Sean Toole, SJ, has worked at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore 2009-12 and 2017-present. In those years, he has served as Campus Minister, taught 11th grade U.S. Government, and taught 9th grade Theology. Father Toole now teaches 12th grade Theology and serves as department chair. In November 2019, he attended the Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat Jubilee Congress in Rome, where was invited to offer a reflection on his ministry at Cristo Rey.
Fr. Toole shares his experience to date while working, teaching and learning here a Cristo Rey:
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School first opened in Baltimore thirteen years ago, and I have been here for one thing or another every year since then. Some of those years I was living out of state, and I would come in to volunteer for a week as a tutor or admissions clerk. Other years I worked here full-time, first as a seminarian and now as a priest. My students were my teachers. They still are.
Our school has changed a lot over the years, often for the better. It is my privilege to now share a classroom with our 11th grade ethics teacher, an alum with whom I worked years ago when he was the student government president and I was their moderator. Next door, another former student teaches sophomore Spanish. Last spring, I coached softball alongside our onetime shortstop.
Our city has changed a lot over the years, too, often for the worse. It is unquestionably more violent. On the day I write this (January 19, 2020), we have suffered 300 murders in the last 300 days. Our homicide total last year was 30 victims higher than that of New York, a city fourteen times our size. Yesterday, I celebrated mass in our chapel for Dontae Patterson, 18, a friend of one of my 12th graders. As I raised the chalice, I noticed the scrape still on my thumb from two months ago, when I helped lift a deceased man out of the harbor. Two months before that, my colleague Fr. Rick Malloy and I attended the wake for the brother of one of our best basketball players. As we left, the funeral director told us, “Be safe.” I hear that a lot these days. I say it a lot, too.
Since the year our school opened (the year my current students began kindergarten), the Sun reports that Baltimore has lost 2,992 African American people to homicide. There were 173 white murder victims during that same stretch. Even one is too many, as our former mayor often said. She lasted 29 months in the job before a corruption scandal felled her. Her brief administration saw four different police commissioners.
Our students are coming of age amidst a city and a society that fails to acknowledge their own human value. Sometimes they fall for this lie, but they’re usually pretty resilient at picking each other up. When this city gets improves, it will be because of our students at Cristo Rey, navigating across Baltimore’s fragmented divisions of class and race and zone.
For the past two years, our students have found a way to make themselves seen and heard. Every time a child is murdered in our city, students create a poster in the shape of a dove bearing an olive branch. That was a 9th grader’s idea. We display the doves prominently in our windows along Eastern Avenue, a busy road. Each poster bears the name and age of the victim, along with anything else we can learn about their life. Seven-year-old Taylor Hayes was shot in a car returning from an amusement park; her dove has a roller coaster track winding all around it. Seventeen-year-old Tiyon Turmon, a middle-school classmate for some of our students, was nicknamed Turtle. His dove has a turtle, round and green and peaceful.
Each dove gets its own window, and by the end of last year we ran out of windows — 22 murdered children, five more than 2018. Before we take our Christmas break, the students want to hold a peace march. They bring their doves — their neighbors, their friends — to Police Headquarters and then to City Hall. At each intersection, we stop to remember a different child. In between, they chant peace messages. My favorite call-and-response? “We still … have a voice.” Horns blare support, news cameras appear, regular citizens join us. Afterwards, unable to throw the doves away, we staple them to my classroom ceiling.
Saints of God, come to our aid. Hasten to meet us, angels of the Lord. Bless our children to help our city find peace.