February 10, 2017

Building a bridge: Schools cross boundaries and comfort zones to come together to learn from each other

St. Philip Neri first-grader Suzet Cruz, left, and St. Jude first-grader Grace Denney proudly show the cut-out hearts they decorated with their hand prints on Feb. 1, the day when students from both Indianapolis schools came together to share their faith and learn from each other. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

St. Philip Neri first-grader Suzet Cruz, left, and St. Jude first-grader Grace Denney proudly show the cut-out hearts they decorated with their hand prints on Feb. 1, the day when students from both Indianapolis schools came together to share their faith and learn from each other. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

What Michelle Tuttle set in motion on Feb. 1 is rare and possibly unique in the archdiocese.

It also may offer a lesson for a country that seems to be ever more divisive, focusing on the differences between people instead of the hopes, dreams and similarities that connect them.

And so on the morning of Feb. 1, a nervous and hopeful Tuttle—and the 492 students at St. Jude School in Indianapolis—waited for the school buses that would bring the 270 kindergarten-through eighth-grade students of St. Philip Neri School in Indianapolis to their school for the day.

In Tuttle’s plan, it would be a day to build bridges, a day when a mostly‑white school community (St. Jude) and a mostly‑Hispanic school community (St. Philip Neri) from different economic realities would come together to share classes, lunch, recess and their Catholic faith.

“St. Philip Neri School is seven miles away, but it’s a world apart,” said Tuttle, a social worker at St. Jude who previously served in the same position at St. Philip Neri School for eight years.

“This day gives students an opportunity to get to know someone outside their boundaries and their comfort zones. We have a tremendous amount of similarities, but we also have these differences that are unique. We have an opportunity to learn from each other.”

Building a bridge

The possible fulfillment of that opportunity to build bridges started slowly—a reality that was evident in a kindergarten class where a St. Jude teacher put on a fun dance video, in an attempt to bring the two groups of students together through movement and joy.

Yet as the St. Jude kindergarten students wiggled and laughed in their familiar surroundings, the St. Philip children stood and watched.

Then there was the early interaction between two eighth-grade boys, one from each school. In one moment, they were talking about their sports teams. In the next, they looked away awkwardly from each other, searching for a familiar face to rescue them.

One of the first signs of bridge‑building surfaced just before the morning Mass when St. Jude third‑grader Alex Gorski showed St. Philip third‑grader Bella Robledo how to use the multi-colored streamer they would wave when they processed into St. Jude Church together.

“I didn’t know what to do. She taught me,” said a smiling Bella.

The connections deepened during the Mass—a celebration that began with St. Jude pastor Father Stephen Banet telling the packed church in English that “we are all as one in our faith” while St. Philip Neri pastor Father Christopher Wadelton greeted everyone in Spanish.

That bond blossomed further between the two groups of students when they held hands during the praying of the “Our Father,” and when they exchanged smiling signs of peace. And joy filled the church when eighth-graders from both schools rushed to the altar to join together in leading the closing hymn.

“I’m so excited,” Tuttle said after the Mass. “I couldn’t sit during Mass because I had so much adrenaline. This has been awesome.”

Leaving the comfort zone

That joy continued in scene after scene back inside the school. In one of the classrooms, St. Philip Neri third-grader Vanessa Vazquez wedged into a seat between St. Jude third-graders Baylie Lauck and Hannah Morris—the three of them smiling and laughing together as they played a number game.

St. Philip first-grader Suzet Cruz and St. Jude first-grader Grace Denney beamed as they showed the cut-out hearts they decorated with their hand prints.

“It was fun in the church. It’s fun in the school,” Suzet said. “This is so much fun.”

At lunch, St. Philip eighth-grader Ana Silva and St. Jude eighth-grader Zoey Lord talked and ate together, before posing for a photo as they smiled and put their arms around each other.

“I like meeting new people from our neighbor church,” Ana said. “This is amazing. And we get to teach the little kids that there are more people their age who are just like them.”

Zoey nodded and added, “It’s been a lot better than I thought it would be—a lot more fun. It’s good to get out of our comfort zones. I feel like we sometimes get in little cliques, and now we’re talking with people we normally don’t talk to. It lets you get to know more people and be more adventurous.”

A lesson in unity

The adventures continued on the playground during recess when girls from both schools lined up to jump rope, when a game of kickball spontaneously started with children from both schools on the same team, when a boy from St. Philip and a boy from St. Jude tossed a football back and forth.

“I don’t know how many schools have ever invited an entire school to another school,” said Joe Shelburn, St. Jude’s principal. “It’s been awesome to experience the energy, the enthusiasm and the excitement.”

During the day, Shelburn told students from both schools, “We have our differences, and it’s easy to rely upon labels, But the only way to truly know people is to look inside, to look at their hearts. But we already have one thing in common—the connection of our faith. We both have Jesus in our hearts.”

Father Wadelton noted, “I love the idea of coming together, especially in the sense of what’s going on in our country today. That’s the real power in the bridge that will be built. I want this relationship to be reciprocal. I want to empower our kids to say that we have a tremendous culture and history that’s growing in our archdiocese—that we can give as well. We all have gifts to recognize in each other.”

The gift of the two schools spending a day together left its mark on Rachel Hahn.

“It’s really cool to see two different schools come together, work together and get along together,” says Rachel, an eighth-grade student at St. Jude.

“Today, people judge people before they get to know them—by the color of their skin, by their religion. What we’re doing here today can show people that kids are trying to love and accept each other—and show everyone else to do the same thing.” †

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