Rev. Edwin D. Leahy of ‘St. Benedict’s Prep’: “Give up what you want for what we need”

Give up what you want for what we need — the basis for living in community. First year students learn this right off the bat. During the Freshman Overnight, a boot camp of sorts held the first week of our Summer Phase, kids learn they have to give up what they want in order for their group […]

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Give up what you want for what we need — the basis for living in community. First year students learn this right off the bat. During the Freshman Overnight, a boot camp of sorts held the first week of our Summer Phase, kids learn they have to give up what they want in order for their group to get through all the challenges and hurdles they have to overcome. If more people would give up what they want in the short term for the betterment of community, our country would be much better off in the long run.

As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B.

Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, O.S.B. is the 23rd Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., a national model of urban Catholic education serving nearly 900 students from in and around Newark. Fr. Ed, who graduated St. Benedict’s in 1963, and has served as Headmaster since 1972, when a group of young Benedictine monks in Newark Abbey resurrected the School to serve mostly Black and Hispanic students.

The incredible success of St. Benedict’s has been well documented in The Rule, a film by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno that aired on PBS, and a 2016 segment on “60 Minutes” that brought the School nationwide attention. Fr. Ed was the recipient of the first Robert F. Kennedy Award for Urban School Leadership from the National Schools That Can organization in 2014. He was named a New Jersey icon by NJBIZ in 2020, and holds honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Saint Peter’s University and St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN.

Fr. Ed earned a B.A. in philosophy from Seton Hall University, and a Master’s in Divinity from Woodstock College at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He took his first vows as a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Newark in 1967 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1972.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was raised twice. First, by a white family, with my parents and three siblings in a Catholic neighborhood in Woodbridge, N.J. As a young Benedictine monk living in the middle of Newark, I was raised a second time, by the Black and later, Latino community. Benedictine monks take a vow of stability. We remain rooted to one place, even when circumstances deteriorate, as they did in Newark during the 1960s. Through it all, it was the people of Newark who taught me and my fellow monks how we could be of service and sustain our mission.

What or who inspired you to pursue your vocation? We’d love to hear the story.

Well, that is an interesting story. I might not have become a Benedictine monk had someone not interceded on my behalf. I applied to St. Benedict’s Prep back in 1959 and didn’t get in. My pastor made a call to the headmaster and said, “If you take him, you just may be fostering a vocation.” A few weeks later, I got an acceptance letter and was thrilled. And from the moment I stepped on the Property of St. Benedict’s, it felt like home to me.

I went on to study philosophy at Seton Hall University, graduated and entered the Novitiate at Newark Abbey in 1967 just as Newark erupted in violence and unrest.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today?

I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by my monastic brothers, incredible faculty and supportive alumni and friends who buy into what we do and want to see every kid who comes to St. Benedict’s get a fair shot at a better life. I learned a long time ago that I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to get an 11-month school year off the ground, or devote our entire spring term to experiential learning, or figure out how to do our daily Convocation virtually in a pandemic. I just have to surround myself with the smartest, most committed people who consider accompanying our kids a vocation. The number of people who make the place work is proof that God is present.

Can you share the most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

There was an early mistake I made that turned out to be pretty momentous. After St. Benedict’s Prep closed in 1972, the monks who stayed at Newark Abbey immediately began planning a new educational venture for the city. We envisioned something small, with a non-traditional approach, and I as the newly appointed Headmaster, kept emphasizing that the school was not St. Benedict’s Prep. We had letterhead and everything that called it, St. Benedict’s School.

So, the School opens and it’s not St. Benedict’s Prep. There was a parent meeting with the Black fathers who’d enrolled their sons, and Carl Lamb Sr. asked me, “Why was it good enough to be St. Benedict’s Prep when it was all of you?” he said, pointing to me, a white Benedictine monk and alumnus of the School. “But now that it’s all of us, it can’t be St. Benedict’s Prep?” I had no answer, except to tell Mr. Lamb, “St. Benedict’s Prep will re-open tomorrow.”

That was a defining moment for me. I realized our purpose was not to impose our world view onto the Black community, but to serve the brothers and sisters of our city by walking with them.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

If you know St. Benedict’s, then you know we have a lot of mottos that guide the kids as well as adults in our community. As Headmaster, the one that’s probably been the most influential is, “Never do for students what they can do for themselves.” We built the whole school around that in order to help young people of color discover and amplify their voices. It’s why our students earn the authority and responsibility to run the School and make real decisions on day-to-day operations.

If you think about it, “Never do for students what they can do for themselves,” actually makes life harder for teachers and staff. Sometimes it’s easier to do something yourself than let another person figure out stuff for themselves. When our freshmen do the Backpacking Project — which involves hiking 55 miles on the Appalachian Trail, a rite of passage and requirement to graduate — it would be way easier to tell kids they’re hiking in the wrong direction. But we don’t do that. The job of the adults or student commanders on The Trail is to ask questions, like, “Hey, have you noticed which direction the sun is traveling?” to get them to stop, look at the map, recognize they’re going the wrong way and figure out as a team how to get back on track.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences.

