Rosalyn, a life of courage

A tribute to Rosalyn Richardson Coleman, a pioneer of the Focolare Movement in the United States.

By Sharry Silvi

I was about to fly back from Rome to New York when I heard that Rosalyn Richardson’s conditions had worsened and that she was in the hospital. It looked like her departure for the next life was imminent. I asked my friends who were with her to let her know that Julian, Clare and I would go directly to the hospital from the airport. The flight seemed endless, baggage claim and customs took forever. Then finally we were able to reach Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

Our moment with Rosalyn was precious, a time of profound unity. Her words were a hymn of thanksgiving for a life filled with the immense love of God, love which she had responded to with faithfulness, constancy, and courage.

And she was courageous and loving at this moment too. When, at the door of her hospital room, we turned to look at her one more time, she smiled and with a thumbs-up sign she seemed to repeat what had been in a way the motto of her life: always up, always ahead, always one.

I remember the evening we met as if it were yesterday, and instead it was many years ago. I had been invited to dinner by my doctor and I was sitting on a stool talking to two young men. They were interested in knowing my story and so I was sharing it. It was a story that had brought me to New York only a few years before, when the first little “Focolare” of New York had opened in an apartment in Manhattan. It was the story of a work of God which had started in Trent during World War II and had unity as its goal.

Rosalyn was sitting close by, apparently oblivious to what was happening around her, but in reality, as she later confessed, she was eavesdropping. “The more I listened,” she said about that night, “the more my heart began palpitating and, as I look back now, I can only think of it as being similar to the experience the apostles had when they were returning to Emmaus and Jesus was walking among them. They said later that they hadn’t recognized him, but they remembered that their hearts were burning within them. I had that same type of feeling.”

A few days later she was already visiting her new friends in their Focolare house. She told us then that she felt God had prepared her for that encounter, that he was asking something of her, but, as she put it, “I was reluctant to say yes because of past experiences of segregation and discrimination in the Deep South.” However it was not like Rosalyn to hesitate for long, haunted as she was by Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

She plunged into the newly discovered life with all the zeal, good will and passion of her heart. Her life would be for the unity Jesus had prayed for, the unity of all mankind.

Every year the Focolare organizes the “Mariapolis.”1 It is a time when, in many cities around the world, people who have tried to live its spirituality meet for a few days to reflect upon it and share their experiences of life in an atmosphere of mutual love. It was in 1963 when Rosalyn came to her first Mariapolis and the theme was “Jesus Crucified and Forsaken, the key to unity.” There she understood that for her too he would be the key to unity with God and with her brothers and sisters, and now we can testify that she was faithful to him to her last breath.

It was the love of Jesus Forsaken and her determination to build bridges that led her to accept the invitation to come with us to the South where an ecumenical meeting was being organized. This was where she had grown up, where she had suffered from racism and segregation. She shared her experience of love of neighbor with a mostly white audience. It was powerful. She told us later, “I looked at all of you who have shared with me this life of mutual love when I said that I loved my white brothers and sisters.”

“It has to be my life,” she decided, “that shows that it is possible, that we can love one another and work together for a situation in which all may be one.”

Her whole being was for unity. That was why she rejoiced when in 1999 a group of Focolare people, mostly white, took part in a parade in Harlem organized by the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque and the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation. It was a celebration of the end of the last remnants of slavery in the United States.

Rosalyn had planned on coming with us to celebrate in unity the journey that had taken place over these past years, but then I found out that she had broken her foot. To my surprise, however, as we turned a corner I saw her limping in haste towards me. She had been sitting at a small café for hours waiting for the parade to pass by. Broken foot or not she wanted to be there for that historic moment, a moment of unity for which she had prayed and lived. We embraced each other in tears.

Rosalyn was a great educator. She had reasoned that to become a teacher would be the best means to help her neighbor. “I had also thought seriously about becoming a doctor and I would have had the opportunity to study medicine, but that involved many years of study and I wanted to help people right away,” particularly her people whom she felt lacked confidence in themselves. “I believed they could succeed; I wanted to make it possible for them to succeed.” And she did help, especially when she moved to New York and was teaching in a very rough neighborhood. “I always tried to help my students discover why it is important to love everyone, why we have to find a bridge of unity with everyone.”

She could do it because she had done it herself and it had not been easy. The Focolare spirituality and the help given by others who had made the same choice, was in her opinion what she needed to overcome the obstacles in herself. “The big problem was that I knew I had to love everybody,” she would say, “and that for me was going to be very difficult. Up to that point I had sort of made a plan with God and it was that I would try to ‘get along’ with some people, and if they were in need I would help them. However, I felt that more than that I could not do.

