Sunday, January 06, 2008

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

DDL has been posting pix of churches on his blog after he started thinking of them as vessels; ships that transport the soul to some other place. In an earlier post on my own blog I mentioned that I might have a response. I thought I was close to one, but I'm still not satisfied with it. I guess I was looking to the vessel idea to help me somehow shape my own memories into something worthy of being read. But the more I try to write about my childhood church experience, the more I find myself being distracted by some other memory; some other story to tell.

I don't have a reason not to write about my experience. I wasn't molested by a priest or beaten by nuns. I wasn't trapped under a statue of the Virgin Mary and scarred for life. My experience is nothing like that. I loved going to church every Sunday and being surrounded by smiling faces. The atmosphere was so clean and calm. Sure, there were many Sundays that I was bored out of my gourd listening to the priest give his homily in broken Spanish. I didn't understand what he was saying most of the time, figuratively and literally. But I had so many good times.

I loved the Sundays when babies where baptized because after the baby was presented to the parish, we all got to clap. Most of the time we had to be quiet in church, but on this occasion, we got to make noise. And for a kid like me, making noise was great. I also loved the Sundays when my mom, who was a Guadalupana (some magical order of superwomen, kind of like the Superfriends I think) was in charge of serving coffee and pan dulce in the church basement for one reason or another. That usually meant I'd be in the basement before mass ended, and as we walked down the side aisle, I'd grin at the kids who had to stay in church longer than me. I also got first pick of the sweet bread.

What I loved most of all about going to Mass on Sunday was going to my Grandfather's house afterward. Most folks have family reunions on Holidays or summertime, for us it was every Sunday. We'd feast on peasant food: tortillas, frijoles, huevos, cafe and spend the rest of the day celebrating life. My grandfather would tell us stories both fantastic and heart-breaking. If it was a hot day, we'd all pile into a couple of vehicles and head to the beach. Sometimes we'd walk down to Pulaski park and pick blackberries and come back home with purple everything. Most Sundays, all the cousins played until dark, until we smelled like sweat and dirt, and our throat were sore from shouting.

About 6 years ago, a long time after cynicism had set in and religion (Religion is the opiate of the people! and all that) was nothing but a phase, I was told by mother that St. Stephen's was going to close. Not only was it going to close, but it was going to be knocked down. I gave a shrug; c'est la vie. Sometime after that, Gloria and I were driving through the west side of town and as we drove down Western Avenue I happened to glance over at the church and realized I could no longer spot the steeple from over the trees. I slowed down and drove towards the church and saw a wrecking ball. I had never seen one in real life and the scene took on a surreal feel. They were knocking down the church. Memories flooded my mind and I sat there dumb founded.

The church was cordoned off, workers in orange work vests and yellow hard hats swarming the site, the wrecking ball made slow, sweet arcs. Others had stopped to look also. Some took pictures and some took video and some took bricks. Kids who had never attended that church rode by on bicycles or played tag in the dust that filled their street. The first feeling I felt was anger. I wanted to jump out of my truck and run up the wrecking ball operator and pull him out of the cabin of that destructive machine. I wanted to take peoples cameras and smash them on the ground. I wanted all of those silly kids to see what was happening. My happy Sundays were being wiped out one swing at a time. A whole childhood spent creating memories wiped out in a couple of hours.

As the church fell, I was pushed over the line I'd drawn for myself. From being agnostic to nothing. No religion. Until that day I had secretly desired to return to the church after my long absence. I wanted my children to attend Sunday Mass like I did. I wanted my kids to be baptized there so I could fill that old church with clapping again; I wanted my kids to make their first communions there, for my boys to be altar boys like me, and for my girls to have their quinceneras in that place.

A crucial part of my identity was formed there. A lot of what is good in me comes from those Sundays. To be Mexican was to grow up Catholic. Now I wouldn't even have a place to show my kids were I came from. Now they would grow up that much more removed from their Mexican selves.

As you can tell from my writing I was becoming irrational. After I slowed myself down a bit I realized that what I was really reacting to was the fear of loss. I needed to take a long look deep inside and make peace with the fact that I would not get to relive those days. Everyday I got further away from those good times, everyday I was getting further and further away from the present. I needed to grieve the end of my childhood.

I wish I could tell you that this whole experience made me Catholic again. It hasn't even made me agnostic again. After much introspection I came to realize that my time spent in the church was about making others happy. Coming to church every Sunday put a smile on the priests face, making my first communion put a smile on my mother's face, becoming an altar boy put a smile on my grandfather's face. And all of those things put a smile on my face. For one day a week it was all smiles and life was good, the rest of the week I was reminded how poor we were. The rest of the week I was witness to my mother's suffering as she tried to make ends meet, I was reminded of what a loser my father was, hunger of all types was a constant. On Sunday...opiate of the people indeed.

I can tell you though that I believe. I believe in the power of faith. I believe in the power of belief. My mother's faith in God got us through those tough times that many others fall victim to. I am not a victim. I am a believer in the power that each of us holds.

So DDL, yeah, churches are vessels. They're filled with passengers hoping to arrive to some kind of paradise. These passengers believe in their captain, believe in his power to look towards the heavens and navigate them to their destination. These churches float on faith and fill their sails with optimism.

I bid them bon voyage with both feet planted firmly on terra firma. I hope they find what they are looking for.


Charmi said...

Great post, Jesus. I'm almost inspired to write one myself. Here's the funny thing, though, at least to my eyes. One never "arrives" at a point of understanding this experience or that experience. As we keep moving through life our perspective continues to change and so does our vision of the past. It's very odd.

Talia said...

Geat post, indeed. I spent the early part of my childhood on the west side, too. I went to Lafayette Elementary and my brother went to Harrison. We livd right behind Holy Family. I sometimes drive through there, it has changed so much. We used to go to a teeny tiny Lutheran church behind Martin's and now it is an "Iglesia."