It’s easy to think of love on Valentine’s Day. It is, after all, a day we dedicate entirely to the saccharine, stuffed teddy bears gripping stuffed hearts, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and in Chicago, heart-shaped deep dish pizza. There are, for one day, endless romantic professions. I cannot survive without you, they say to each other. My heart is yours. I will never leave you. My gift to you is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when you’re around.
My love isn’t exactly directed that way. I spend my days with college students. I teach and tutor and advise and support and plan and plan and plan. It never ends. It is totally unbridled and exhausting. Some days, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. And so on Valentine’s Day I, as I do on every other day, carry on wondering where the fullness of my love will be drawn.
My church is a humble black parish in the West Haven neighborhood, just a few blocks from where the Bulls play. The church has a primary school attached to it, and last week, a group of students were slated to take the lead in providing voices for the service. They would offer the readings, the prayer intentions, and when they finished they would return to the choir and sing. They were all girls, young and bright and bouncing, happy to have a place in front.
One of them wore pink-stemmed glasses and had a pile of thick braids on top of her head. She approached the altar and bowed awkwardly, a deep and robotic gesture she was clearly coached into making. She went to the book of scripture, loudly adjusted the microphone, and slowly began: “A reading…from the book…of the prophet…”
And then, a gaping pause – she looked to the priest, and then to a white lady in the congregation, her teacher maybe – she didn’t know how to say Sirach. Old women in the pews leaned forward, gripping the stained wood, sensing her hesitation. They called out to her – “Speak, little sister! Proclaim that word!”
“Sigh-RACK,” she said, unafraid and unashamed, encouraged by those around her to keep going. She finished, “the word of the Lord,” and returned to her seat beaming, legs kicking above the floor too far away for her feet.
Then the choir kicked in. They were, with the exception of one girl who’s good with a tambourine, a timid group. They barely moved their mouths, and while the piano, drums, organ and trombone stomped out a joyful noise, these girls’ voices were nearly drowned out by sound bouncing around the vast interior of the worship space.
As the service continued, the priest took to the altar and began offering ancient prayers that have the power to change bread and wine into body and blood. As he prayed, I noticed all these girls in their school uniforms. They were mouthing the words of these prayers in unison with the priest. Through the priest, God consecrated that moment, but these girls confirmed it.
And I realized – I wanted these girls to have everything – long, happy lives, feasts with family on Sunday afternoons, a city street they can stroll down free of fear. I wanted to give them my whole heart, all my love, all my energy, all my time. The Mass ended with a gospel song. The words are clear and true, and became my prayer: You are important to me – I need you to survive.
My love rests with these girls who face tremendous adversity in their lives. And more broadly, with all people who have been subjected to the very worst things our world is offering – poverty and racism and needless death. When they sing and read and pray, they bring vitality and joy. They show me their worth and show me my own. They draw me out of myself and into a realm of community and compassion that reminds me of what it means to live for the other. Not just one other, but many. To say to them that I cannot survive without them, that all my heart is theirs, that I will never leave them, that my gift to them is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when they’re around.
My life may be unbridled and exhausting at times, and so is my love. But, it will never go away. It is relentless. And so are they. And so, I must be.