“When I met the Focolare I understood that I had to love all people in God. I accepted the challenge and I made the commitment. I resolved to love white people as well.

“I realized as I tried that it is true that he manifests himself to those who love him. I could feel his help, even in the darkest moments, that if I made it to love, then he crowned it all with something so brilliant that all the people who might have been there in a given situation, who had witnessed the cruelty, they could look and see that I had overcome it all, and most of them knew that God played a role in this. I used to ask him to take care of certain situations in such a way that it would all work out for his glory, and so that others would believe. One person I worked for was really crucifying me, but by the end of the year he wrote to thank me for all the moral support and compassion I had given. For me compassion was a clue as to why he had done it because he knew I had suffered.”

I learned many things from Rosalyn but the greatest gift was to witness how she never pulled back when it came to helping Jesus in her neighbor, whoever it was. She was a constant reminder that one needs to love everyone and always, no matter what the cost. And if someone said, “Rosalyn, you need to be careful,” she would just smile.

She appeared to be fearless, yet she once confided that she was afraid to talk in front of people. “I could go and nurse a sick person, take care of a child, work four or five jobs and help someone, but not talk in front of people! It took time for me to realize that to live for God, being committed to God meant to do things you thought you couldn’t do.”

Difficult? Of course, but she often shared, “When I fail, I know that I have to get up, shake off the dust and start over.”

The sentence of scriptures which guided her life like a lamp unto her feet was, “He shielded them and cared for them, guarding them as the apple of his eye” (Deut 32:10). Rosalyn is now in God, there with him to shield us, care for us and guard us, and she transmitted this faith in the love of God to everyone she encountered.

Oceans of love

Anton Coleman, Rosalyn’s son, a neurologist, was with his mother during her final days, spending every night at her bedside. On the day of her funeral, he shared something of what his mother meant to him. He was then kind enough to let us have his notes, which say a great deal about Rosalyn.

To put everything into context is to realize that my world with her when I was small was reigned with sterness and severity that did not stem from a lack of kindness. No, as I see it now, this stemmed from her profound motherly love for me.  She strove for perfection to the extreme in all aspects of our lives. Her life of love slowly tempered her within the wisdom and understanding of love.

After she began living the Focolare’s spirituality, she started signing her correspondence: “oceans of love” to me. Only after these past 7 months have I come to understand what that means. It took me these last 7 days to transmit to her my understanding of her love for me, my family, our family and all of humanity.

Oceans of love: she was an inspiration to all whom she touched transcending from an impoverished material world to an enriched spirituality.

She was a brilliant white light for all those she led, a prism of colors shedding unity and the presence of Jesus for those whom she guided.

She exuded oceans of love: at any time and every time, at any place and everywhere, for anyone and everybody.

She was intuitive, humane and down to earth.

She feared no-one and nothing. She loved New York City so much because, like the light, she desired to go everywhere at anytime!

I remember walking through snow in Harlem at 4 years old, she said to me: “We are troopers, and troopers always make it.”

On October 6, 2002, she told me of her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer; her last words of that conversation were: “Just like when you were young, we are troopers and we will deal with this together.”

She waited until Oct. 6th  to tell me her diagnosis, since she knew I had to take a very important exam and travel to Central America. There was no way to be angry at her tardiness when her silence was so overflowing with her desire for my peace of mind to study for the exam.

All throughout my life she strove and many times suffered for my well-being and success.

She traveled 5000 miles to point out a potential likely mistake and 3000 miles to rejoice in the triumph of a physically challenged family member.

She sat up to help finish homework until 5 a.m. or danced salsa with me until 6 a.m. to keep me company.

She mingled with the rich and famous with the same eloquence and elegance as with the poor and downtrodden.

She cooked delicious soup and delivered it to the needy and sick with the same effort she used to make a perfect Thanksgiving meal for 20 family members.

She wore sneakers, pants and a cool jacket to be in with the gang for a high school outing; and a lilac suit with a white silk blouse, high heels and x-men comic book character eyeglasses for a graduating cousin’s laughter; and looked like a princess in a white fur coat for her son’s wedding…

She traveled 4 hours early every morning Monday to Friday for months, (maybe years) to comb and braid a beautiful young girl’s hair so she would be neat and ready for school. With the same strength she would stamp out the use of drugs.

She would frown upon but help resolve an unexpected pregnancy with the same presence and love as she would grieve with a loved one who lost a child.

She taught me to be wise among the wise geniuses I worked with in my career, and to be a compassionate healer for my patients.

She was serene with those who deserved or needed guidance and she was sweet, mild and laughingly loving with those who needed and craved her kindness and dedication.

