Christians in several traditions will observe today, March 5, as Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will be on April 18 this year.
Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, ‘‘Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”
Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.
Eastern Orthodox Christians, who still use the ancient Julian calendar, actually began Lent on Monday this week. However, they will join Protestants and Roman Catholics in celebrating Easter on April 18. The overlap occurs roughly every four years.
— James D. Davis
Yes, one person can make a difference — if she or he pays the price. And that price may be steep.
For Gloria Jean Merriex, the difference was in the math scores of her elementary school students. And the price, says the producer of a documentary on her, was her life.
“We’re often told that everybody can make a big difference, but that’s not quite right,” says Boaz Dvir, currently booking screenings of his film Discovering Gloria. “They don’t show how. The person has to transform. And it comes at great sacrifice.”
Discovering Gloria, scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 in Miami, tells the story of teacher Gloria Jean Merriex, who was alarmed in 2002 to learn that her school, Duval Elementary in Gainesville, Fla., failed a statewide achievement test. She studied her students to see what approach would work best.
She finally hit on a blend of rap, hip-hop dance, funky music and chanting in the call-and-response style of gospel choirs. She also began teaching several lessons at once, even starting with the hardest lessons instead of the easy ones. And she wielded old-fashioned toughness, taking no excuses for work undone.
Merriex began teaching her methods to other teachers as well, and the following year, the whole school scored an A in the same test — and it won as well for the next five years. Her achievements won recognition from educators at the University of Florida, where Dvir works, and a curriculum grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
Tragically, she died of a diabetic stroke the day after getting the grant — apparently from neglecting her health while she worked day and night for her children.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that Gloria worked herself to death,” Dvir says. “She sacrificed her life.”
But those children have gone on to higher levels such as acting and college — one student, Charlie Brown, is a pre-med student at UF. Many of them regard her as their godmother, Dvir says; one even says on camera that Merriex is still with her spiritually.
Stylistically, Discovering Gloria (see the trailer here) is spare and realistic, yet with a joyous infusion of music and rhythm. The 39-minute film uses some subtitles but no narrator, instead telling Merriex’s story through friends, family and colleagues. Dvir also uses some footage in her class.
Dvir, 46, learned about Merriex through the Lastinger Center for Learning at UF, where he was working. At first, he was just planning a film on a top-scoring school in Florida. “But it became clearer what a force she was, not just in schools but in education.”
Without Merriex herself to interview, he took dozens of interviews and shot 140 hours of film.
Did it wear him out? He says no. “I feel energized. And privileged to tell the story.”
Two coordinators of the Lastinger Center in Miami are eager to show the film there. They’re inviting both principals and teachers, especially math teachers, hoping to fill the 900-seat auditorium at Miami Jackson Senior High School.
Timing of this screening is crucial: just before the next round of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the test that spurred Merriex herself.
“Many teachers are demoralized; they’re in a testing crunch, almost like a Code Red,” says Raquel Diaz, who helps coordinate Lastinger’s Teacher Leadership for School Improvement. “My goal is for teachers to feel empowered.”
Magdalena Castaneda, the main coordinator for the Miami screening, agreed. She said Gloria Merriex’s work inspired the Florida Master Teacher Initiative, which includes the teacher leadership program.
“We want to inspire teachers to know they can be powerful and effective for students and for other teachers, as Gloria Merriex did,” Castaneda says. “I tell teachers that if they want to be remembered, let them be remembered for positive things.”
Beyond the educational lessons, Discovering Gloria is a typical Boaz Dvir project: a story of an ordinary person who made a difference. It was the theme of his documentary Jesse’s Dad, about the father of a murdered child in Homosassa, Fla., who became an advocate for child protection.
And it’s the heart of his next release, A Wing and a Prayer, about Americans who volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence despite their nation’s prohibition.
In Dvir’s films, the theme has an added dimension: the need to change inside — even transform totally — in order to make changes around oneself.
From his interviews, he concluded that Gloria Merriex was at first an ordinary teacher, as well as an average mother, and didn’t attend church. Then, as some of her associates noted, she even began walking, talking and dressing differently.
“When she transformed, she became a more caring mother, daughter and sister, and a more involved community member — and she went back to church,” Dvir says. “It all happened at the same time. She had an almost theological sense of purpose.”
If you go
- Event: Discovering Gloria
- Featured: Documentary on how a teacher turned around poor grades in an elementary school class
- When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22
- Where: Miami Jackson Senior High School, 1751 NW 36th St., Miami
- Cost: Free
James D. Davis
Monday, Jan. 6, will be Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.
For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.
For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.
Most liturgical churches will hold formal Epiphany observances on Sunday, Jan. 5. Many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.
