A dance for Juliet*

The Pallottine Fathers

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By Julie Rattey


"Welcome home, girls!”

Juliet’s mother, her hands full of the cabbages and tomatoes she was selling to a customer, turned to her daughters with a huge smile. Juliet, 10, and Hilda, 7, smiled back as they entered their two-room rental house in Mandevu, in the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia. It was a Monday afternoon, and their mother was selling vegetables as she did every weekday. Juliet loved looking at the colorful piles of plump cabbages, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables. She looked forward to the times she and Hilda helped sell the vegetables when they came home from school.

 

“Hello, Juliet!” The customer, a woman from their family’s church, greeted Juliet with a smile.

“Ello, Ooliet!” Prisca, Juliet’s 3-year-old sister, squealed happily from the floor.

Juliet smiled at the customer, gathered up Prisca, and slipped out of sight. Much more than interacting with the customers, she preferred working among the vegetables. Talking to people, and sometimes just being around them, made her face grow warm and her palms sweaty as though she were out in the hot sun.

Once the customer left, Juliet returned with Prisca to hug her mother, who was smiling from ear to ear.

“You look so happy today!” Juliet said.

Juliet’s mother laughed as she returned to work. “I am happy today.”

“It must have been a good day for selling vegetables,” mused Hilda to Juliet.

Juliet shook her head. “I think it must be from church yesterday.”

That Sunday at Mass, Father Shaji Mathew had praised the parish catechists — including their mother — for their service to the parish. In earlier years, before Pallottine Fathers like Father Shaji came to help the community, it seemed that not much had been said about what the lay people were doing for the church. Juliet knew that being acknowledged had made her mother very happy. She had stood up straighter, she had put on her special smile for Juliet’s father, she had even seemed to walk a little lighter on her feet. What a difference a kind word makes, Juliet thought.

“I was thinking,” said Juliet’s mother cheerfully, rearranging some wayward vegetables, “maybe you girls would like to join some of the church groups.”

Hilda’s and Juliet’s eyes widened. Their family’s involvement at Holy Family Parish mainly consisted of attending Sunday Mass.

“What about the Stella Girls?” their mother said. “And Holy Childhood? You girls would like that, wouldn’t you?”

Juliet felt her face grow hot. The Holy Childhood group involved Bible reading, dancing, singing, and group study sessions. The Stella Girls performed liturgical dance at Mass, right in front of the altar. They were wonderful to watch… but to be one of them? Juliet loved to dance and sing. But to do those things at church, in front of all those people?
“What do you think?” her mother asked. Her eyes were eager.

“Dance, dance, dance!” cried Prisca, gleefully patting a fat tomato with her small hands.

Juliet swallowed. “I will try.”


“A reading from the Gospel of Mark.”

It was Saturday and Juliet was standing before the rest of the Holy Childhood group, practicing how to read at Mass. So many eyes were watching her. How did Father Shaji do this every week?

“A little louder, please,” smiled Mr. Reginald, the group leader. “You are going to be sharing the words of Jesus. We want everyone in the church to hear.”

 

Juliet nodded nervously and began again. The paper in her hands shook so badly that she had trouble keeping her place. Finally, after various instructions, she got through the entire reading.

“Thank you, Juliet,” Mr. Reginald said kindly. As Juliet sat down next to Hilda with relief, he continued, “I want to remind you all that today we have our final dance practice before tomorrow’s Mass. And I have a special treat: Father Shaji is coming to watch and to say hello to you all.”

Juliet involuntarily gripped Hilda’s hand. Visions of tripping over her own feet and tumbling into a heap at the foot of the tall Indian priest ran through her head. I can’t do this! she panicked.

But a few moments later, Father Shaji was smiling and greeting them, and she found herself joining the other girls for the beginning of the dance. She had practiced at home every night, but it wasn’t like when she danced for fun. She was always aware of how everyone would be watching. Now, she felt her shoulders slump and her limbs grow tight. Despite her lithe, petite build, Juliet didn’t feel graceful like a gazelle or a bird. She felt more like a buffalo.

When it was over, Father Shaji congratulated them. The other girls beamed, but Juliet looked down at her feet. They seemed capable of dancing. Why did they feel weighed down by stones?

“This is a wonderful gift you are offering at Mass,” Father Shaji was saying. “You are not dancing for the parish alone; you are dancing for God, praying to God.” Father Shaji smiled at Juliet as his eyes passed over the gathering. Juliet lowered her gaze. “Remember when you dance that God is watching, and that He loves you.”

As she walked home that afternoon, Juliet reflected on the priest’s words. All this time she’d been nervously thinking about all the people watching her in the church. But she wasn’t really dancing for them; she was dancing for God! Maybe, Juliet thought, that would make all the difference.

 

***

 

The next day at Mass, when it was time to dance, Juliet wondered if she would really be able to go through with it. The church was a sea of people. Even her parents’ encouraging smiles, and Hilda’s encouraging hand squeeze, couldn’t quite quell her anxiety. But she closed her eyes and thought of what Father Shaji had said. She was dancing for God. So she would think of God and nothing else. As the music began, with each gesture of her hand, each step of her feet, she imagined her body speaking to God, telling Him how grateful she was for his love, how happy she was to be here at Mass, how wonderful it was to be part of this community.

Juliet could feel her limbs loosen and relax, her shoulders pull back, her head lift. Then, she smiled. Thank you, God! she prayed through the dance. You are wonderful! You are holy! You are loved!

Suddenly, the dance was over. Juliet stood in surprise at the altar, her body erect and confident. She smiled at the congregation. I am praying for you, she thought. With my dance I am praying for all of us.

As the girls turned to return to their seats, Father Shaji caught Juliet’s eye. He smiled broadly, as if saying, “Well done.” For the first time, without shyness or embarrassment, Juliet smiled back.  CD



The Pallottine Fathers took charge of pastoral service at Holy Family in April 2006. “The main charism of the Pallottines can be described as lay apostolate,” says Father Shaji, one of the two Pallottine priests in the community. “Therefore, the Pallottines are trying their best to educate and train the lay people to take up their rightful place in the Church — to own responsibility of their parish.” The Fathers have organized an English Mass and English programs in the parish, which, by familiarizing people with the language, will help open up job opportunities. They are also organizing funds to help send orphans to school. In Holy Family Parish, says Father Shaji, there are more than 1,000 registered orphans or vulnerable children. The community suffers from poverty and does not have regular access to basic facilities like electricity, water, and sanitation. For more information, and to help, visit pallottines.org or call 414-258-0653.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.