In a mortuary chapel at street level in Norristown, the doors were opened in darkness to reveal a million candles and a four foot, veiled statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The veil was removed, the statue was sensed and blessed by Bishop Gutierrez.
The platform holding the statue was lifted up by four men.
As we began to process around town, the singing of an (unfamiliar to me) Mexican song stopped, and just before the little band began to play I heard these words.
“This might be a little to Catholic for me.”
I get it. After all, I am a pasty white Irish guy that has spent 95% of his church time in an Episcopal church. I cannot recall processing around town in freezing cold with the sound of tubas and accordions and songs in Spanish while four guys, who were clearly proud of their appointed duty, followed an energetic incense bearer with a statue.
In fact, I didn’t know much of anything about Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In case you don’t, here is a snippet.
According to tradition, Mary appeared to Juan Diego, who was an Aztec convert to Christianity, on December 9 and again on December 12, 1531. She requested that a shrine to her be built on the spot where she appeared, Tepeyac Hill (now in a suburb of Mexico City). The bishop demanded a sign before he would approve construction of a church, however. Mary appeared a second time to Juan Diego and ordered him to collect roses. In a second audience with the bishop, Juan Diego opened his cloak, letting dozens of roses fall to the floor and revealing the image of Mary imprinted on the inside of the cloak—the image that is now venerated in the Basilica of Guadalupe.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, is a very big deal to Mexicans.
The procession ended at the church altar, as the statue of the virgin was removed from it’s base and enshrined in a huge display of roses. Bishop Gutierrez celebrated the mass in Spanish (it sounded right to me) and Fr. Andy Kline told the story, alternating between Spanish and English.
There was more singing and tuba, as we all processed to a meal, lovingly prepared by many of our Norristown neighbors of Mexican heritage. We ate, talked, and laughed. A five-year-old Mexican boy ran up to me saying “Padre!” when I stooped down, he smiled and kissed me, big and wet. I loved it, although it was decidedly un-Episcopalian.
I was enriched by the experience, I’ll bet many were.
Now for the rest of the story…
Norristown is an interesting place, many think of Norristown for it’s significant number of people that live on the margins. More interesting is that it is one third African-American, one third Latino (primarily Mexican), and one third white. That can make for interesting and unnecessary divisions.
Bishop Gutierrez properly insists that St. John’s Church must reach out to the Latino community, we have a responsibility to do so. This is a difficult task, what with language and cultural differences along with the fact that they are primarily Roman Catholics.
When the Bishop said months ago that we were going to have a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we began to educate him on why it wouldn’t work. We attempted to explain how, among other things, the Roman Catholic Church down the street had a long history of really doing it up for the occasion and what could we add to that? Plus, we’re not Roman Catholic, and we don’t know what to do and why would people come? He never heard a word.
Fr. Andy Kline lived for a year in Mexico as a student. He knows something of the culture and is fluent in Spanish. He understood why this would be very difficult to pull off. None of this mattered to Bishop Gutierrez.
So now we get to the beautiful part of the story. Good Fr. Andy pushed further into the Latino community, making friends and enlisting help for the celebration. His charm and persistence paid off. Although, as pastor, he hosted the event and invited the Mexicans into Episcopal St. John’s, it is fair to say that they took over. They decorated the church with gorgeous flowers, all donated, they provided musicians, they taught and sang the songs with great spirit. They read the Bible readings. They provided the meal.
In leaving, many Episcopalians and Roman Catholics remarked that they were looking forward to next year.
Thank you Fr. Andy for all of your hard work. I hope that you were pleased to have the church filled with new and old friends and different and joyful sounds.
Thank you Bishop Gutierrez, for not letting us talk you out of your vision.
With the help of The Spirit, you have created a new “Us”.