The Bruckner Expressway cuts a six-lane swath of pavement and steel through the South Bronx. Many in the nearby Hunts Point neighborhood still remember the 1970s, when the blocks surrounding the expressway were strewn with piles of rubble from burned-out apartment buildings, on which children–including at least one from St. Athanasius School–used to play.
Even now, after years of rebuilding and renewal, there are few trees visible from the windows of the school. While that may make it seem an unlikely place for environmentalism to flourish, the St. Athanasius community has embraced for decades the idea that “We are Children of God and Children of the Earth.”
This long-standing emphasis on being “Children of the Earth” is another way in which the charism or spiritual personality of this school has prepared St. Athanasius students uniquely for this generation-defining coronavirus crisis. And it is about more than messages to recycle or avert species extinction, as important as those are, and well-timed.
To be sure, St. Athanasius students have been preparing for today’s Earth Day observance for over a week. They are appreciating nature in drawings, doing scavenger hunts in their own homes to recognize the environmental impact of their own lifestyles, taking virtual field trips to the New York Botanical Gardens, and learning about the power of young people as activists by studying Greta Thornberg. Most other Partnership schools are honoring Earth Day in similar ways.
Yet to be “Children of the Earth” means far more than having a head start for Earth Day. It means that children in a neighborhood with a history of being marginalized have learned each day at school that they are quite the opposite of marginal: they are an integral part of a vast and wondrous creation. In his encyclical Laudato Si, on the Christian call to “Care for our Common Home,” Pope Francis makes the case that ecological stewardship isn’t just about pragmatic shepherding of resources, or a way to maintain moral high ground. It isn’t even just about the environment.
By caring for creation, we encounter a key truth of who each of us is. As Pope Francis explains, care for the Earth reflects “a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”
Coronovirus has given all of us a sober lesson in interconnectedness. It is not a new one for the students of St. Athanasius School.
And while sitting confined in a New York apartment and contemplating green spaces and the grandeur of creation may seem at best incongruous, it is a firm act of hope in difficult days. It is a hope that we will soon run and stretch at ease in wide green parks, when coronovirus social distancing is over. And it is a hope that extends much further, proposing to our students that at the heart of each one of their stories–indeed, at the heart of the story of humanity, and the future of the Earth itself–can be deep and meaningful healing, the kind of rebirth that our faith is all about. And that is a hope the students at St. Athanasius, and across all of our Partnership Schools, have been learning to practice for years.