entered my little piece of heaven. It was so easy to stand in the stillness of this peaceful heaven and say a prayer. However, the hard part started when my cloister started to fill with other people, and I was called to live that prayer within the messiness.
The most difficult part of my year at Estelle was not fulfilling my duties as a new SLP fresh out of graduate school. The greatest challenge was living in the messiness of my cloister, witnessing the culture of violence demonstrated by the administration, and not being able to change it. Day after day, I found myself at the foot of the cross with Mary. Together, our hearts broke for the children who were so hungry for love, but fed with threats and constant yelling from administration and teachers. Instead of being disciplined, children were bullied into either fearful submission, or violent defiance warranting expulsion. Within this environment, all I could do was stand there gazing up at my suffering Christ, and after a lot of prayer, I think that’s exactly where He wanted me to be. I experienced a new kind of poverty at Estelle Elementary and my love was stretched further because of it. I experienced the heavy burden of feeling powerless.
My experience at Estelle Elementary brought St. Vincent's words to life in a real, concrete way. I found my cloister at my ministry, and I encountered Christ everyday behind the grill in the children so hungry for my love. So, where's your cloister?