Fatherhood fades from the landscape of the human heart to the peril of the souls of our youth. For some young men in prison, absent fathers conjure vacant dreams.
“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.” (Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, 1948)
I was five days shy of turning fifteen years old and looking forward to wrapping up the tenth grade at Lynn English High School just north of Boston on April 4, 1968. That was the day Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. On that awful day, the Civil Rights struggle in America took to the streets. History eventually defined its heroes and its villains. I wrote of one of the former in “Cardinal Bernard Law on the Frontier of Civil Rights.”
Most readers found that post to be surprisingly powerful and moving, and for many it revisited the life of a man unjustly vilified. A small few, however, were furious with me. They were not the usual readers of These Stone Walls. They just sort of stumbled upon that post in outrage when they found it among all the wreckage of what was once a good priest’s good name. I admit that I felt proud when a friend did a Google search for “Cardinal Bernard Law,” and that post showed up on page one, an island in a sea of reputation’s wreckage.
There is an unexpected freedom in being who and where I am. I can write the truth without the usual automatic constraints about what it might cost me. There is only one thing left to take from me, and these days the clamor to take it seems to have abated. That one thing is priesthood which – in this setting, at least – places me in the supporting cast of a heart-wrenching drama.
But first, back to 1968. Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech still resonated in my 14-year-old soul when his death added momentum to America’s moral compass spinning out of control. I had no idea how ironic that one line from Martin’s famous speech would be for me in years to come: “From the prodigious hills of New Hampshire, Let Freedom Ring!”
Two months later, on June 5, 1968, former Attorney General and Civil Rights champion, Senator Robert Kennedy, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was murdered in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August was marked by calamitous riots as Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the nominee only to lose the 1968 election to Richard Nixon in November.
CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY
It was at that moment in history – between the murders of two civil rights legends, one black and one white – that a tenth grade English teacher in a racially troubled inner city high school imposed his final assignment to end the school year. It was a book and a book report on Alan Paton’s masterpiece novel set in South Africa during apartheid. It was Cry, the Beloved Country.
In a snail mail letter some months ago, a TSW reader asked me to write about the origins of my vocation. His request had an odd twist. He wanted me to write of my call to priesthood in light of where it has put me, “so that we might have hope when God calls ordinary people to extraordinarily painful things.”
I gave no thought to priesthood in the turmoil of a 1968 adolescence. Up to that time I gave little thought to the Catholic faith into which I was born. At age 14, like many adolescents today if left to their own devices, my mind was somewhere else. We were Christmas and Easter Catholics. I think the only thing that kept my family from atheism was the fact that there just weren’t enough holidays.
My first independent practice of any faith came at age 15 just after reading Cry, the Beloved Country. It started as an act of adolescent rebellion. My father was deeply offended that I went to Mass on a day that wasn’t Christmas or Easter, and my decision to continue going was fueled in part by his umbrage.
But there was also something about this book that compelled me to explore what it means to have faith. Written by Alan Paton in 1948, Cry, the Beloved Country was set in South Africa against the backdrop of apartheid. I read it in 1968 as the American Civil Rights movement was testing the glue that binds a nation. That was 48 years ago, yet I still remember every facet of it, for it awakened in me not just a sense of the folly of racial injustice, but also the powerful role of fatherhood in our lives. It is the deeply moving story of Zulu pastor, Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest driven to leave the calm of his rural parish on a quest in search of his missing young adult son, Absalom, in the city of Johannesburg.
South Africa during apartheid is itself a character in the book. The city, Johannesburg, represents the lure of the streets as a looming cultural detriment to fatherhood, family, faith and tradition. Forty-eight years after reading it, some of its lines are still committed to memory:
“All roads lead to Johannesburg. If you are white or if you are black, they lead to Johannesburg. If the crops fail, there is work in Johannesburg. If there are taxes to be paid, there is work in Johannesburg. If the farm is too small to be divided further, some must go to Johannesburg. If there is a child to be born that must be delivered in secret, it can be delivered in Johannesburg.” (p. 83)
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation marked by the political and social dominance of the white European minority in South Africa. Though it was widely practiced and accepted, apartheid was formally institutionalized in 1948 when it became a slogan of the Afrikaner National Party in the same year that Alan Paton wrote his famous book.
Nelson Mandela, the famous African National Congress activist, was 30 when the book was published. I wonder how much it inspired his stand against apartheid that condemned him to life in prison at age 46 in 1964 South Africa. His prison became a symbol that brought global attention to the struggle against apartheid which finally collapsed in 1991. After 26 years in prison, Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South African President F.W. de Klerk in 1993. A year later, Nelson Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first fully democratic elections.
IN THE ABSENCE OF FATHERS
I never knew my teacher’s purpose for assigning Cry, the Beloved Country at that particular moment in living history, but I have always assumed that it was to instill in us an appreciation for the struggle for civil rights and racial justice. I never really needed much convincing on the right path on those fronts, but the book had another, more powerful impact that seemed unintended.
