December 15, 2020

Christmas Reflections 2020

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At the end of a year like none most of us can remember, we asked several members of the LMU community to reflect on a Christmas wish, one that they’d like others to receive. Complementing these short essays is a longer essay by Brett Hoover, professor of theological studies in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.—The Editor

My Wish For Teachers, by Ellen Ensher ’87

Can you think of a teacher you loved or hated who changed your life? Most of us can because teachers matter. 

Imagine a world where teaching is among the most highly paid occupations. What if becoming a teacher were so competitive that only the best and brightest made the cut? Visualize the possibility of a place where kids learn emotional intelligence as toddlers, and enjoy plenty of physical education and the arts, while still achieving world’s highest test scores? Imagine if this mythical land existed. Happily, it does exist. It is called Finland. I learned about Finland via a Fulbright specialist grant through which I visited the University of Vaasa in 2017. Recently, I also published an article in the Journal of Counseling Psychology with co-author Kyle Ehrhardt about how mentors help teachers live out their calling as educators.

I have been teaching for 24 years. My Christmas wish is that teachers in the U.S. get the same appreciation, compensation, training and value as the teachers in Finland. Or, in the words of Aretha Franklin, my wish for U.S. teachers is RESPECT. My son is 17. This means I have dutifully purchased at least 100 pounds of brownies (believe me — nobody wants to eat my cooking!) for school holidays and teacher appreciation days. However, I think we can do better. Perhaps a positive aspect to our pandemic is a greater appreciation for our teachers. Instead of demonstrating appreciation in brownies, we can show our respect every day by increasing teachers’ pay, development and status. As a society, we must embrace systemic changes in education and involve teachers in these changes through shared governance. 

It breaks my heart when nearly every semester I find a business major who is a closeted, wanna-be teacher, but stifles the impulse to pursue their calling because “I don’t want to be poor.” Imagine, a world where everyone could do what they felt called to do? Let’s start with teachers. 

Ellen Ensher is professor of management in the LMU College of Business Administration. She has written more than 50 articles and book chapters and is the coauthor, with Susan Murphy, of “Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships.”

From Poverty, Hope, by Mary Agnes Erlandson ’82

While a student at LMU in the early ’80s, I waited tables at LAX restaurants and bars. I remember being struck by the stories of some of my co-workers: bussers, cooks, servers, dishwashers. It wasn’t unusual to hear that a busser had been a doctor, lawyer or engineer in his native country, but couldn’t work in that profession in his adopted land, and instead spent his days in the humblest of professions.  

One Christmas Eve, a server, a Mexican man with no family in the U.S., ended up in jail — long story — and the experience of corralling my colleagues to help him led to my 35-year career helping others through my work at St. Margaret’s Center. 

How often are our perceptions of those we meet so off-target? How many times are our assumptions wrong? Recently I helped a man who was homeless file for his stimulus payment, and in the process learned that he had an engineering degree from LMU and was earning a six-figure salary before his life spiraled out of control, putting him on the streets.

Indeed, our Savior, born in poverty in a manger and working as a humble carpenter, ultimately transformed the arc of human history.

In our current world fraught with division — based on our assumptions and perceptions that are often misguided, incomplete or just plain wrong — my wish is for all of us to give each other a pass. To recognize our common humanity, the similarities we share, the gifts that may be hidden, the purpose that unites us. It sounds so trite to remark, “We are all in this together,” but if not now, during a global pandemic, then when? We are inextricably bound to each other, responsible for one another, our actions can have inexorable consequences, and we share one planet together.

Christmas represents hope, God’s love for us made manifest. My deepest wish as 2020 fades into history is that we remain bearers of that hope and perceive each other with our hearts rather than our limited senses and partial knowledge, and that our actions are impelled by that all-consuming love.

Mary Agnes Erlandson is director of St. Margaret’s Center, a social services organization and program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, in Lennox, California.

Straw For the Manger, by Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, M.A. ’01

As in most of Latin America, in my Cuban family Christmas gifts arrived on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. The elaborate story describes how the three Reyes Magos,who had first brought gifts to the Christ child, continue to cross time and space to bring joy. It was a delicious and beautiful mystery, which made me look for their star in the night sky. Today, I appreciate the depth of the story. Jesus, small and vulnerable, born anew each Christmas night taking on flesh in every child the beloved Magi visited. The gift of their visit is to bring love and inviolable dignity: making every child part of that first Holy Family.

This year, I ache for the whole world to share in this gift of Epiphany: the regalos of dignity and family, of being children of God and siblings of Jesus. From the families in squalid refugee camps on our wounded border or in far-off lands, to the children in detention centers crying themselves to sleep and their deported parents who miss them desperately — it is immigrants and refugees who fill my heart. I want the Magi to come with the abundant bestowal of dignity and the removal of fear. I ask them to bring well-deserved rest to our undocumented students and alumni who wait for one precious immigration document to allow them to contribute, build, flourish, belong. 

The tradition has another part to it — our part. During the preparation of Advent, each child is asked to do good deeds. Each loving act becoming a small bundle of straw for the manger. Our good works will keep the Christ child safe and warm. This Christmas may there be many good deeds from each of us to build a new world of welcome. Let us look up together and search for the star.

Cecilia González-Andrieu is professor of theology in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. She is the author of “Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty” and co-editor of “Teaching Global Theologies: Power and Praxis.” González-Andrieu is a frequent media commentator and a contributor to America magazine.

