The date was Wednesday, December 12, 2001. I will never forget the day. I was an intern at Trinity Lutheran Church in Canton, Ohio, helping to develop the Hispanic ministry that eventually became a mission congregation of the ELCA.
Around 11:30 a.m. a couple walked into our office narthex with a dozen roses. I knew them slightly. They had been occasional worshippers at our Spanish language service. They told me they had come to place the roses at the statue of the Virgin. It was the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe and in their native Mexico, that was the custom.
But there was one slight problem. We had no statue of the Virgin. In fact, we had no icon of Mary anywhere on the premises. So I called the priest of a nearby Roman Catholic church with whom I had become friends, to see whether the couple could go there. His secretary answered to say that he was officiating a funeral at the time and the sanctuary would not be available for another hour. When I told the couple, they sadly said they had to go to work and would not be able to wait.
So I was forced to think on my feet. I blurted, “un momento (wait one minute).”
I ran to my office, grabbed my occasional services book, Ritos Ocasionales, and a Spanish language Bible. I ushered them into our chapel, we lit the candles and turned to the general order of blessing. Using the Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel as our text, I improvised a short homily, for which only the Holy Spirit could have given me the words, married as I am to the written manuscript. We blessed the roses, said the Lord’s Prayer and placed the roses on the altar. The couple went away happy, pleased that they had been able to do what they have been accustomed to doing every year at that time, and I was left thanking God for not having abandoned me in what I considered a pastoral crisis.
I was aware of the Mexican Christian devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I had written a paper on it in seminary. But there is a big difference between knowing about a tradition and experiencing it first hand.
Although born in Puerto Rico and claiming the same culture, I have spent the majority of my life on the mainland United States, which means I have adapted to the way things are done here. Even so, Puerto Rico is not Mexico and though we may share the same language and heritage, each country has its distinct cultural traditions. I am also somewhat of an oddity in that I was baptized Lutheran as a child on an island that is predominantly Roman Catholic.
The aforementioned experience brought me face to face with the challenges our Lutheran tradition encounters in ministering to our newest wave of Hispanic worshipers and what we must consider in developing a theologically sound yet culturally sensitive response.
I know that my experience is not unique among Hispanic/Latino pastors and mission developers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, having read various accounts of how pastors struggle with issues of interpreting these expressions of “popular religiosity” while being careful not to compromise our Lutheran identity. The Reverend Ivis LaRiviere–Mestre wrote of a somewhat similar experience in an article in the May/June 2005, issue of Lutheran Partners, which is well worth the read.
My effort here is not to replicate that informative and educational piece of writing, but to share with present readers how I have taken the lesson learned from my experience to reach out to people in the community I serve.
Let me interject a parenthetical note here to describe this community. They are recent arrivals to the Canton area, with a residency of ten years or less. They come mostly from Mexico with others from Central and South America and a couple from the Caribbean. They work mainly in restaurants, poultry processing plants, construction, discount clothing outlets and other service-type jobs. They speak little if any English, thus limiting their economic and employment opportunities and other benefits that many of us take for granted. It goes without saying that a significant number are also undocumented.
I have learned a lot from them, but there are very few things that have had as profound an effect on me personally and on my ministry as the events of that Wednesday morning.
Following my encounter with the devout couple, I went back to the chapel and sat and stared at the still-lit candles and the roses on the altar. Since we were in the midst of the Advent season and approaching Christmas, I reflected on what a moment of grace that was and considered how our congregation could better witness its spirituality through customs more familiar to them than to me. After all, our Hispanic/Latino Christmas customs are very steeped in religious tradition and have not totally yielded to the commercialism that pervades our North American society.
Soon afterward I sat down with some of worshipers and asked them to help me plan the first Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the following year. From 2002 until now, our local tradition has become established. It has grown to the point that it is annually our highest attended service, matched only by Christmas Eve. The children are attired in traditional indigenous costume; the boys are little Juan Diegos and the girls, Chinas Poblanas.
In 2004, our Bishop presided for the first time at the Eucharist. His role was of significant importance because it was a sign of affirmation to our community. His willingness to be present with us, to make an effort to connect with our people, to attempt to speak the language of the people had an amazingly profound impact. He said the prayers, the words of institution and the benediction in Spanish and did a wonderful job. That was truly a risk for him, not to mention an act of courage for someone who just two months earlier had begun learning to pronounce the words phonetically.
They brought children to be blessed by him during communion and as I distributed the wine nearby, from the corner of my eye I could see the parents’ eyes as big as silver dollars as he made the sign of the cross on the infants’ foreheads. The Latino culture has such a deep respect, more a reverence, for clergy, especially those further up the hierarchical ladder. Now the first question asked each year when we begin planning the evening is, “Is the bishop coming?”
Throughout our church year, we look for more ways to use liturgical and cultural festivals as evangelism opportunities. It would be safe to say that many people find our church through some festival they attend and some fellowship meal that they share. Perhaps no other season lends itself to these outreach possibilities better than that of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, for a variety of reasons. Those who are in this country alone are looking for a sense of community and of the familiar. Those who are here with small children don’t want them to forget the traditions of the homeland. Above all, those who are feeling spiritually empty want to be filled.
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins our season of celebration, but it is by no means the end. On December 16th we begin Las Posadas, a series of nights in which we reenact the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to find lodging so that she can give birth to the baby Jesus. Over time, what began as a one Sunday celebration following worship has extended to as many as seven nights. Although in Mexico the celebrations are held over nine nights in individual homes, we have had to adapt and celebrate at the church due to the practical considerations that not all homes are equipped to handle dozens of people, and work schedules prohibit everyone’s participation every night of the week. In 2007, an average of 40 people celebrated over the course of the seven evenings we celebrated Las Posadas.
We gather in the sanctuary to begin our evening with a reading from the second chapter of Luke, which gives the account of the journey to Bethlehem. A brief reflection follows and a litany closes our formal worship. We are then led in procession by a young boy and a girl, dressed as Mary and Joseph and carrying a miniature manger scene, to various rooms in the church building where we sing the verses of the song Las Posadas. (Libro de Liturgia y Cántico, #284-286) finishing up back in the sanctuary where we close with prayer and immediately make a mad rush to the social hall to eat and break the piñata.
Christmas Eve is highlighted by the custom of putting the baby Jesus to bed (arrullar al niño), which is done at the manger scene following the benediction but before the dismissal. The Christ child will be awakened on February 2nd, the day of the Presentation of Our Lord.
In between these two dates, we celebrate Three Kings Day (Epiphany) on the Sunday closest to January 6th. Near the end of the service, three men from the congregation usually dress as the wise men and enter the sanctuary from the rear of the nave as we sing our sending hymn, “We Three Kings.” They will give out gifts to the children just outside the sanctuary. The congregation is treated to a meal of tamales and each person takes a slice of the rosca, a cake that contains little miniature dolls. Those who have a doll in their slice are responsible for preparing the tamales or other food for the day of February 2nd or Candlemas (La Candelaria).
The intensity of the celebrations subsides somewhat as the calendar moves into Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Ash Wednesday has held a singular importance for many of our worshippers and work schedules have dictated that we hold a service early in the morning of Ash Wednesday so that the laborers, mainly the restaurant and construction workers who cannot make the 7 p.m. service, can receive the imposition of the ashes before they go in to work. I admit that I have yet to really understand why this simple act of piety is so vital to this population. That is a question that begs for more reflection and research on my part.
We move into a teaching mode by holding First Communion classes for children eight and above during the Lenten season, and Easter becomes a celebration not only of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also of the communicants who take part in the sacrament for the first time. We then copy a similar time frame for adults who want to learn more about the Lutheran tradition by holding new member classes during the Easter season with the goal of receiving new members on Pentecost Sunday.
Other cultural celebrations that we have observed are El día del niño (the Day of the Child), a Mexican festival which falls on April 30th. Our congregation commemorates it on the Sunday closest to the date by having the children take most of the leadership roles in the liturgy. They lead the prayers, the readings, and we have a special children’s choir for the day that sings one or two hymns.
On other occasions we have included Las Fiestas Patrias, or Mexican Independence Day and the Independence of the other Central American countries.
Even though God, Jesus Christ and Mary are at the focal point of these traditions and celebrations, in the spotlight of most of our celebrations are the children. The concern, as stated earlier, was that many parents didn’t want their children to forget the traditions of their countries of origin. The anxiety becomes increasingly great as more and more youngsters are being born in the United States and have never been to Mexico or experienced the traditions anywhere other than here.
The church, for the parents, thus becomes the institution through which the culture and tradition is maintained and handed down. It is the celestial link to their patria or homeland. As Psalm 137 asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The church provides the answer. The church is the community where they can cling to the familiar.
As we approach the Advent season, it is fitting to close with a line borrowed from the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke, “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
For Latinos in Canton, Ohio, the Mighty One has established a place of worship where we can praise him in our language, where we can be who we are—a people with dignity and hope. He has filled our hunger for the Word. He has been faithful to his promise. And for that we say, “Demos gracias a Dios—thanks be to God.” Amen.