The National Catholic Review
B. G. Kelley
A Catholic coach, an evangelical court
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I am looking over a student’s transcript in the offices of International Christian High School, where I have labored for the last 10 years as a basketball coach, writing teacher and counselor, when a new colleague asks a question someone here asks me every year, “What church do you go to?” I pause, then look at her with a wry grin, knowing the answer is not going to be what she expects.

“I go to a Catholic church.” A momentary, awkward silence seizes her before she replies, “Oh.” I could hear her inner voice: He’s one of those.

Yes, I am. I’m the only Catholic at an evangelical Christian, mostly minority school. Ihad never imagined working here, but then God has his ways.

One September day 10 years ago, my wife, Ellie, a Protestant who has been teaching French at International Christian for 37 years, came home from school and said to me, “The principal wants to know if you would want to coach the varsity basketball team.” The current coach had just quit—three weeks before practice was to begin. The principal knew I had a basketball background, having been an all-Catholic player at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, the first free Catholic high school in the United States (founded in 1890) and a two-year starter and honorable mention all-East selection as point guard for Temple University.

“Do you?” my wife persisted. No, I didn’t. My life was good, so why would I want to risk my physical health (my pit bull drive to win would surely send my blood pressure soaring) or my psychological health (a Catholic in an evangelical school!). Then, too, I had been away from the game for some 15 years. Coaching is an insane proposition in any case; and, as my wife warned me, I would be coaching kids who were “undisciplined.”

“Just for this year,” I said.

Teaching, Serving, Caring

I admit I felt uncomfortable, perhaps even anxious, being the only Catholic, and because of the way I grew up in a white middle-class Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia. Not only were there no African-Americans or Hispanics in my neighborhood, there were no Protestants. My whole culture was carved in Catholicism. Not that I was sorry. I wasn’t. Indeed, my Catholicism was my rock, my initiation into a man’s world—Communion breakfasts with your father, hardscrabble C.Y.O. competition, high school discussions with priests, Catholic buddies who always had your back. Yet there were those times I had a feeling that church rulers reigned like an absolute monarchy, empty of the human touch.

I had felt a shift with Pope John Paul II, sensing that the church was moving away from its austere, distant personality. With Pope John Paul, who laughed and sang and wrote poetry and did not fear physical contact, I began to see the church more in terms of teaching, serving and caring: a minister to the poor, a healer to the down and out, a fighter for the essential rights and dignity of everyone, no matter what religion or race. It instilled in me a profound hope that I could swing this only-Catholic thing at this evangelical school, even though I knew hope was not a policy. Hope is more like a prayer over a loved one’s sickbed; it would take savvy and a spine to keep hope alive for me at International Christian High School.

Even if I could swing it, I knew my Catholicism would set me apart. The differences between my colleagues and me would lie not so much in a set of religious beliefs, although there would be differences, but more in a social and cultural way of life. The same experiences did not tie them inextricably to their faith as my experiences tied me to Catholicism—things like the profound meaning of transubstantiation, or death as ritualized in the funerals of loved ones, or the birth and baptism of a child; things like the fidelity of school chums, the lighting of a candle, the honest zeal of a high school priest who teaches children to accept both challenges and suffering as part of the search for fulfillment, a novena, the saints, the church beef-and-beer socials, bingo, C.Y.O. These connections to my consciousness sustain me, even save me.

One evangelical practice caused me much discomfiture. I have never been one to pray aloud and was reared to pray silently, more introspectively. At International Christian—in faculty meetings, in luncheon get-togethers, in the classroom, in chapel—long, extemporaneous prayers are always offered out loud. I hid behind silence. Then at the annual faculty Christmas party this past December, as the affair was ending the principal said, “Let’s pray. Mr. Kelley, would you pray?” Gulp.

I was paralyzed by silence for a long moment and then said, “Would someone else please pray?” Let them fire me. They didn’t.

A Man of Influence

The school had put together an awards night in the small lunchroom to honor the basketball team, which in my first year as coach had ripped off a 17-to-4 record, good enough to be ranked 17th in the city—a surprise to everyone at the school, including me. We did not recruit players like most of the private schools that we played, but drew only from a pool of 70 boys who walked through the door. My evangelical colleagues and students at the school played a big part in bringing the awards night off. The business teacher decorated the lunchroom with balloons and signs and set the tables in blue and white, the school colors. The principal and the athletic director and their wives cooked the meal. About 10 students volunteered to wait tables.

I was ready to resign after the awards dinner. I had coached for gas money and knew that I was not going to be compensated at the rate other high school coaches were being paid. Our school worked on a bare-bones budget; it was basically hand-to-mouth, what came in went right out. I reminded myself what Christ had said to his Apostles about accumulating money, “It cannot be that way with you.”

