By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — In many ways March 3 was just another Friday at Cristo Rey High School — one class —Freshman – was out of the building working their one day a week at area businesses earning part of their tuition, while the other students attended classes.
In other ways it was a special Friday. Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., paid his first visit to the school, talking to students and teachers, viewing the college acceptance and scholarship notices, getting a good idea of how “The School that Works,” works.
After meeting his tour guides, seniors Cesalee Carter and Selven Calix, the bishop was given the grand tour. As the students, Dr. Kathleen Hanlon, president of the high school, and several members of the Board of Trustees, pointed out numerous items of interest, he questioned them about the items, their classes, extracurricular activities, their jobs and their favorite things about Cristo Rey.
Selven works at HNTB, an architecture, civil engineering consulting and construction management firm headquartered in Kansas City. He is interested in engineering, which interested Bishop Johnston, who earned an Engineering degree from the University of Tennessee.
Selven hasn’t decided on where he’ll attend college, although he’s leaning toward K-State. When he told Bishop Johnston, he was answered with a grin and a nod toward the purple uniform shirt the young man was wearing. “Well, you won’t have to buy new shirts!” The group burst out laughing.
Cesalee works at Retina Associates, a medical practice specializing in eye care; diagnosing and treating diseases of the retina and other parts of the eye.
She has been accepted to several colleges and is in the midst of deciding.
The corporate work study program had just received top reviews in all categories from the National Cristo Rey Network, #1 out of the 52 Cristo Rey schools in the network.
Cesalee and Selven squired the bishop to classrooms, including a Sophomore religion class, where he spoke with the teacher. The class is studying basic Catholic teaching and the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Hanlon told him the student body of around 370 is about 55 percent Catholic. He also visited a Spanish class, a senior science class and a computer science class, speaking with teachers and students. While in the computer science lab, he asked the seniors what their favorites about Cristo Rey were. Answers included, “Our student body.” “The job opportunities.” And “Lunch!”
Bishop Johnston then took a break in a hallway while classes were changing.
He asked Cesalee and Selven about the high school’s extracurricular programs and learned that cheerleading, boys’ and girls’ basketball, soccer, baseball, track and cross country were offered; academic programs including National Honor Society and National Spanish Honor Society, as well as community involvement programs.
He ended his tour in a lounge area where he spoke with some of the faculty and staff.
Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” and a leading anti-death penalty advocate, arrived at 3 p.m. Bishop Johnston greeted and spoke with her for a while before he had to leave for another engagement. Sister Helen was to address the student body, who have all as freshmen, over the past four years, examined the various positions and moral teachings surrounding the death penalty in the U.S.
Service learning is an important part of Cristo Rey students’ academic and community involvement experiences. Through service learning they are introduced to a social justice issue, taught about it through classwork and presentations, and led to action on issues, including hunger, homelessness, labor laws, ecological protection, access to clean water, discrimination, and quality of life issues such as reducing effects of poverty, elder care, ending capital punishment, or changing abortion laws.
Sister Helen, a storyteller, recounted a privileged childhood in Baton Rouge, La., “not knowing poor people,” until she became a vowed sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Living in a housing project in New Orleans, she witnessed first-hand the struggles of poverty. She later transitioned from suburban ministry to becoming a spiritual advisor to death row inmates.
In the beginning she was asked to be a pen pal of a man on death row. He later asked her to visit him. When they visited, he asked if she would be his spiritual advisor, in the death house, not from afar.
The Dead Man Walking subjects, victims and condemned, were interwoven throughout her story. She advised the students to “never, ever forget” the victims and their families and their immense suffering.
The overarching message was that “there is no danger that a person sentenced to life in prison could ever, ever harm anyone again.” What then is the point of execution? Sister Helen then spoke about steps to reconciliation.
Afterwards, she spent a long time speaking quietly with students who had lined up to speak to her.