More importantly, on Saturday, Chris and I get to live together again. (I’m reminded of a Box Tops song: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane…ain’t got time to take a fast train…lonely days are gone, I’m a goin home…”)
But CETLALIC (our language and culture school) had saved one last experience for us before leaving Cuernavaca. On Friday en la tarde (generally, the time between lunch and sundown) we were invited to join in a meeting of a Christian Base Community in the Altavista neighborhood.
The community meets once a week in the home of one of its members to discuss the events of the previous week, to sing a song, to read the Bible, to connect the Bible readings to the events of their lives, to sing another song, and then, always, to celebrate with food and drink.
I am ashamed to say that I was not particularly looking forward to this. I was tired. Well, I suppose I was not physically tired, just tired of sitting and listening to people talk. That the meeting would be in the late afternoon, the sleepiest time of day, was not helping. But that afternoon, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I was surprised by grace.
We arrived, for the second time that week, in an poor neighborhood where the road is crumbling, where the houses seem patched together with slabs of concrete and corrugated metal, and where dogs and chickens roam the alleyways, squawking or staring or both. We walk down the road a few paces and are ushered into a…convenience store? Yes, it is one of those hole-in-the-wall places that are everywhere in Mexico where you can buy a Coke or a bag of chips, and behind the counter of this store lies a door that leads to the three very, very small rooms where the family lives. Past these rooms there is a small outdoor patio, lined with green plants of all kinds and today encircled with a ring of wooden chairs and plastic stools.
We fit ourselves in like sardines with those who have already gathered but we are not the least bit uncomfortable because already we realize that we have entered – nay, have been welcomed to someplace special. In the middle of the room is a table on which there is a vase of red roses, a lit candle, a coffee can for an offering, and a visible offering of canned goods that will later be distributed to those in the neighborhood who have even less than the people here (the poor giving to the poorer…).
The itinerary of the meeting is explained to us – in Spanish with some translation – and at some point I am handed a Bible. I am not sure what to do with it. Find the verse, ok, should I read it? No, not yet. I can follow the basics of what is going on but the details fly past me in a language I haven’t mastered yet. Suddenly we are standing and singing a song, twenty-some people sharing three tattered songbooks. Now someone is praying, now it is the Lord’s prayer, I recognize it, now we are crossing ourselves – at least, the Catholics are and a few of us Lutherans join in. The teacher’s strike is discussed. It has closed the public schools for this, the first week of classes. There seems to be some disagreement – some lament that the children are not learning, but others point out that they were not learning much to begin with because of the corrosive corruption in the school system and the resulting lack of adequate classrooms and qualified teachers.
Without much warning the discussion of local events is brought to a close. A story from Acts is read. Someone speaks up to point out a correlation between the Biblical story and the situation of the striking teachers. After a few minutes a story from Philippians is read, and a few minutes after that a story from the Gospel of Matthew. After each story someone in the group makes a connection between the Scriptural witness and the life of the community. Every once in awhile someone says something to make everyone else nod in agreement or says something to make everyone laugh.
Finally things seem to draw to a close, and we are standing again, and singing another hymn. I cannot see any of the three songbooks so I just listen. We sit down again, and now comes a giant tray of Styrofoam cups. There is a hot, milky substance in them – atole, a drink made from cornflour and milk and sugar and usually a few other ingredients, in this case rice. I don’t like the look of the congealed skin on the top of the milky drink but I take a cup anyway: this is hospitality, invited participation in this community, and I am not about to refuse it. Out comes another tray, this time full of sugary empanadas that turn out to be filled with something like rice pudding. They are delicious. As we eat we are told: This is the celebration part of the meeting, and it is very, very important. Later I realize just how close it is to the Sunday liturgy of Word and Meal.
As we prepare to leave one of the pastors in our group speaks up to affirm the work of the community out loud. He explains something about the book of Acts and cites another Scripture in a clear affirmation of the work of this community, and something about the way he says it moves me and reminds me of why I felt called to be a pastor in the first place. Later I learn that priests and even the local Bishop used to attend and encourage these meetings, but no more. Now the church leadership is trying to stamp out these little groups. I still am unable to get a satisfying answer why.
We stand and file out, shaking hands and thanking everyone profusely, making quite a racket but once we are back on the street we are quieter than usual again, reflective, I suppose, each in our own way.
All of us have reactions to experiences like this and some of those reactions are wildly different. On the way home I learned that one of our number reacted with anger – she was furious, really, not at the people but at the fact of their poverty. The experience of the disparity between our life experience and theirs left her with the righteous anger of the Hebrew prophets and psalmists. She was right, I think – someone should be angry at how much harder things can be for those who have so little in the way of economic resources, at how inexcusably those in charge – in government, in business, and yes, in the church – have abandoned their charges and abdicated their responsibilities.
Lord knows I’ve been bitterly angry about just this sort of thing on too many occasions. And yet on this day her anger was still jarring to me because it had no place in my own reaction. It’s surprising, really, considering the bitter rage I’ve felt about injustice at other times in my life. But this time I simply felt moved, deeply, rumblingly moved, as if a San Andreas fault inside of me had shifted and shaken away all of the excesses that had been slowly crystallizing around my heart. God opened my heart, as Bono suggests, by breaking it. And then God opened my eyes.
I saw God in the beauty of the people:
And finally, I saw God – nay, I tasted God in our holy communion of sugary, rice-filled empanadas and hot milky atole. It was sacramental. There was no other word for it.
At the end, an unexpected gift: A benediction, a blessing from the abuelo of the community, spoken in Spanish and translated for us by the lone Roman Catholic in our class, a gift, a gift, truly. This weathered child of God left us with these simple words:
May God and the virgin be with you on your way.