In many ways, last evening was a typical class. At the same time, it occurred to me just how much can take place in the 75 minutes we spend together! As a result, I have a lot I’d like to tell you about concerning last evening’s class, so I’ll spread it out over the next couple of days. First…
As the young people were gathering, one of the young men asked, “Are we going to do anything for Joe?” I wasn’t sure who or what he was referring to…we have no Joe in our class (other than me!). I asked, “Joe who?” and he mentioned a last name I didn’t recognize. After 3 or 4 attempts to get clarification, the light bulb went off in my mind. He was talking about a classmate, Joseph Lee, from the central junior high school who collapsed and died last Friday evening while playing basketball at the community youth center.
I had seen the story on the news but it just never occurred to me to make the connection that my students knew him. (below is a photo of Joseph Lee’s mom, Betty Lee, holding a plaque of photos of her 12-year old son)
I I quickly shifted mindset…the lesson I had planned, of course, needed to take a back seat to the lesson that life was teaching them at the moment. I asked how many of the kids knew who Joe was and they all raised their hands. I asked how many knew him personally and 3 or 4 raised their hands. I asked them to tell me about Joe and they said he was very bright, very active and athletic…very likeable. I also asked them to fill me in on what they knew of his death (I knew the details from the news but I was just encouraging them to talk). Whether they knew him personally or not, they were clearly shaken by the idea of someone their age dying. I talked briefly about how difficult it is to see someone so young taken away from us so suddenly.
I thanked the young man who brought up the idea of “doing something” for Joe and told him that it was a very thoughtful and appropriate thing he had done and that we were all appreciative. I invited them to pray. We began by engaging in a moment of silence for Joe. You could hear a pin drop. I then led a spontaneous prayer, telling God that we come with heavy hearts, mourning the loss of Joe and feeling confusion about where and how we find God in the midst of this tragic loss. I asked God for the grace we need to cope during this difficult time and asked him to embrace Joe in his loving arms.
At the end of the class (I did go on with a somewhat abbreviated lesson), I invited them to gather around our prayer table and I taught them the traditional prayer: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord – And let perpetual light shine upon him.” I wrote the response (the words in italics) on the board and told them that we traditionally pray this phrase 3 times, inviting them to say the response each time which they did. I told them that the words mean that we pray that the light of Christ will be with Joe forever. We ended by blessing ourselves with holy water as they went on their way.
I pray that I helped the young people to mourn the loss of their classmate. I tried to offer an appropriate opportunity to bring the experience to prayer without attempting to do too much “grief counseling” for which I am not qualified. In all, I believe that the young people came away feeling as though they had engaged in an appropriate and meaningful (albeit simple) response to an experience that is just too big for them to take in right now.