— James D. Davis
Believers worldwide celebrate Dec. 25 as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the unique Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.
As told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.
In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.
Roman Catholic churches begin Christmas the previous night with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate the holiday with special cantatas and carols.
Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.
Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Latin Americans, who will celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.
— James D. Davis
When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?
These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.
“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”
Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.
Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.
Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.
The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.
“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”
Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”
The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.
The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.
It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.
Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.
Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.
“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”
If you go
Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference
Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science
Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.
When: Dec. 14-16
Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.
Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org
Santa is invited. So are some hip-hoppers, gospel singers and ballet dancers. Oh, and you are, too.
That’ll be Christmas Near the Beach, a flamboyant blend of music, dance, comedy and worship. The free festival is planned for 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at ArtsPark in the heart of Hollywood, Fla.
“Everyone wants to have people for Christmas in their living room, but they can’t,” says Deena McDaniel, producer of the seventh annual Yuletide festival. She then grins and waves at the 2,400-square-foot stage at ArtsPark. “So let’s have it in my living room!”
Holding forth at the circular park at U.S. 1 and Hollywood Boulevard, Christmas Near the Beach will include a sampling of music and performance styles from around South Florida. Among them will be hip-hoppers Justin Phillips and Mr. E; the Overflow Band, a Spanish praise and worship group; St. Nick and the Florida Sunshine Band, a marching band; the Pursell Family Band, bluegrass gospel; and Sensere, a 1950s-style gospel group with horns and singers.
Also there will be Expressions of Joy, a dance studio for which McDaniel an instructor. They’ll perform excerpts of their Christmas ballet A Star Shall Come Forth. And they’ll do an excerpt from their original ballet based on The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.
The biggest performance will be a flash mob of 200-300 dancers, choreographed by McDaniel, who shared the moves via YouTube.
McDaniel herself will reprise her Grinchy Got Saved performance, in which she dresses and masks as a parody of Dr. Seuss’ sneering green character. She’ll also perform an athletic, gospel-oriented dance called Only One Roadway, wearing mime makeup that, she confesses, some children have found scary.
Christmas Near the Beach will offer other trappings of South Florida festivals as well: hot dogs, fried Oreo cookies, a Tacky Sweater Contest, arts and crafts for kids, and a classic car show (St. Nick will even arrive in one of them). You’ll also have a chance to win a Christmas tree in a free raffle.
The festival moved last December from its original home on Hollywood Beach, where it got about 1,000 people each year. Last year the crowd tripled, McDaniel said, and this year she gleefully expects 10,000.
But Christmas Near the Beach will ignore the reason for the season. After his big entrance, St. Nick will kneel before the Baby Jesus at a live Nativity scene. Also featured will be a message by Pastor Al Pino of McDaniel’s home church, Palm Vista Community Church in Miami Lakes.
The variety of the acts reflects the variety of the dozen participating churches, McDaniel says: Haitian, Hispanic and African American as well as Anglo. She says the audience itself will include about 50 congregations.
If Christmas is the right time for such a festival, Deena McDaniel is the right person to produce it. Besides her work with Expressions of Joy, she leads a fitness class at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood and has worked as an adjunct professor of cardio and Pilates at Barry University in Miami Shores. She also holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and worked for 10 years as a DJ in her former hometown of Camden, Mo.
Her two youngest daughters seem to be following in her nimble footsteps. Rosey, 12, has a speaking part as a “Who” in the Grinch play. She’ll also dance in the flash mob, as will sister Abby, 10.
Abby has her own vocabulary in talking about Christmas Near the Beach. “Super-extra-awesome-amazing,” she says with a smile.
Although the festival is free, McDaniel plans to pass the plate for the first time this year to defray the $11,000 price. Most of the cost is carried by sponsorship and donations, she says.
This year, the program will get help from another source: Hollywood Hot Glass, a glass-blowing workshop based at ArtsPark. Director Brenna Baker will sell glass starfish-shaped Christmas ornaments for $20 each, with proceeds to benefit Christmas Near the Beach.
Christmas Near the Beach is also getting coverage from Christian media, including radio stations WAY-FM, Reach-FM, and the GraceNet Internet broadcast. At least two secular newspapers, the Hollywood Gazette and the South Florida Sun Sentinel, have also shown interest.
How to know if Christmas Near the Beach is a success? Here, McDaniel tears up. “Whenever the gospel is preached, it’s a success. Being big doesn’t mean you’re faithful. God says to share the gospel and let him do the work.”
Then her bright smile returns. “But big is OK, too. I’ll take big.”
For more info, check out the Christmas Near the Beach website.
James D. Davis