Recently, I was asked to portray Mary the Mother of Jesus for East End Fellowship’s Youth Group gathering. Our theme this semester is Back to the Future, so this week we wanted to discuss the past and how it affects our future. In a stroke of pastoral genius, Rashad had the students travel to three different “stations” of three varying characters from the past: Rosa Parks, Bill Bojangles, and Mary. The students would meet these characters in their defining moments in history, the moments where they felt most hopeless but clung to hope in the Lord to persevere.
Now, I’ve always had a sort of distaste for Mary, a woman solely defined by her identity as “mother”. I certainly recognize her importance in the nativity narrative and her humility and grace before the Lord, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed her character. So, whenever I am asked to play her (and being the only experienced, female actor in a church often guarantees many such requests) something inside me balks. But this time was different. I was not asked to portray the sweet, angel-faced thirteen year old giving birth in a barn, but the ragged middle-aged woman forced to watch her eldest son be brutalized, nailed to a tree, and then suffocate to death. This Mary, surrounded by candles and sitting near the cross she had just watched Jesus be ripped down from, was in uncontrollable sobs. As stated earlier, I’m an actor and I love my craft, and as I sat there honing it and searching my memory banks for a comparable feeling of loss, I realized I had no point of comparison. I was disheartened, thinking “I want to present the deepest level of pain to these students, I want them to understand that true hopelessness comes even to those closest to the Lord, so this can’t seem fake or dramatized… but I just don’t know what to draw on”. I sat looking up at the cross, hoping for some divine inspiration, when the Spirit gently whispered “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You were in critical condition. By your very nature you were poisonous, so I hung there on that tree and made you whole. Don’t you see what I’ve done?” Then I couldn’t control it, I erupted in sobs, heaving and weeping and asking the Lord “WHY?! Why would you do that for me? For us? I am so beyond not worth it!” And then there I was, the weeping Mary sitting before the cross, asking the same question: why her son, her baby, her love would give himself up for those that killed him, those that followed him, and even she who birthed him. I liked Mary in that moment, a more tangible, earthly mama crying out to the Lord asking “Why do you choose to love me?”
The “performance” went well. A few high schoolers left in tears, others in stunned silence. Some young middle-schoolers came in chuckling and left with wide-eyed contemplative stares. When it was all over, I sat shivering for a moment, releasing Mary back to the ethereal realm from which she had come. And as I was unwrapping my lace head cloth, one of the student leaders came bounding up the stairs to tell me how my depiction of Mary had moved him and to offer me a restorative hug. We blew out all the candles and returned down the stairs and back into the crowd together. We then broke into small groups where I was greeted by my high school girls with hugs and praise. “How do you make yourself cry? Teach me to cry?” and “Remember us when you’re a star!” They shared their hopes and I applauded them, shocked that they would share things so personal with a girl they’d known for only a few months. Makari, easily one of the most beautiful and vibrant people I’ve ever met, shared her dream of becoming the “Christian Tyra Banks”, empowering women to find their true worth in Christ and hugging me round the waist when I shared my similar dream of being the Christian Jennifer Lawrence. We returned to corporate worship, dancing and laughing together in the presence of our very tangible Lord.
Just a few weeks earlier, I went on a bike tour of Church Hill along with Rashad and two student leaders (called SLAM Leaders). Riding through the historic streets of Church Hill flanked by those two students, Chris and Jarrell, racing and giggling, I have never felt more at home. In that same week, one of the high school students asked if she could share her story with me. She said she just wanted someone she trusted with everything. Now we have journals in which we write to one another, everyday about everything.
And through every single one of those precious moments I am confronted with the same question Mary asked me that night surrounded by candles: Why do you choose to love me? You’ve known me for all of three months and, while I have certainly made enemies with my strict rules and course behavior, some (not all) of you have chosen to love me. To trust me. To help me clean up when you don’t have to. To share your secrets with me. To understand that I discipline because I love. To catch me as I fall off a skateboard. To laugh with and at me. To give me hugs when your peers have torn me down. To play with my hair and compliment my socks. And, as always, to be Jesus to me. Why do you choose to love me? I don’t know, but I’m grateful.