There are five things that characterize my Mom: a force of fire; an infallible intelligence and perfection to the extreme; truthfulness without boundaries; a tenacity and faith that could move mountains, heal the sick, set miracles into motion; and oceans of divine love.

Her spirit will always be a celebration. Please rejoice with me in celebrating her return to heaven.             —Anton Coleman

From the teacher’s desk:

Rosalyn as an educator comes through in an interview that was made in the 80s.

Why did you choose to work in the field of education?

As a very young child I understood that I had been born to love and to serve God and for me it meant to use all of my talents to uplift mankind. At first I thought that the best way to help mankind was to study medicine because there were very few doctors in my community, then I figured that I could best serve God by opening an orphanage so that I could help all the kids in need. However, I realized that I didn’t know how to manage money too well, so I probably wouldn’t make it to manage an orphanage. As I grew up, it became clear to me that I could help most if I became a teacher. As I began my teaching career, I soon learned that God has given people various abilities and that I, as a teacher, could not write off any child. My task was to take these children wherever they may be and help them to learn whatever they were capable of.

You must have worked very hard and not only in the classroom.

There were many children being bused into the school where I was. If I wanted to offer them extra help I had to go out into the back-woods to see why they hadn’t come in that day. I saw some rather horrifying situations and my effort to help them very often meant risking the security of my job.

I wanted to go beyond what was absolutely necessary to be a teacher and help them to solve their own problems.

A lot of people start to teach with high ideals but then they give up or move on to something easier. What kept you going?

The satisfaction that came when I realized that I was able to make a difference in their lives. I could be a source of encouragement for people who had no hope. For example with many parents who had reached the point of desperation, I learned that just by listening to them, they felt relieved.

In those first years I had many children who were behind in their subject matter and in communication skills. I tried to plan my work with these children in mind. I would always create situations in which they could learn and master the skills. I would explain things in a very simple way and very carefully so as to be sure that everyone understood. The principal of that school had been trained in England and was a stickler for discipline and excellence in teaching. His two daughters were in my English class and one day he just walked into the room and stood in the back to observe my teaching. That day I was explaining “unity and coherence” in writing. I used many techniques to explain what coherence means and how to achieve it in writing a composition. Just before the end of the class the principal interrupted and said that he felt it was too difficult for the children to understand, that I was going over their heads. He called on one of the slowest students and asked what he had understood. This student explained perfectly what had just been taught.

Have you ever had any crisis in your career, when you were tempted to give up because of difficulties?

Teaching is a joy for me. Never for a moment have I ever wanted to stop. I always felt that God had a plan for me in each school I worked in. I always tried to see how I could bring unity into the relationship with the students, the teachers and the administration. I tried to instill in my students the understanding that they are my brothers and sisters “in the flesh” and so they have to love one another. Using that as a guideline, they had to try not to fight anymore or steal from one another. I tell them from the beginning that each one is responsible for the success of the other, for the success of the class as a whole. We decide together that there will be no failures in our class. I also try to help the students in their relationships with other teachers. A whole group might come to me and say they had a particular teacher, claiming that he or she is prejudiced or doesn’t like them. I try to help them discover why it is important to find a bridge of unity with everyone. Then I elicit from them suggestions of how they can build positive relationships with a teacher. For example, with one I suggested they make a collection and buy her a gift on her birthday and at the end of the semester write her a note to say how she had helped each one of them during the year. Since love begets love, this teacher also responded to their love.

You seem to go be going out of your way to help your students…. Did you always succeed?

Sometimes. Let me tell you about a girl who, mistreated at home, was removed from her family and put in an institute. The Sisters wrote and asked whether I could come and visit because I was the only person the girl wanted to see. I went every month with packages of food or clothing for the girl but didn’t realize how much this meant until it was time for the girl to be released. She asked to stay with me and so I did take her with me. A year later I was able to organize her wedding and the reception in my home. That made me think that I was in that school for a reason.

I remember fighting for one boy who was a genius in mathematics but had the barrier of the language. The standardized tests were all in English—I had to convince the administration he could pass it, that he would far excel all the others. In the end he received the award for mathematics that year.

Working for unity among the faculty has been an on-going goal. Back in 1968 after the big strike the faculty was polarized and the principal noticed that I was making an effort to unite the sides. With his encouragement I decided to prepare a bulletin board in the staff room. Since it was at the time of the moonwalk, I used the theme, “Why bother going to the moon if we can’t live in unity here?” I put all my love into that bulletin board, preparing every piece of it as perfectly as possible, making it as beautiful as I could. When it was up, the teachers all commented on it and told me that it was really true. From that moment there was more of an effort on the part of everyone to bridge the gaps between us.

Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Feb 2003.