That impact was the necessity of strong and present fathers who are up to the sacrifices required of them, and especially so in the times that try men’s souls. There is a reason why I bring this book up now, 48 years after reading it. I have a friend here in this prison who has been quietly standing in the background. I will not name him because there are people on two continents who know of him. He is African-American in the truest sense, a naturalized American citizen brought to this country when his Christian family fled Islamic oppression in their African nation. He is 20 years old, and has been estranged from his father who is the ordained pastor of a small Evangelical congregation in a city not so far from here.
I came to know this young prisoner when he was moved to the place where I live. He disliked the new neighborhood immensely at first, finding little in the way of common ground, but the comedy team of Pornchai Moontri and Chen Kewei managed to draw him in. Perhaps it was “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and the Twang Brothers” that finally won him over – that and the fact that we, too, are in a strange land here. I broke the ice one day when I showed him a copy of a weekly traffic report for These Stone Walls. He was surprised to see on TSW a significant number of visits from the land of his birth.
My friend’s African name seems hardly pronounceable, but many younger prisoners have “street names.” So after some trust grew a little between us, he told me some of the story of his life. It was then that I began to call him “Absalom.” I do not think that I was even conscious at the time of the place in my psyche from which that name was dusted off. He did not object to being called “Absalom,” but it puzzled him.
It puzzled me, too. Absalom was the third son of King David in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. In the Second Book of Samuel (15:1-12) Absalom rebelled against his father, staging a revolt that eventually led to his own demise. In the forest of Ephraim, Absalom was slain by Joab, David’s nephew and the commander of his armies. David bitterly mourned the loss of his son (2 Samuel 19:1-4).
When I told this story to my friend, Absalom, he said, “that sounds like the right name for me.” I told him that in Hebrew, Absalom means “my father is peace.” But even as I said it, I remembered that Absalom is also the name of Pastor Stephen Kumalo’s missing son in a book I read 48 years ago, Cry, the Beloved Country.
So I told my friend the story of how Absalom’s pastor-father in South Africa had instilled in him a set of values and respect for his heritage, of how poverty and oppression caused him to leave home in search of another life only to be lured ever more deeply into the city streets of Johannesburg. I told of how his father sacrificed all to go in search of him.
I also told my friend that I read this book at age 15 in my own adolescent rebellion, and the story was so powerful that it has stayed with me for all these years and shaped some of the most important parts of my life. I told Absalom of the Zulu people and the struggles of apartheid, a word he knew he once heard, but had no idea of what it meant. I told him that the Absalom of the story left behind his proud and spiritually rich African culture just to succumb to the lure of the street and of how he forgot all that came before him.
“That’s my story!” said Absalom when I told him all this. So the next day I went in search of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The prison library had a dusty old copy so I brought it back for Absalom to read, and he has been struggling with it. A part of the struggle is the Zulu names and terms that are vaguely familiar deep in our Absalom’s cultural memory. Another part of the struggle is the story itself, not just of Apartheid, but of the painful estrangement that grew between father and son, an estrangement that our Absalom could not articulate until now.
So then something that I always believed was going to happen, did happen. Absalom told me that he has contacted his mother to ask his father to visit him for the first time in the year that he has been in prison. He said they plan to visit on Father’s Day. They have a lot to talk about, and that is a drama for which I feel blessed to be in the supporting cast – all the rest of prison BS notwithstanding!
But there is something else. There is always something else. When I began writing this post, I asked Absalom to lend me his copy of Cry, the Beloved Country. When he brought it to me, he pointed out that he has only twenty pages left and wanted to finish it that night. “This is the first book I have ever read by choice,” he said, “and I don’t think I could ever forget it.” Neither could I.
As I thumbed through the book looking for a passage I remember reading 48 years ago (the one that begins this post), I came to a small bookmark near the end that Absalom used to mark his page. It was “A Prisoner’s Prayer to Saint Maximilian Kolbe.” I asked my friend where he got it, and he said, “It was in the book. I thought you put it there!” I did not. God only knows how many years that prayer sat inside that book waiting to be discovered, but here it is:
O Prisoner-Saint of Auschwitz, help me in my plight. Introduce me to Mary, the Immaculata, Mother of God. She prayed for Jesus in a Jerusalem jail. She prayed for you in a Nazi prison camp. Ask her to comfort me in my confinement. May she teach me always to be good.
- If I am lonely, may she say, ‘Our Father is here.’
- If I feel hate, may she say, ‘Our Father is love.’
- If I sin, may she say, ‘Our Father is mercy.’
- If I am in darkness, may she say, ‘Our Father is light.’
- If I am unjustly accused, may she say, ‘Our Father is truth.’
- If I lose hope, may she say, ‘Our Father is with you.’
- If I am lost and afraid, may she say, ‘Our Father is peace.’
And that last line, you may recall, is the meaning of Absalom.
Editor’s Note: You might like to read and share these other tributes to Father’s Day at These Stone Walls: