Pagan Babies

I am a Catholic of a certain age, a graduate of parochial school, and a former member of the Association of the Holy Childhood. My first lessons in social justice came through saving pagan babies. While the circumstances, the cost, and the rewards varied from parish to parish, most Catholic children of the 1960s “saved” at least one “pagan baby.” What exactly we learned from this could be disputed. Labeling any baby “pagan,” much less sweeping into this category all “foreign” children of color, makes me look back with embarrassment. And yet the fundamental mission of the Holy Childhood Association—its efforts to create in children of privilege some sense that they are responsible for and obligated to help other children in need—was not lost on me.

Of course, the prizes helped. My most cherished reward for raising money for the missions was a Madonna-and-Child nightlight that graced my bedside table well into adolescence. I also had a more personal reason for hitting the $5 mark—the point at which you actually “saved” a baby and got naming rights. I named all my pagan babies after my cousin Karen, who had died at age 2. At first, Sister tried to dissuade me from using “Karen,” as this was not a name on the published roster of saints. But I assured her that my Karen went straight to heaven—Monsignor had said so and celebrated a Mass of the angels in white vestments rather than the usual funeral Mass in her honor. I pictured the dozens of Karens I had saved growing up safely somewhere in Africa.

My imagination was also captured by the missionaries who came to speak to us at least once a year. Maryknollers, Franciscans, or Missionaries of Charity, these men and women told riveting tales of adventure and hardship. In fourth grade I was finally old enough to see the movies they showed—with shots of real lepers and starving children. While clearly titillating and voyeuristic, these presentations revealed a larger world and highlighted our own privileged place. People needed food, water, medical care, and were looking to us to step up and provide it. When I gave my pennies to the missions, I could make a difference. I could change the world.

In college, I was given the opportunity to work for a month at a Franciscan mission in Mexico. I jumped at it. No longer just an auxiliary fundraiser—this was my chance to be part of the action! And so I traveled to Guaymas in the Sonoran desert expecting to accomplish great things.

My romantic notions of missionary work got a dose of reality that summer. I found I really did not have many skills to offer. I could fold bandages and scrub floors in the dispensario, change diapers and scrub floors in the orphanage, wash vestments and scrub floors in the church—you can see the pattern. Then I developed dysentery, and the very people I was there to “save” were taking care of me.

That summer in Guaymas, I learned that people in poverty needed more than goodwill, and that social justice was not a simple matter of collecting spare change and sending it off to the right folks. The problems were global, structural, and often ambiguous. And yet sometimes the answer was as simple as getting down on hands and knees to join the woman scrubbing the floor, to learn her technique and listen to her story. There were no poor pagan babies to be pitied in Guaymas. There were just people who needed another shoulder on their plow.

The Holy Childhood Association got many of the basics right: it introduced me to global realities of poverty and need, to notions of privilege and responsibility. On the other hand, the central charitable action of my generation—saving and naming “pagan babies”—was clearly a fiction (I mourn those African Karens), one that reinforced my American sense of exceptionalism and arrogance. Yet, I wonder, if I had not saved those pagan babies, would I have had the confidence and motivation to go to Mexico?

I was not called to be a full-time missionary. My vocation has been in education, and in the thirty-plus years since my summer in Mexico I have accompanied students on many short sojourns to the “front lines” in Tijuana, Nicaragua, El Salvador, East Los Angeles, New Orleans. Each time I hope to combine for them the Holy Childhood’s call of responsibility with the lessons I learned in Guaymas: the difference between pity and solidarity, the complexity of the global structures that create poverty and need, and the smallness of our efforts at making a difference.

Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: 

Linda A. McMillin is a professor of history at Susquehanna University.

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