Holy Week and Passover have me, this lapsed Catholic – and let us be mindful that Passover is a shared heritage of Christians and Jews – recalling a time in which I wasn't so lapsed.
For the 1988-89 school year, I was a resident prefect a Georgetown Preparatory School, a day and resident secondary all-boys school in Rockville, MD, just outside of the District of Columbia.
Georgetown Preparatory School educates a diverse student population that includes students from around the world; it educates the sons of leading diplomatic, political, and business figures; it educates the wealthy, the middle class, and those from modest financial backgrounds.
Georgetown Prep is the oldest institution of Jesuit learning in the New World. Georgetown University grew out of it.
It was a fun year at Georgetown Prep – and of course, even while working and living in the D.C. area, my social life included Easton people.
My good friend and fellow Class of '81 grad, Bill Marsan, was attending George Washington University Law School. His younger sister, Michelle, and Leslie Hogan, both OA '83 grads, worked and shared an apartment in D.C. Leslie's boyfriend, Jim Fitzgerald, another OA '83 grad, a U.S. Air Force officer, was attending Georgetown University Medical School. (Leslie and Jim married, and have children who attended OA; their daughter is now at Georgetown University.) Kelly O'Leary (OA '88) was in her freshman year at Catholic University.
Several other Easton people stopped by and visited during the year.
Catholicism and spirituality were at the foundation of the education and enrichment at Georgetown Prep. Jesuits ran the school. We had many Jesuits who lived and taught at the school. At the end of the hall on which I lived was a residence of Jesuits.
Students of different faiths attended Georgetown Prep. Respect for different religious backgrounds was encouraged and enforced; an academic curriculum taught the students about various religions.
I thought it great that on my floor, sharing a room were Ali Amin, a Muslim from Iran, and Benjamin Cardona, a Catholic from Colombia.
Every night prior to a school day, residents were required, following study hall, and prior to bed, to attend on the hall on which they lived, a few minutes of prayer which was led by a resident prefect.
Attendance at a Catholic Mass was required of every resident every Sunday.
More than 20 years ago, I was more Catholic than I am today. I was committed to my faith. So for me – who grew up in Easton in a strong Catholic tradition, and was a graduate of Boston College, a Jesuit institution – Georgetown Prep was culturally and spiritually comfy.
Over the past 10 years or so, I have strayed from the Church. I still call myself a Catholic – hence the "lapsed" qualifier – but the questions and doubts about whether there is a God that I harbor, and the rules and "regs" of the Church with which I disagree (e.g., that priests can't marry, and that women can't be priests), and that I so rarely attend Mass, prevent me from labeling myself any type of good and practicing Catholic.
But I am not hostile to Catholicism, or any other spiritual tradition that advances and supports the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
My Catholic upbringing I value highly and is tremendously important to me.
I still think I am worth saving. If God exists, I hope that He carefully considers my request for salvation.
This gets me back to Georgetown Prep School – and prayer on the hall the night before a school day.
One night I was on duty, and it was my job to lead prayer. Prayer was at 10 o'clock. I had just finished a run, and in my running gear and running shoes I came rambling onto the hall.
During my run, I had thought over what would be the content of the prayer session that night. We had considerable latitude as to what to include in nightly prayer. It could be a reading from a holy book, whether that holy book be the Bible, or the book from another religion. I encouraged students to read holy writings and teachings, whether from the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or another tradition.
Stories that had their origins in more contemporary culture, and which taught an important message, were also encouraged.
To that end, for that night, I decided to tell my multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-spiritual student group the story of the 1936 Summer Olympics and Jesse Owens and Luz Long.
I told the kids that the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin was set up by German führer Adolf Hitler to be his showcase for Aryan superiority. I told them that a contingent of African-Americans, led by Jesse Owens, screwed all of that up.
I am recalling as best I can the actual words I spoke to the kids, and how I delivered them, and this is the essence of what I said and presented.
I said that Hitler believed the Berlin Olympics would show that the Aryan race was superior to blacks – and I looked at Taru Taylor, an African American.
I said that Hitler felt the Berlin Olympics would prove that the Aryan race was superior to the Asians, and I looked at Albert Rhee, who was from South Korea.
I said that Hitler felt the 1936 Olympics would prove Aryans were superior to Jews – and I looked at Gary Goodweather, who was Jewish.
I said that Hitler believed that the 1936 Olympics would prove that "his master race" was superior to the Hispanics, and I looked at Benjamin Cardona, the Colombian.
I said that Hitler believed that the 1936 Summer Olympics would prove the Aryan race superior to Middle Easterners, and I looked at Ali Amin, the kid from Iran.
They all were paying attention.
Then I told them about the long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics.
(First a little set-up for you the reader: It is famously known that at the 1936 Summer Olympics, Jesse Owens, the greatest sprinter and long jumper in the world, won four gold medals: in order, the 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and as the anchor leg on the 400-meter relay Curiously, in the long jump, Owens came close to not making the final.)
I told the kids how in the preliminary round of the long jump, Owens fouled twice. If he fouled a third time in the round, he would be out of the competition. It was prior to his third jump that something very interesting, historic, and courageous happened.
I spoke these words to the students:
Luz Long, the golden-haired German, was one of the top long jumpers in the world, a rival of Owens's for the gold medal, and a model of Hitler's imagined master race. Long approached Owens in view of the fuehrer. He told Owens that the qualifying distance for the final was a cinch for Owens, the world record holder in the event, so why not put a mark several inches in front of the takeoff board, and jump from there so as to ensure that he would not foul again.
Luz Long did this in front of Adolf Hitler – and this made Hitler furious.
Long even placed a towel those several inches in front of the takeoff board as a marker for Owens.
Jesse Owens took the advice of Luz Long. For his final jump of the qualifying round, he took off about six inches before the takeoff board. Owens qualified for the final. He went on to win the gold medal. Long won the silver medal.
A strong friendship was forged between Owens and Long.
Now, here's the thing – and this is important – Luz Long was an atheist; he did not believe in God.
(I did not tell the students this, because I didn't know it then, but Jesse Owens understood Luz Long to be an atheist because of a talk he had with Long the night prior to the long jump final; in that conversation, Owens, a religious man, learned that Long did not believe in God because he had no proof that God existed.)
I continued with the story to the students:
Yes, Luz Long did not believe in God. But you know what Jesse Owens said years later about Luz Long? He said this: "Maybe Luz Long did not believe in God, but God believed in Luz Long."
(Actually, I was somewhat incorrect here – you see, it was in the Olympic stadium in Berlin in 1936 when Owens first thought this about Luz Long and God.)
Next, with the students standing there, I made a sign of the Cross, and I said, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen."
There was a brief silence. Then a voice, so matter of fact, from one of the students; he said, "That's a good story."
Maybe Luz Long did not believe in God, but God believed in Luz Long.
And I think perhaps that is the way that believers and quasi-believers and doubters and deniers should all live – that in us good men and women would say that God believed.
A few years after the 1936 Summer Olympics, the world went to war.
Jesse Owens joined the U.S. Army. Luz Long wore the uniform of the German military. On paper, the two were enemies. The written correspondence stopped.
Then in the summer of 1944, Jesse Owens received a letter from Luz Long; it was dated almost a year prior. Long was in North Africa when he wrote the letter. Soon he would be in Italy, in the middle hellish combat to repel the Allied invasion of Southern Europe.
Here is an excerpt from the letter:
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer. And I know it is never by chance that we come together.
And you, I believe, will read this letter. I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse. I believe in God. And I pray to Him that, even while it should not be possible to see you again, these words I write will still be read by you.
On July 10, 1943, few days after the letter was dated, Luz Long was seriously wounded in battle in Italy. He died on July 13, 1943, in an English controlled military hospital.
And here’s the thing – what I told the students about what Jesse Owens said about Luz Long and God, well, it was incomplete. Here is the full version of what Jesse Owens said:
Luz Long may not have believed in God, but God had believed in Luz Long. And God had sent him to me.
Maybe Jesse Owens was right. Maybe we are instruments of a far larger and more profound and important and consequential plan than we appreciate.
If so, it would seem that in this season that represents salvation and deliverance to so many, we should be especially open to untold wonder, unimagined hope, immeasurable love, and infinite renewal.