PRELUDE

A very famous psychological study was conducted on April the 5th, 1958, in an Iowa classroom of Year Three students. The teacher, Jane Elliott, decided to make a point about prejudice. In order to illustrate this point, Elliott planned to use her own ‘invented’ suspect science to show how prejudice can be sculpted and proliferated in a society. Stephen Brown for The Smithsonian Magazine summarized Elliott’s teaching as follows: “Eye color, hair color and skin color are caused by a chemical,” Elliott went on, writing MELANIN on the blackboard. Melanin, she said, is what causes intelligence. The more melanin, the darker the person’s eyes—and the smarter the person. “Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes,” Elliott said. “Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.” She could feel a chasm forming between the two groups of students. “Do blue-eyed people remember what they’ve been taught?” Elliott asked.”No!” the brown-eyed kids said. Elliott rattled off the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain. “Why?” one girl asked.”Because we might catch something,” a brown-eyed boy said. Everyone looked at Mrs. Elliott. She nodded. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. “Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott,” a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. “He’s a bluey!” Then, the inevitable: “Hey, Mrs. Elliott, how come you’re the teacher if you’ve got blue eyes?” a brown-eyed boy asked. Before she could answer, another boy piped up: “If she didn’t have blue eyes, she’d be the principal or the superintendent.” At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers’ lounge. She described to her colleagues what she’d done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them. She asked the other teachers what they were doing to bring news of the King assassination into their classrooms. The answer, in a word, was nothing. Back in the classroom, Elliott’s experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. “You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we’re better than you are,” one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.” (Brown, S., Lesson of a Lifetime, The Smithsonian Magazine, 2005).

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I was introduced to this study back in the early 1980’s when I began studying for my degree in Education. Jane Elliott to this day, in the United States, is lauded as a treasure in the field of Teaching – and although the results are interesting, and echo the theme of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, what is always over-looked is that this study was brought about by inflicting emotional suffering and pain on little children. St. Thomas Aquinas echoed in his Summa Theologica (borrowing from Romans 3: 8, RSV) that no one should do evil in the hope that good may come of it. Who is to say at what point of Elliott’s study that the hurt ended for the children? When you play with chess pieces, you play with: wood, marble or plastic; but human beings are made of different materials; and in the case of ‘estrangement’ we must be careful how we make people feel. At the root of some of the most vile acts of the Totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century was estrangement, be it Stars of David sewn on to garments, or the denigration of the native languages of peoples, by a higher power, as evidenced by Russian authorities in Soviet Ukraine. Estrangement is an evil.  As Pope Francis teaches us in Fratelli Tutti: “Destroying self – esteem is an easy way to dominate others. Behind these trends that tend to level our world, there flourish powerful interests that take advantage of such low self-esteem, while attempting, through the media and networks, to create a new culture in the service of the elite.” (par. 52, page 24) ATK

What caused me the greatest concern in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Graduate foreign students from the Catholic Student Group on the basis of their ‘old’ age, was what damage this act could have had on the mental health of those who had been ostracized. For those unaware of Scandinavian winters, often there can be only two hours of sunlight during each day in winter. Many students in Uppsala, reside in the suburb – Flogsta. One of the most famous aspects of this suburb, virtually solely made up of students, who live in a forest of trees and Government built bland, sterile high-rise flats is the ‘Flogsta scream’, a phenomenon, terrifying if one is unaware of it, that takes place between 9.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. every evening. During this time, students open their windows, or stand on their balconies – and let out blood curdling screams. Their purpose for so doing is to let out their stress. It is very confronting when one hears this sound shouted out by thousands of students in an otherwise still and peaceful evening. When I first heard this sound, I was at a dinner in Flogsta; my hosts ran from the table, opened the window and screamed. Flogsta, unsurprisingly, is renowned also for a high rate of self-harm among students. I did not live in Flogsta, but in a Church of Sweden Residential Hall adjacent to Uppsala Cemetery. Every day I walked through the cemetery to journey to the Theology Faculty, or to the Catholic Parish. I was extremely fortunate for my lodging; grateful to the University and the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) for their hospitality. At the Church of Sweden Residential Hall, I was never made to feel a stranger – never. I was in every essence – their brother. It was as if the Good Samaritan had come to me in the form of my Lutheran seminarian friends; one of whom, Revd. Dr. Magnus Abrahamson, and his wife, Fredrika, are to this very day, over twenty five years after we first met, dear friends.