The Stories Children Carry, by Denise Hamilton ’81

From the time humans huddled around the fire at night, we’ve told each other stories. As humans, we’re hard-wired to both hear and tell them. Epics like Beowulf, the Mahabharata, the Aeneid, Gilgamesh — they’re buried deep in our DNA.

All children love to be read to. They also love to make up elaborate, imaginative stories. But somewhere in childhood, that natural gift gets squelched instead of channeled, which is why for Christmas, I wish that we taught creative writing from kindergarten. Even before a child can write, she can dictate an amazing story. Just try it and see. 

In many schools today, students learn ad nauseum the mechanics and theory of English composition without ever writing stories themselves, which is like studying dance while bolted to your chair. When you describe a rabbit scurrying/scampering/bolting through the forest, you sear those pesky vocabulary words into memory. Teach the narrative arts, and you’ve taught English composition, too. Plus, you’ve encouraged kids to think creatively, a life skill adaptable from science to business.

Yet in 12 years of school, many kids never get to write fiction or poetry. Mine sure didn’t. Perhaps it’s considered frivolous compared to book reports, analysis and essays, but the bill comes due with college essays. Rich families hire tutors for this, which isn’t fair. That’s why I volunteer, helping underprivileged kids frame their own stories —which can rival Tolstoy in scope, tragedy, obstacles, luck, poignancy and humor. 

Yes, I know I’ve switched goalposts from creative writing to dreaded college essays, but they’re connected. If a kid understands storytelling, she can harness her imagination to tell her own story.

Lastly, kids who write are also curious to read other stories, AKA books. AKA literacy. But all too often, we make reading and writing dreary, punitive or extracurricular. Rediscovering the joy of creative writing in K-12 is what I want for Christmas this year.

Denise Hamilton is the author of seven crime novels and the editor of “Speculative Los Angeles” (forthcoming, February 2021). She also is the editor of the best-selling anthologies “Los Angeles Noir” and “Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics.” Hamilton is a former L.A. Times journalist, Fulbright scholar and Edgar Award finalist. Visit her at www.denisehamilton.com.

A Season For Empathy, by Chilembwe Mason ’98

Mr. G struggles to breathe, taking in short gasps of air as his chest rises then falls quickly. His oxygen level dips below 70 percent, but he’s still awake and responds appropriately to commands. Any other time we would immediately intubate — put a breathing tube into his large airway, place him on a ventilator — but this is a unique circumstance.Intubation carries a great risk to this elderly man: He may never come off the machine.

We contemplate turning him onto his stomach. A week prior in Italy, some success was found with this method. Should we start another antibiotic? What about high-dose steroids? I must hurriedly decide, as there’s another patient whose ventilator needs adjusting. And what about the 65-year-old woman waiting to be seen, her oxygen level also low? Family members are not allowed in the Emergency Room; mine may be the last voice my patients ever hear. Decisions.

That was the situation I faced in early March 2020 — in the Bronx. In New York City — at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the virus spread relentlessly throughout the rest of the country. At the time, treatment options were opaque, and leadership unforthcoming. We battled a perfect virus that wreaked havoc on a community already impoverished, and a nation already divided. If we had prepared for this earlier, how many lives could have been saved?

Two months later, police killed another black man. This time on video, beamed to the world. Undeniable evidence. Yet, it spurred further division. Criticisms of the right to protest, the right to dictate the worth of one’s body. I marched the streets of New York City, chanting along with others about our fellow Americans’ right to be alive. This, too, was one of many challenges we faced in a troubling year.

As we reflect on 2020, I’d like to share a gift for Christmas: that we might move closer toward a society that focuses on respect — one built on empathy, listening to those in need. One needn’t be a front-liner to contribute. It is a gift each of us can provide.

Chilembwe Mason ’98 is emergency medicine physician at BronxCare Health System, in New York. He was featured in an episode of the LMU Magazine Off Press podcast as the coronavirus first spread through Bronx neighborhoods in spring 2020.

The Neighbor’s Needs, by Eddie Siebert, S.J., M.A. ’02

“The church exists in departure and its destination is the world.” —Eugene Schlesinger, Lecturer in Religious Studies, Santa Clara University

St. Ignatius Loyola definitely would agree with Professor Schlesinger. Ignatius instructed the early Jesuits to “hurry to any part of the world where the needs of the neighbor should summon them.” These days most of us aren’t hurrying anywhere.

We’ve all experienced the frustration, anxiety and loneliness of the pandemic lockdowns. We shelter at home and try to carry on — despite academic disruption and economic loss. To protect ourselves and our neighbors, we forgo hundreds of the little and big interactions that give life meaning. My heart breaks when I think of the weddings indefinitely postponed, the empty classrooms and churches, the layoffs and diminished paychecks. Yet we buckle down. We do our best to do what’s needed, always grateful for the sacrifice and dedication of front-line and essential workers. 

For our part, the LMU Jesuits have been largely unable to do the things that drew us to the Society in the first place: ministry. We’re trained to be contemplatives in action, focused inwards and directed outwards, finding God in all things. The truth is, although we’ve had plenty of time for contemplation lately, the “action” part of the equation has been sorely lacking. 

So, here’s my Christmas wish: that the vaccinations hasten the day when all of us can be free from containment and isolation, when we can rush out into the world and hurry towards one another.

God bless us, everyone!

Eddie Siebert, S.J., M.A. ’02 is the rector of the Jesuit community at LMU and senior lecturer in the LMU School of Film and Television. Siebert is also the founder and president of Loyola Productions, a media company based in Los Angeles.