There is no place I would rather be on Easter Morning than the Naval Academy Chapel for nine o’clock Mass. The splendor of the ceremony itself moves me to doubt my doubts and surrender to the mystery of my faith. But I must confess, I spend as much time surveying the people around me as I do the priests on the altar. The chapel overflows with Midshipmen alongside their parents, brothers, sisters, and sweethearts who have traveled to Annapolis for the Easter holiday. The midshipmen, who at a young age chose a course most of their peers would not, renew within me great hope for our country as their generation comes of age and takes the helm. Mass stirs my soul, the mids my heart.
However, I also think of my own students at the community college where I teach English as a Second Language. At first glance, one may see no similarities between midshipmen and the immigrants and refugees in my classroom. My students, at a young age, chose a course that left all that was known in hope of finding something better. But first, they must learn a new language, a new culture, a new set of values. And they must make new friends, for here all they have is each other. My readers can surely see that there are more similarities than differences between the midshipmen and my ESL students.
But one student, Daniel, was heavy on my mind last Easter as I sat in Sleepy Hollow and my eyes followed the priests making their way down the center aisle. Daniel had fled the violence of his Dinka village in southern Sudan, walking through sub-Saharan heat and jungle, losing friends and brothers along the way to wild animal attacks, starvation, dehydration, and the guns of their enemies. The Red Cross provided the young refugees with food and shelter upon their arrival in Kenya, and to make a long story short, arranged to have the children, mostly boys, sponsored and settled through out the United States. This is how Daniel came to be in my classroom at Tidewater Community College.
In my composition class, Daniel could write letter-perfect essays about his native Dinka traditions, but when writing about the world around him now, he simply could not write coherently. He explained this to me one day in my office; “Dinka is clear to me. This place is not clear to me yet.” I worried a lot about Daniel; as his teacher, I saw that this lack of clarity was affecting his grades and could hold this determined student back. These thoughts of him led me to abandon the celebration of Mass to ponder the walls of the chapel, as I have done so often before. Two-thirds of the rectangular blocks have been painted a creamy white, while the remaining third are a soft camel color. One would expect there to be a symmetrical pattern between white blocks and the camel-colored ones; everything else on the grounds of the Academy is in perfect military symmetrical order. I study the wall, but they continue to bewilder me. My only guess is that so many grads who return to the chapel are moved to ask their God why they are still here, and their shipmate is not, just as Daniel may wonder about himself and his own lost brothers. Perhaps the lack of a pattern on the Chapel walls is intentional as it serves to address the mystery of how God works; this is as far as I ever get.
Last Easter morning, Daniel’s dilemma was heavy on my mind, and those randomly placed camel- colored blocks stared back at me from each of the four walls. I recalled having read somewhere that the human experience on this planet is similar to that of a dog in a library. The answers to all of our questions are right in front of us, but we just can’t read at that level yet. From my pondering of Daniel’s situation in my culture, I understood that Daniel was in my library, trying to make sense of it all, but he can’t read this place. Not yet. I, too, am like a dog in a library. Every Easter, I return to the Naval Academy Chapel to experience the hope amid the young brigade and the faith reflected in the ancient ceremony of Mass. This enables me to doubt my own doubts and to hope that one day I will understand the pattern on those walls and be given the answers to all my questions. But I am not there yet.