Her name was Sally-Ann. She was 14 years old and pregnant. She was also homeless until the Good Shepherd Nuns welcomed her, gave her room and board, continued her education, and provided prenatal care in their ministry for unwed mothers. My experiences with Sally-Ann were in two different contexts.
As a college senior and seminarian, I was responsible for teaching religion courses at the Sisters' school. My first class focused on the mystery of the Trinity. I began by saying that our creator, God the Father, loved us. I had no sooner spoken those words when Sally-Ann stood up and shouted that she hated me, hated my class and hated the entire place.
When she sat down, I continued calmly with the lesson plan as if nothing had happened, which surprised even me. My composure was an external veneer. Inside, I was shaking. During the staff de-briefing after class, I asked Sister Mary Richard why this happened. She looked at me blankly wondering why I was surprised. After all, I had lectured about a loving father to a group of unwed, expectant teenagers whose dads had either been absent or abusive. In other words, these girls could not fathom a Father who loved us.
Sally-Ann grew up on the worst, drug-infested streets of New York City. Her foul tongue, facial piercings and satanic tattoos exuded a street-savvy aggression that would embarrass sailors, perturb parents and frighten priests. She had created what most psychologists would label thick armor to protect her ego. To keep her heart from being hurt, she had encased it in a solid granite rock.
I was invited by the counselor to observe a therapy session for the group home where Sally-Ann lived. The day I attended was “hot seat” day for her. Sitting alone in the center of a massive couch, she faced her 11 housemates who took turns confronting her about all her antisocial behaviors. One by one, they itemized things she had been doing wrong for the past two weeks. They accused her of not cleaning up after herself, not doing her chores, not doing her homework, being too bossy, too lazy, too much of a complainer, and of stealing, lying and not caring properly for the health of her unborn child. Sally-Ann glared defiantly at each of her attackers as they publicly recounted her faults. Her attitude was far from repentant. Her set-in-flint stare exuded non-verbal phrases as if to say “is-that-all-you've-got” or “bring-it-on-because-I-can-take-anything-you-can-dish-out-and-then-some.”
Finally, it was the last girl's turn to speak. Like the housemates before her, she agreed that Sally-Ann was the blight on their specialized community but then she paused and added an unexpected observation. She recounted how she had observed Sally-Ann performing an act of kindness for another girl without the other girl knowing it. As the details unfolded, Sally-Ann turned away from the group and into the couch as if she were clawing her way toward the ceiling. Hearing these kind words was literally driving her up the wall, and she was doing her best to get away from them.
People may believe that a compliment is just a compliment and nothing more. But when they are rare, even a simple acknowledgement can turn a person's day, year or entire life around. Complimenting others costs nothing but can mean everything. Such charity is the heart of Catholicism and a reflection of the Father who loves us.
For Holy Homework:
Let's make an opportunity to compliment someone else's work, talent or just their appearance. We might be surprised at what a world of difference our word of kindness can make.
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