I stood on the chilly beach yesterday afternoon, watching my three beautiful children collect hermit crabs and build spectacular temporary habitats for them. They ran among the other children on the beach, weaving through one another’s groups, laughing and sharing glimpses of their latest catch. The two groups interacted nicely, ours and theirs. Realizing that they shared a mission, they began working in unison to dig a special pool for their newly captured prisoners. I enjoyed watching my children respond to a new group of children. With a sense of pride I smiled at their good-natured ability to smile and make new friends.
Joe was digging in the sand near my toes when two women came to stand nearby. The mothers of the other group, I quickly realized. They were engrossed in their conversation and too busy to say hello. Joe and I were enjoying our comfortable silence when I heard one of the women sneer, “There’s no way I’m sending my Jewish child to a Catholic school. Ewwwww.” She shuddered after that last part. Actually shuddered and shook as if shaking off some invisible filth. Her expression said it all. I was shocked. Utterly speechless and, for the moment forgot that my Catholic son was at my feet. When I looked down, I saw him quietly studying the woman and immediately knew his wheels were turning. He heard what she said.
As my shock dissipated, I felt myself filling with anger. How dare she say such a hateful, bigoted thing with my children sitting at her feet. How dare she shudder in disgust at my babies, each and everyone one of whom was christened in the Catholic church.
The two women soon steered their group of children back toward the vicinity of their own chairs. I’m sure it was innocent enough, two mothers simply wanting to sit and talk instead of stand on the beach while their children played. But I was still bristling. I spent the next hour and a half washed in anger and resentment. I waited for Joe’s inevitable question, because I knew he’d ask.
He came to sit next to me and quietly began digging in the sand. Kate and Gwen skipped off to the shoreline to gather water and he thoughtfully watched them go. “Mom? Remember when that man poured water on Kate’s head when she was a baby?”
“Yes, Joe. That’s the day she was christened.”
“Does that mean she was made Catholic?”
“Yes, in a way. That was the day she was blessed by the Holy Spirit.”
“Why did that lady make that face? Like Catholics are bad?”
How do you explain hate, ignorance and bigotry to a six-year-old?
“Well…she is a different religion than we are and sometimes, people think that what they believe or how they live is better than people who are different.”
I watched his face for a reaction. Did he understand? How do I make this a teachable moment when I’m so upset?
“Does that make sense to you, Joe?”
“We live in a country where lots of people practice different religions. No one’s religion is better, just different. Being a Catholic isn’t bad or dirty. People with different skin colors than one another aren’t better or worse either, just different. We’re all still humans and we should be kind to eachother, even if we are different. Different doesn’t mean bad.”
God, I hope he understands. I hope that, for once, I was able to explain appropriately.
The day was bust. I was finally able to talk everyone into heading to the car so we could go home. In the parking lot, I saw the woman who had slurred our religion in front of me and my children. She was parked directly behind our minivan. Her Honda Odyssey was parked end to end with my Toyota Sienna. Her rear windshield wore a Sugarloaf sticker. Mine holds a Maine Running Company sticker. Her children were twisted in their seats, demanding snacks and asking questions as she packed their belongings into the back of the van. My children were doing the same thing. There we stood, similar in so many ways yet, she inadvertently told me that her family was better. She showed me with her disgusted shudder that she believed my children were somehow beneath hers. Because they are Catholic.
“Mom, what are we going to do now?” Gwen called.
I couldn’t help myself. I can never help myself when I feel that some social injustice has been delivered to my family. I inhaled deeply and in a voice that was louder than necessary, but just loud enough to be heard at the minivan parked behind me, I said, “Well, we have to go to mass to pray for all the bigots of the world.”
I know I stooped. I know that I did. But she heard me and I was glad.