All in a Name

When I met Mary she was the kind of old that fascinates children. With her soft, creased skin and thin white hair, I thought she must be a hundred, at least. She was one of the aids in my first Sunday school class when I was four or five, and I can still see her fragile, hunched body and shaky voice hovering over us, a gentle reminder to focus on the task at hand while our little bodies bounced up and down in the tiny plastic chairs. She is the first matriarch I can remember from my Catholic upbringing.

One day Mary put her soft hand on my shoulder, leaning down a little further to ensure that I heard her direction. As I pressed the red crayon against the paper in front of me, she spelled my name aloud: J-e-s-s-i-c-a. She repeated the letters again and again, inserting brief commentaries on the precise curve of the “J” and the round dot of the “i” when I struggled to produce them on the page. When I looked up at her with a satisfied grin, my word complete, I had realized for the first time that it was my word. Thanks to her careful attention, these little squiggles suddenly carried a new profundity.

Looking back, this is delightfully ironic because my name, Jessica, happens to be the most popular name given to American females born in 1986—the year of my birth. If this Sunday school class was like the others, I was one of two—if not three—other girls with this name on her paper. But at that moment, there was no possible way anyone could have convinced me that those seven letters belonged to anyone but me. Surely, Mary, this lovely woman, had labored patiently and attentively in order to help me master this word because it captured me. J-e-s-s-i-c-a.

During the moments when I feel unseen or unheard in the Church, I look back to this childhood memory and long to experience the same sense of significance that Mary granted me. And as I ask myself how I can possibly make a difference in our vast tradition of so many issues and complications, I am often comforted by the knowledge that through the simple act of affirming one’s name—of recognizing the unique and valuable life that each individual brings to the greater Body of Christ—I might help one person see herself the way God does, and that can make all the difference in the world.

Jessica Coblentz spent many childhood years perfecting her signature in preparation for her future career as a famous actress. Today she dreams of becoming a theologian. She is a regular blogger at

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