As I walked away with the foreign Graduate students from the Catholic Church, I decided to go to a Cafe on the second floor of a building that shapes part of the corner of the Old Great Town Square in Uppsala (Gamla Stora Torget). The Cafe was warm. Begona had a scowl on her face, and I knew that it was her that needed to be placated the most; but I felt trapped. The truth was that what had occurred to us was starkly opposed to the fundamental teachings of Christ. If I told Begona the truth, I was concerned about the anger that would be felt against the Church. Conversely though, it would be dishonest of me to ‘sit on my hands’ and not speak out against an injustice. Begona kept pressing the point with me. I also didn’t want to insult the Graduate students. I knew they would be devastated with the truth. While I was deciding what I should do, I recall doodling with my index finger in the salt that had been left behind on the table from the previous customer. Begona pressed insistently again. I then looked her straight in the eyes, and said: “Begona, they do not want us!”Why?” she replied, “I have done nothing wrong!” “Begona”, I said: “You have – and you haven’t. We are old!” For the first time in about twenty minutes, Begona was struck silent. Deep hurt was written on her face, as it was also now on the faces of: Francesco, Gianni and Iris. “I am sorry to tell you this – so, so sorry.” As the crow flies, the Cafe we were seated in, was no further than 300 metres from the Parish Church Hall; but now the distance felt like a continent away; for me several continents. I felt now like an orphan – among fellow orphans.

As I wrote Part I, I shared the draft with Francesco. He wrote back in response: “Dear Andrew, I carefully read your article. It was really a pleasure for me to read about those days, about our meeting in the church. I thought it was our “safe haven”. But the reality was completely different. I clearly remember your disappointment when you explained to me [in the cafe] the incomprehensible [reality], and you kept saying: “It’s tough”. … They didn’t know I arrived in Uppsala after a very long period of formation and of discernment with a lot of Catholic missionaries. And my aim was to be professionally and culturally ready to afford a job helping people. In fact, I was specializing in “Conflicts, disasters and peace building” [while] in Uppsala. “Fratelli tutti?”, “All brothers?” NOT AT ALL!!! For me it was clear at that time and it is clearer and clearer now that the problem was only because of prejudice … [the] reality is that what the Pope wrote in his encyclical is very far away to become [a] reality especially in our communities and congregations … The only thing I can do – is to do … my best and … to forgive them.”

I can only describe the look on Begona’s face when I explained the reason we were expelled, as that of a loving sister, after she has been told that her dear brother has just been killed in a sudden accident. Her mouth was wide open – and no words were uttered. She just stared at me, stared through me – and shook her head. Gianni had tears in his eyes. Iris pondered my words – but seemed to have the self-possession, not to become outwardly emotional. For my part, I felt exhausted. I felt a crushing weight on my shoulders. What I wanted to do, was pick up my back-pack, and walk south, just walk home to Fremantle where I was born; just walk home – somehow. Begona’s voice now was soft. My eyelids felt very heavy. Our evening ended soon after; and I made the long, lonely, walk up the hill and then through the large and dark cemetery to home. I recall the sound breaking the peace of night of my Rossi boots, on the ground beneath iced snow and pebbles.

