Bunnies in the classroom, eggshells on earth, and Dia de los Muertos all represent a pathway to God; they all offer an opportunity for Jennifer Cecena, our Lady of Hope middle school religion teacher, to talk about faith. Ms. Cecena is deeply committed to conveying the magnitude of faith to the young lives she has the responsibility of shaping. In addition, Ms. Cecena says with emotion, “I love talking about God.” She firmly believes her students do as well.
Having a safe place where God is part of the conversation provides her students a sense of security. And through these conversations youngsters and teachers become family. Ms. Cecena explains that many of her students have—though loving—hectic, irregular home lives. Parents often work multiple jobs; they work nights and weekends. “When they’re with us at school the kids have routine and routine provides great reassurance,” Ms. Cecena continues. “We’re always present. And by working in smaller groups we get to know each other.”
And they get to talk about God, Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, topics not discussed in the public school system. “We tell them God is loving. God is forgiving,” Ms. Cecena explains. God is always present, even through death and tragedy, an assurance Ms. Cecena recently authenticated using the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos as the lesson.
Since August Ms. Cecena’s students worked on a family enrichment project, constructing shrines to a departed family member or loved one to be displayed at the school as part of the annual celebration with origins in Mexico. When the project was finished in late October, 70 alters were displayed through the halls of the school.
Though the project in itself was important, the true value came from the fact that it involved the help of parents or older family members who shared the memories. “Through this project everyone put lives on pause for a few minutes to think about loved ones lost,” shared Ms. Cecena. “By talking about death, students were able to talk about heaven, to know heaven is real.” One young man lost a brother to a drive-by shooting. Clearly, creating an alter did not erase the pain, yet it did provide an opportunity to add some light (through a candle) to his loss. It allowed emotions that were dark and scary to be transformed into something reassuring. “Creating the alters became part of the healing,” Ms. Cecena reflects.
And what do eggshells have to do with faith? “I tell my student’s we are eggshells on earth,” Ms. Cecena concludes “The spirit is what’s inside. And though eggshells can crack, the spirit can never break. It simply flows.” Faith will always flow, Ms. Cecena believes, including her own. Faith in God, herself as a teacher, and most importantly, the students she teaches.