Reflection by Nancy Hanson
Director of the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks
I want to talk a bit about God…faith…community….Joseph, his family….and us.
I begin with a story from my life.
The summer of 1968, freshman year at Lathrop complete…summer at Harding Lake. July 16, an idyllic day, spent with my friend Janet. We skied and swam. Each of our families would go to town that night for groceries and return the following evening…we anticipated summer fun ahead. That next day, just before dinner, my dad said—I have something to tell you… “Janet, her mother and brother were killed in a car accident on the way back to the lake.” Life stopped.
While my parents had us kids attend the Mormon Church, they were not comfortable with faith and were even more uncomfortable with a teenager’s grief. A church friend said something incomprehensible to me a day or two after Janet’s death. Her words, “Janet’s death was God’s will.” My tenuous hold on faith was severed. I looked at the friend and said, I’m done—I don’t need that God. In those days, people didn’t deal much with grief and sorrow. It—grief combined with anger-was packed up inside a person…not talked about, not dealt with, not expressed.
I had no idea I would end up teaching at Monroe eleven years later. I was honest when interviewed—I’m not Catholic, I’m not certain I believe in God. I will listen to and honor the faith of the school. Perhaps it was that honesty that led to me being hired. I, who had quit God and Church, stepped into a new world. Prayer at school, Mass, retreats with juniors and seniors, prayers before games. There were families and students who changed my life….through them and faculty members, I came to know a God of love…a God whose will was this: that we believe in and love a God of great love; that we love one another as Jesus modeled during his life—Jesus who cared for people on the fringes, those who were sick, hurting, frightened, mourning.
We ask why, why did Joseph die? We may never know. God did not will Joseph’s death. Joseph’s heart failed…and our hearts are broken. God’s will comes into play now. Love God. With God, Joseph is okay…and, he is with you, inside your heart, with his parents, with Michael and Christian.
Love one another: tend to one another in this uneven and rocky field of emotions—emotions that are different for each of you; expressed at times in anger (that’s okay and very real), expressed in uncertainty, tears, in bleak darkness, in needing to be with others, needing to be alone.
Heart pain abounds amongst us—not just in the teens, but in the adult hearts, too. How do class and team-mates, faculty, parents and friends get through? By being community. By believing in God’s love…by knowing that we are the hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart of Jesus, of Christ for one another.
Today’s Mass is a gift. We come together, to process this incredibly sudden and pain-filled death…to begin the healing of our own hearts…as individuals, as community.
We take time to gather, from one another and from God, the courage and strength to be present to Jim, Kathleen, Michael and Christian.
Pain can envelope us and is often difficult-- scary to share. How do we talk to one another about our own sorrow? Teens to one another, teens with parents, parents and colleagues to one another? What do we say to Christian, to Joseph’s family? How do we navigate this? We recognize, first, that we are an incredible community…and the answers of what to do emerge; a hug, a hand held, a shoulder to lean on, a courageous look into the eyes of one another and the Balkos—perhaps saying—you are held in prayer, I’m here for you…to listen, to walk, to just be.
School just ended. How do we be present to Christian when school in not in session? How do colleagues remain present to Kathleen, and Nordale’s colleagues to Jim? How do we respect their need to grieve as family with our need to hold them?
We begin today by being together—strengthening ourselves for the funeral to come. The school and chapel will be open throughout the week. You can sit in the chapel or commons, talk with Ms. Krause
and the administrative team, this is your school—a place for you to be.
And, we even begin to think ahead…how do we walk alongside Christian who knew he’d be a senior with Joseph a sophomore? How do we accompany Joseph’s classmates as they try to understand the hole left behind by his death? How do Michael’s fellow alum stay in touch with him?
What I know about you is that you know God’s will—you know to love one another through this. I know the strength of our school community; we—you—will walk alongside the Balkos.
Yesterday Kathleen whose faith we encounter daily—a faith which is a glowing beacon said: “We’ve been blessed as family to have Joseph for 15 years and now he is with God.”
Joseph, so alive in their hearts and in yours…you will know and feel the presence of Joseph in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Kathleen also said, “ICC is our parish. Jim wants the funeral to be at school. Joseph loved the school.” You know that. Joseph loved the school; his dad and brother are alum, this is his mom’s school and Christian’s, and his—Joseph loves this school-family, his faith, you.
The will of God is that we be community for the Balkos…today, at the funeral, all summer, and as school commences in August. These halls, this chapel will be a different place for Kathleen and Christian, for each of us….and yet they will be the same—a vibrant refuge of faith and love.
We take time together to grieve, to hurt, to hold one another…and to prepare for our journey ahead—taking care of the Balkos. How? Write notes and mail them, it’s an odd and old concept—but notes or cards in the mailbox will mean a ton to Jim and Kathleen. Call or text Christian…drop by his house-- he may not accept your invitation to “play,” but he will know you are thinking about him and in time, he will join you; the same is true for Michael; hold them as family and as individuals in prayer. Believe in the power of prayer—as short and simple as: Please God, be with Christian, Michael, Jim, Kathleen.
The tradition and ritual of Mass give us time to realize that God is tending to us, not causing the painful times…but here with us…urging us to dare to love—to dare to take care of one another…and so we begin with one of Joseph and Christian’s favorite songs, “Lord, I lift your name on high”….please stand,—tears may flow as you sing, that’s okay.