The next morning, I went back to the Catholic Church to speak with the Parish priest, a German man in his late fifties – Fr. Klaus. I hadn’t been able to sleep. If ever you were to describe a model priest for your Parish – you could safely use Fr. Klaus as a template. While waiting for Fr. Klaus, two of the student group leaders, walked down from their apartment which was located on the third floor of the Church building. We didn’t speak with one another. The conversation I had with Fr. Klaus – lasted an hour. He told me not to worry – and promised to help in any way that he could. I think it was his idea to establish another student group with Graduate students. We walked upstairs and he gave us a large meeting room in which to hold meetings. I discussed with Fr. Klaus the need to put together an English hymnal, so that the foreign students could sing hymns in ‘easy’ English; English was the universal language for the Graduates. I began typing this text using songs that we had sung in Australia in the Roman Rite Church. I knew fifteen or so of these hymns by memory – and placed them in a new English hymnal. Fr. Klaus then photocopied these Booklets for the next English Mass that was to be held the next Sunday evening.

It was at this Sunday Mass when the miracle occurred. During the week, I had exchanged a few emails with the other four Graduate students – but that was as far as it went. Perhaps I mentioned to them that Fr. Klaus had proposed a Graduate student group. Nonetheless, as I walked down Castle Hill to the Church that Sunday, I was rather deflated. When I arrived at the Church, I thought that I had arrived at the tail-end of a wedding or a funeral. The foyer of the Church was filled with approximately 220 people. I walked through the foyer and grabbed the door to the Church – a young man quizzed me: “We are looking for Andrew – Begona says he needs our help.” Unbeknown to me, Begona and Iris had contacted as many Catholic Graduate students that they could find – and through the force of their character, had somehow got them to come to Church. It was truly a miracle. At the Mass the Sunday before – perhaps two dozen had attended; and now there was a massive congestion in the large Church foyer. It struck me that we complain about the number of people not coming to Church – but we have forgotten about how the Gospels were first preached, by word of mouth – and by friend to friend. The Gospel message is still powerful – the miraculous event that night revealed that Faith is contagious, and bringing people to the Faith is carried along by the electricital current of friendship. Great homilies and sermons may bring people to Church – but not as much as recommendations from friends and significant others in your life.

As I later recalled the event that Sunday evening – this Scriptural passage came to mind: “While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes′aret. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken …” (cf. Luke 5: 1 – 9, RSV)

Our astonishment was similar that evening – the numbers were great – too great. In time we were able to devise evening meetings after Mass that could create a sense of belonging, and cater for those who attended. Every week we had representatives of various nations speak about their particular country and culture. We went out to Spanish dancing evenings; Salsa parties, different dinners put on by a particular nationality. I still remember the names; aside from our original core: Javier (Spain), Gaetano, Angelo (Italy), Silvana (Argentina), Grzegorz, Krystyna, Malgorzata (Poland), a whole essay of names could be written down. There was such a real spirit between us all – a form of love. I love studying people, and learning from them. I can recall Javier sharing film footage of him being pronged in the backside by a bull as he ran through the streets of Pamplona, during a return home for mid-Semester; I remember Begona displaying some Spanish dance with a friend of hers – proud of the music and the moves she and her friend were dancing; I think now of the confidence of Angelo playing football against a team of Dutch researchers; I vividly recall Krystyna in a demure voice speaking about Poland and the food she was presenting to the group. It was like being at home, with great friends all around.

Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti: “A land will be fruitful, and its people bear fruit and give birth to the future, only to the extent that it can foster a sense of belonging among its members, create bonds of integration between generations and different communities, and avoid all that makes us insensitive to others and leads to further alienation.” (Page 25) The joy we experienced as a group is a lasting memory for me. What this collection of nationalities from the corners of the world embodied was, solidarity – a solidarity that Pope Francis calls out again in Fratelli Tutti: “Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means “caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people.” In offering such service, individuals learn to“ set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable … Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘ suffers ’ that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people .” (Page 51).

We were together as a group for six months – after that time, all but a couple of the Graduate students returned to their native lands to complete their studies at their home universities. I was one of those few who remained. After my friends left – I pined deeply for them all.

In hindsight, I think now, how brave were our parents and grandparents who came out to this nation of Australia as refugees and Displaced Persons, and it is to them I wish to turn in Estrangement: Part III.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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