At the banquet the mother of one of my junior players, Jake, approached me and said, “Coach, please don’t forget about my boy. You’ve had such an influence on him.” It was indeed a moment in my life that seemed not only luminous but also transformative. I loved Jake. He was our 6’7” center who was pivotal to our success. Jake’s mom’s plea had caught me off guard, even rattled me somewhat.

I left the banquet that night haunted, Don’t forget about my boy. I hesitated to hand in my resignation, then never did. Instead I went to the principal three weeks later and said, “I need to make more money to stay on.” I had sacrificed about $18,000 in what I would have earned from writing during my four months of coaching. I could not afford to do that for another year. After all, I had a sizeable mortgage.

The principal proffered, “O.K., how about teaching a writing course and helping the kids navigate their way into college?”

“Deal,” Isaid. More than many other professions, teaching (and coaching) demands, respects and celebrates the virtues of hard work, tenacity and sacrifice, and lifts these qualities to the level of God’s will. It is absolutely a commitment to get God’s children to care about the conduct of life itself: pointing out the differences between right and wrong, understanding that growth can feed from mistakes made, having a go at the mystery of ourselves, exploring the complex crossroads between what is and what ought to be, pushing to look inside the soul as well as the mind. While trying to instill these virtues into the kids, I discovered I was also re-enforcing them in myself.

Vaughn brought that home to me. It is late one afternoon, and the streets outside of International Christian High School are mean, scowling with anger. Drugs, crime and gangs are a way of life in the neighborhood. There is a reason for every war, a war for every reason. Here at International Christian High School, life seems a war of survival.

Vaughn lives around the corner from the school. He comes from a family that struggles financially and health-wise. His brother needs a kidney transplant; his mother works long hours to afford Vaughn’s tuition at our school and to put food on the family table.

“Coach, thanks for helping me out,” he says. Vaughn is one of my former basketball players. I had just spent a couple of hours in our tiny gym putting him through agility drills, defensive drills and shooting drills. He had been accepted at Valley Forge Christian College, a school just outside of Philadelphia, and would be trying out for the team come fall. But he was out of shape, too pudgy on a 5’9” frame. He had played four years for me and was a major contributor to five championships we had won.

I feared Vaughn would not stay in school if he didn’t have basketball. He loved the game, and would be willing to put time in on the books if there was basketball. I had always preached to him—and all my players—that education is their lifeline, not basketball; basketball is for a short time and education is for a lifetime. I figured if I could help him stay in school, get his degree, get a good job to help out his mother, then I would be doing what God wanted me to do.

Indeed, I would be fulfilling a part of my Catholic training: to carry out Jesus’ teachings about the poor and be faithful to the tradition of Catholic social thought that views respect for life as encompassing a strong commitment to social justice.

Vaughn graduated from college this spring.

Soul Coach

There is good reason to have stayed all these years. I have no regrets. The little evangelical school has given me a sense of place and purpose, a sense of belonging, indeed a sense of the humanity that Pope John Paul preached about, even though this is more Billy Graham turf than pope turf. Teaching and coaching at International Christian High School as the only Catholic has been, more than anything else, an experience of the soul. I willfully use the word “soul” and am not embarrassed to use it. Mind you, though, I have not left all of my soul during these 10 years, only pieces of it, because I know there will be another year to come back to and to give another piece. It is this experience of the soul that rejects leaving here and offers me a still point of infinity.

Even with our differences, my colleagues have accepted me more each year. I guess they realize we are on the same page in one respect: We want to reach out and steer the mostly underprivileged, minority kids we teach and minister to into a more productive secular and spiritual life. I have even brought some of my Catholic school teaching along on this journey and have given it to the kids: go on a rational search for life—being before becoming.

This passage in my life as the only Catholic in an evangelical Christian school has offered me a presence in a child’s life. Jake called me a year ago. “Coach, thanks for your help and guidance,” he said. “ I’m going to France to play professional basketball.” Don’t forget about my boy.

Yes, I’ve grown accustomed to being the only Catholic at this school. Maybe I feel too good to notice. I kind of like it that way.

B. G. Kelley has written for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and other publications. He was a writer for the television movie “Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story” and has written a book of poetry, The World I Feel.

Comments

Mary Ann Milligan | 11/7/2009 - 10:42am
I was very excited to see the headline and to read this excellent article. When I first came to the evangelical school where I teach English, I was the only Catholic. Now, in my tenth year, I have three Catholic colleagues. I too have felt a strong sense of belonging to my little school. I have always felt accepted as a sister in Christ. Until the last three years or so, I would feel guilty (True to my Catholic heritage, as I am!) about not serving in a Catholic school, but we have such a strong dedication to our students, many of whom are as needy as the ones described in the article, that I could not leave. In addition, I trust that God is using me to contribute to a spirit of openness and fellowship with fellow Christians of other denominations. At the same time, I remain a fully committed, active Catholic. Thank you, Mr. Kelley, for writing this essay.
Edison Woods | 11/6/2009 - 3:20pm
I think this was good principly because the author thinks more of education than sports including basketball.