By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — About a year ago, some students at Cristo Rey-Kansas City Catholic High School were inspired. Calling on the entire student body to join them, they began a campaign previously undertaken by eight other Missouri schools — “No Place for Hate.” A nationwide program of the Anti-Defamation League, the campaign encourages and demonstrates acceptance and affirmation.
Cristo Rey students joined in enthusiastically. Perhaps some had been victims of bullying, others maybe of racial or religious discrimination, bias or inter-group conflicts; whatever the incentive, the student body was one for all and all for one. Cristo Rey was on its way to being designated a “No Place for Hate” partner by the Anti-Defamation League.
Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, the student body studied and took action on issues of bigotry and discrimination that affect students, the community and the nation. A number of activities were organized to promote unity. A poetry contest and a movie night were two of them. Sophomore Cesalee Carter said attendees watched movies the student hosts felt were related to the virtues or values they wanted to promote. The students chose the film, “Pride,” to get the message of African American rights across. “After they watched “Pride,”” she said, “kids were asked to write down what they liked about the movie and tell us the message they received from it. It was interesting!”
Another activity involved members of the organizing committee adding reflections and ideas on unity and acceptance to the Catholic school’s morning prayers.
An activity that won rave reviews from teachers and students alike was the “affirmation sticky notes.” Writing personalized compliments or affirmative phrases on hundreds of sticky notes, students then stuck a note on each locker or office door. Smiles and sharing the messages ensued, a positive reaction still evident the morning of May 8.
Tabari Coleman of the Anti-Defamation League’s St. Louis office presented the school with the “No Place for Hate” partner designation and a banner to display in the school. But displaying it would have to wait. That afternoon, sophomores, junior and seniors, accompanied by teachers and partners in the community, “took (the banner) to the streets,” walking in support of unity and acceptance of the diverse racial, ethnic, faith and economic groups in Kansas City; a walk from Cristo Rey High School on Linwood Blvd. near Broadway, north on Main Street to the Liberty Memorial in Penn Valley Park. Four students, carrying the “No Place for Hate” banner and a purple and gold banner proclaiming “Puma Pride” (the school mascot), led about 200 students holding homemade posters and chanting, “A school united can never be divided,” “Be heard, Stand up!” “All Lives Matter,” other songs and chants. A group of Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, the school’s sponsor, walked with the students. Drummers brought up the rear, keeping time.
While the whole student body took part in the activities, May 8 was a Friday and Fridays are the day of the week when freshmen work to earn part of their tuition. The high school, one of 37 Cristo Rey high schools across the country, is a college preparatory high school that joins a corporate work study program for culturally diverse students with economic need. Students in each grade level work one day a week learning job and people skills at entry-level positions across the metropolitan Kansas City area, for a portion of their tuition.
On the north steps of the monument, looking down on Union Station and the downtown skyline rising to the north, the students held a Unity Rally —prayer, reflections and music. In his keynote address, Coleman spoke of the effects of bullying, prejudice and bias, and inter-group conflicts. “We all matter,” he said. “I believe that your happiness and success is linked to my happiness and success. Our differences are really insignificant because our real duty is to care for one another.”
This was more than just a Unity Walk from school to the Liberty Memorial, but “a march for change and a gathering of committed individuals who chose an activity that reflects the movement of our time. From St. Louis to New York, Florida to Baltimore. Your voices and footsteps are in sync with others from all over the country.”
“No Place for Hate” is a national campaign, a cause, he said. “Being a part of a national campaign that promotes respect for everyone, believing that we all matter and understanding that all of our happiness and success are linked with others’ happiness and success. We recognize that we’re all different and won’t always get along, but do we understand that we all belong to each other? That we’re all responsible for each other? If we take on that belief that we belong to each other, than our differences are really insignificant because our goal is to care for one another regardless of those differences.”
Coleman, the father of a two-year old daughter, continued, “If my happiness is linked with her happiness and each of your happiness is also linked with my happiness then I have to make sure I have an understanding of the many issues plaguing our society and that I’m working for everyone not just my own identities. I have to make sure that I’m modeling for my daughter how she should expect men to behave because she learns how she should treat others based on how I treat women and men in our daily interactions.”
He reminded the students and their teachers that while everything they had done over the past year was valuable, it wasn’t enough. Sooner or later, the time was coming when the world would intrude. “A time”, he said, “when the world is going to remind us that our differences matter more than they do, when we have those experiences that may make us want to hate rather than connect and love. I’m not standing up here naïve to the reality that what I’m asking us to do hasn’t been done successfully before. It has to a certain extent but it isn’t what we’re reminded of on a daily basis. The recent events in the media regarding murder, violence, police brutality and racism make it hard for us to see all the good that communities like Cristo Rey are working towards and fighting for. Frederick Douglas said, ‘Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.’”
A student group added their own take on bullying and prejudice to Bill Withers’ song, “Lean on Me.”
Following the rally, the students, teachers and partners walked back to the school. When asked why the walk, why the various activities during the year to promote unity, Cesalee said, “We wanted a voice. We stand up for Kansas City and we stand up for teenagers. We care, we’re not on our phones all the time!”
Fellow sophomore Kevin Bilberry said, “We are the future. We can set the future.”
Cesalee added, “We’re taking this one step at a time!”
Cesalee describes Cristo Rey as “a little school with a big heart. We’re family, teachers and students. And, so many skin-tones: African American, Hispanic, African, European … It gives me a step closer to God.” Cristo Rey-Kansas City is 52 percent Latino, 41 percent African American, 3 percent Caucasian, 4 percent Asian and other ethnicities. The student body is 53 percent Catholic, and 47 percent other faith traditions.
Kevin said, “It’s better than where I went to school before. We go to Mass, prayers every day. My mom loves it!”
The teens agreed that attending Cristo Rey was a “life-changing experience.”
Kevin said he wanted people who heard about the Unity Walk to “focus on the positivity. We had so much soul. We had that vibe, spiritual peace, no drama.”
Cesalee reiterated, “Teens are are more than just cell phones and iPads. We care about our community and we care about the future. We are the future. I want everybody to come together as one, tear off the differences. We are all skin and bones. Let’s come together!”