This week the church offered us one of my favorite Gospel passages: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Mt 13:45-46)
I always carry a clear glass marble in my left pocket. It’s the “pearl of great price.”
When I talk about this with my students, I suggest to them that every encounter with another person offers an opportunity to learn something—or to give something away. Those experiences, those lessons, those acts of Christian charity are pearls of great price, worth more than gold. This reminds me of something my pastor said in a homily: “We do not bring anything into this world. We do not take anything from it. But we can leave something behind.”
This June, I completed 23 years in the classroom. That’s easily over 3,000 students (and their families) I have been blessed to know. I would be lying if I said it’s all been orange slices and hugs. Teaching is a human service, and it’s often messy.
Some time ago, I had an encounter that finally moved me to be active in advocating for LGBTQ ministry in Catholic schools. After knowing a teen and his family for several years, I learned that he had come out to his parents, who were supportive, but he was struggling with the social-emotional journey of accepting himself in a world that did not always accept him. In fact, he missed many weeks of school to get the counseling he needed to not fear what each day might bring. LGBTQ students might relate to what he told me:
Christian environments remain hostile to the LGBTQIA+ community, so there is an underwhelming awareness of what the experience is like. Many of my struggles can somehow be traced back to me being gay. I always feel like the “other” or the target of gay stereotypes. It has made me insecure about my voice, the way I walk, and my mannerisms.
I have very few close friends. I feel like this is because many people are prejudiced against me. They might also not want to be judged by other people for associating with me. This leads to isolation, not fitting in, not belonging, not having a place. The negative thoughts cause trouble sleeping and concentrating, and I often lack hunger.
I struggle to find worth in society, and I’m lacking self confidence, self value, and self respect.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. “Why do you say you’ve lost self respect?”
After a pause, he choked out through a quivering voice, “Because I tried to kill myself.”
That answer took my breath away. With the sound of shattered glass, I felt my heart break into a million pieces. It’s a moment that changed my life.
This is why I carry the marble. It’s a reminder that every person has a pearl of great price, that every person is worthy of respect. When we are created by God, we are endowed with a gift—the marble. Everybody has one. It’s given, not earned. It’s the same size, no bigger or smaller. I can’t give mine away or take yours. We can’t collect more, or barter for a trade. Yours is no more valuable than mine, and the pearl does not grow in value or depreciate when you drive off the lot.
So, I carry it with me as a constant reminder of the dignity of every human person, the ultimate pearl of great price.
At a time when both our nation and our church are engaged in bitter discourse over LGBTQ inclusion, I keep this marble as a physical sign of an invisible reality—that we are all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, even our queer and transgender neighbors. No matter our race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sex, political party, ability, sexual orientation, or gender identity, Jesus prays that we may all be one (cf. Jn 17:21). It’s here, says Greg Boyle, SJ, that a soul feels its worth.
This brings me to the secondary meaning of the marble. For me, it is a symbol of the Incarnation, that God became man and made His dwelling among us. He is Jesus, our Emmanuel, our “God is with us.”
When I hold the marble up for a closer look, I see everything around me in there. It’s a sign of the Incarnation—still God, but different—that Jesus is with me and he calls me to refract his love to the world, no matter how upside down it seems.
In the Gospel of John, Christ says, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). Notice that this love is not qualified. It does not ignore or exclude LGBTQ folks. They are equally deserving of our unconditional love.
But how can we love a God we cannot see if we cannot love the gay or trans neighbor we do see—a person made in God’s image? We believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and became man, that he was crucified, died, and was buried and three days later rose from the dead and eventually ascended into heaven. How is that more easy to believe than in the equal dignity of every human person?
Everybody has a place and is worthy of our attention, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. That’s a pearl of great price. If we ever have the good fortune of meeting, then remind me to show you the marble. I’d be happy to give it away, so that you can carry a reminder, too.