On a manicured lawn in front of the University Church, rows and rows of folding chairs lined the grass. They were so pretty and white and ordered, those chairs. And then there were the people sitting in them.
An exhausting day of moving in behind us, my family and I sat down, sweaty and delirious from an afternoon of sorting through extra-long twin bedsheets, dragging boxes up three flights of stairs, and trying to convince ourselves that, air conditioning or not (there wasn’t), this heat wasn’t as bad as the unbearable North Carolina humidity we had escaped (it was).
After all that, move-in-day Mass at the University Church was just the ticket. Because we were Catholic. And Catholics don’t miss — well, we do miss Mass, but good Fordham-going, move-in-completing, HAVE-TO-FIND-A-CHAIR-NOW-feeling Catholics don’t miss Mass. So we went.
There we were – a father, a mother, their college freshman of a daughter, and her two sisters. Catholic, Fordham-bound, and white like so many other faces of five-peopled families sitting in those folding chairs on the university lawn. I don’t think I’d ever seen as many white Catholic faces together in one space. It was mildly terrifying – and no, that’s not a joke.
Yet, for all we had in common with other Mass goers, we were different. I was different. I hadn’t gone to Catholic school. I didn’t come from money. I didn’t have a favorite Jesuit and hadn’t visited Fordham except for accepted students day. I suddenly felt like I had just crashed someone else’s party. Did I even belong there?
To clarify, I thought I was there because I got some money and because, after seeing all my friends make wonderful choices to attend Southern schools, I couldn’t follow-through on the choice everyone expected me to make.
That would have meant going to a private school in a town that always felt to me like someone staged it for a movie set. And while I would have gone there with a handful of some of my very best friends, it was too perfect. Like, only in Hollywood perfect. And I was tired of pretending to be perfect. Because I wasn’t. And too many people thought I was.
So at 18 I risked it all in the name of being myself. After a very rainy and definitely sobering spring visit to the Bronx only months prior, I wholeheartedly accepted Fordham’s offer. If I couldn’t allow myself to be myself in New York City, I thought, where the hell else would I ever do it? Outspoken, creative, and driven, I was ready.
The usual sitting down, kneeling, standing up, hands holding – or not hands holding – later
[If you want an interesting study, look into why Southern Catholics hold hands while praying and their Northern counterparts don’t. I still don’t get it, and I’m Southern and married to a New Yorker]
we had somehow gotten ourselves to the end of move-in-day Mass. Closing message for all the interested – and less interested – congregants? BE BOTHERED. Bothered enough to DO something. Bothered enough to BE something. It stuck with me.
My parents and sisters left campus that day as I rushed off to meet a group of other freshmen for the orientation activities we all go through. And over the course of the next three and a half years, I learned to be bothered. Not “that’s a problem over there and I think I’ll form an opinion on it” bothered. Not “let’s not talk about the problem over here” bothered. But genuinely bothered.
Bothered by things like why having money or white skin (or both, or neither) tends to make peoples’ lives so radically different. On a structural level I was bothered. As a member of a predominantly white university living among a predominantly immigrant community of color, I was bothered. I was bothered enough to DO something. But in that moment I would never have dreamt of being bothered enough to BE something. That was for someone else – I was not qualified.
In Boston I had my first foray into that kind of bother – the call to BE something. It came when I felt I had nothing, and then poetically, when I literally had nothing. Months into a graduate program for people who want to DO something, I found myself working more than one job, student teaching, all-in studying, and totally broke.
I’m not talking about “well, I guess I need to pick up a work study this semester” broke. Or “guess I’ll be writing home to the national bank of mom and dad again” broke. I’m talking the kind of broke where you do your grocery shopping in the CVS $1 aisle – and even then, get up to the counter and find that you can’t afford two days worth of food.
And so you start to cry. Because you are so ashamed and scared. And because you are so hungry you feel like you could pass out walking back up the hill to your apartment, but those tears don’t mean you have the cash. Until maybe by the grace of God some other human behind you sees what’s happening and pays for your noodles. And you want to say “thank you, this won’t happen again,” but you can’t. So you go home with empty pockets and two packets of noodles that someone else bought … and try to figure out how long you can make them last. Yes, my friends. THAT kind of broke.
It was THAT kind of broke that bothered me enough to BE something. To finally move beyond the walls, boundaries and sickening pursuit of perfection that I held myself back with for so long. True, I had lost a lot. But for the first time in my life, losing it all forced me to BE. And that’s a blessing I will never lose sight of.
So am I bothered? Hell yes I’m bothered. I’m bothered by hunger. I’m bothered by racism and classism and our society’s complete and utter refusal to listen long enough to realize that appearances are deceiving, that we don’t have the world all figured out, and that sometimes things really are complicated. And if I’m being honest, I’m bothered that the world is never going to be as well-ordered as the folding chairs on Fordham’s lawn at the first Mass (I love organization).
But do not fret, friends. That state of bother leaves space for something beautiful if we could be brave enough to DO something, to BE something. To be bothered into fully being.
Ryan Vale McGonigle
Comments on the Featured Image: This photo of the University Church shows my favorite door to enter. Although it’s not the front door, it welcomes me in all the same.