This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The divisions in our country have always been there. I just turned 75 and believe me I’m not one of these, “Things were so much better in the old days,” kind of guys. There has always been racism, injustice and hatred. But for a long list of reasons, people are cut off from each other today. We’ve gotten away from community and the principles that impel us to be responsible for each other and accountable to one another. We’re all better off when we follow that.

That’s why community is the most important thing we do at St. Benedict’s. Too often in schools or even society, achievement is at the expense of someone else. We don’t buy into that. At St. Benedict’s, if you’re earning straight As, but the guy next to you is struggling, you haven’t quite cut it. You have an obligation to help your brother and cross the finish line together. I know it’s possible because kids from all kinds of backgrounds, who’ve experienced all kinds of suffering, are capable of this kind of generosity.

In your opinion what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

There is a quick story I like to tell about two friends, Irving and Moishe. One day Irv turns to Moishe, and asks, “Moishe do you love me?” And Moishe responds, “Of course I love you; you are my oldest friend.” Irv asks a second question, “Do you know my suffering?” And Moishe responds, “No, I don’t know your suffering.” “Then how can you love me?” Irv asks.

The reason I share this story, is because we do not understand the suffering or realities of other people. That happens in our own families, with friends, communities and even within our Church and houses of worship. So, if we want to start bridging any divide, we have to one, understand the suffering and realities of others. The second step is admitting or acknowledging that we’ve added to the suffering of the other.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly, the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

People have agency and free will over their choices. If you don’t like the divisiveness on social media, you can choose to unfollow or ignore parties fanning the flames of division. You can think before you re-tweet or post items of questionable veracity.

Social media is not all bad. We’ve used YouTube since Day 1 of the pandemic to keep the Benedict’s community connected and it’s been overwhelmingly positive. We have alumni getting up at 5:00 a.m. on the West Coast to be with our kids for 8:00 a.m. Convo. It’s forged this incredible connection between generations, so there is a lot of good that social media can do in bringing people together. It just depends on how you use it.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country?” Kindly share a story or example for each.

I’ve always said that the example of our kids is a sign to the world that people can live in communion and in love. If we want to proactively heal divisions in the country, follow the principles our kids buy into and practice at St. Benedicts.

1. Give up what you want for what we need — the basis for living in community. First year students learn this right off the bat. During the Freshman Overnight, a boot camp of sorts held the first week of our Summer Phase, kids learn they have to give up what they want in order for their group to get through all the challenges and hurdles they have to overcome. If more people would give up what they want in the short term for the betterment of community, our country would be much better off in the long run.

2. Whatever HURTS my brother/sister HURTS me — sympathy isn’t enough to heal divisions in our country. We have to show one another true empathy. That’s the essence of “whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.” When someone is in a hole, the sympathetic person might say, “That’s a shame.” The empathetic person will get in the hole with you and accompanies you through the mess.

3. Whatever HELPS my brother/sister HELPS me — the second part of the motto is how we move forward. I see it all the time. When kids come into St. Benedict’s they have no reason to trust the adults or student group leaders who are telling them what to do. But they start to trust and buy into the idea of belonging to something bigger than themselves when they see the consistent acts of empathy and help.

4. Welcome difference — Benedictines take hospitality seriously. St. Benedict himself placed a porter at the entrance to the monastery so visitors would be noticed and recognized. Since Newark Abbey was established in 1857, we’ve welcomed and tried to be of service to whoever was in the area — first the Germans, then the Irish, Italians, African Americans and Latinos. We also welcome the opportunity to engage with people who will challenge our world view. This is happening now in an interfaith seminar involving students from St. Benedict’s and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J. If you’re looking for an example of how people with different viewpoints and perspectives can listen to one another, engage in respectful dialogue, and come to an understanding of one another even if they don’t agree, look no further than these kids.

5. The only easy day was yesterday — my final piece of advice because none of the above is easy to do on a consistent basis. Freshman year is the hardest year at St. Benedict’s and when kids hit a wall they tend to prevail because of “Benedict’s Hates a Quitter,” a motto coined by our legendary football and baseball Coach Joe Kasberger that applies to everything in life. We give up too easily in this country. People quit relationships. Political leaders would rather quit than compromise. It’s really hard to quit or get thrown out of St. Benedict’s. Why? Adults refuse to give up on the kids. Student-leaders refuse to give up on kids. That builds trust, and trust builds healing. So yeah, if we want to unite the divisions in this country, don’t give up on people you disagree with so easily.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I am optimistic because as I stated, Benedict’s kids set the example for the world to follow. Americans are starving for community. I know this because people go nuts when they learn how St. Benedict’s Prep operates. I am constantly asked, “Why can’t the world be more like St. Benedict’s? It can. We just have to work at it.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Tiger Woods because I feel he’s a good man with an incredible work ethic who continues to work on redeeming himself from past transgressions. I was very saddened to learn of the extent of his injuries resulting from his car crash. The monks and students are praying for his recovery.

How can our readers follow you online?

@FrEdwinLeahy on Twitter

This was very meaningful and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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