I went to church today

Lithograph from kitchen linoleum by a Mexican Artist in the Mission SF from 2012 Levis print workshop on Valencia St

December 12th is the Feast Day of Guadalupe.

Despite all the paraphernalia in stores you can buy with Guadalupe imagery on it, there is not a single place I could find to go to a Guadalupe mass in the San Francisco bay area. Well, Mission Dolores had one at 5:45am but that wasn’t working for me.

So Tuesday I call up the Newman Center which is the Catholic Church servicing Cal (University of Berkeley) thinking (once again incorrectly) that Berkeley may have the pulse on things.

Amazingly enough the “Father” who gives the mass, Father Stephen, answers the phone. He is nice. He is hip. He is understanding. He explains about the four types of masses they have there. He says the 10am is most vibrant. It has a choir. 

I explain how I am not just going for Guadalupe but also for my younger sister Sally who was devoted to Mary and who passed away 24 years ago. I want to honor her as well as Guadalupe. He understands and gives me to think he will certainly address La Madre on her feast day. He asks me to introduce myself to him and tells me he will give me a cross for my sister. I thank him. He says “God bless you” and I say it right back as I usually so. Then after I’ve hung up I think perhaps one doesn’t appropriately say that to a priest. Perhaps one is supposed to be blessed and not talk back. Either way I am excited to go to church on Sunday.

I’m all dressed up recalling the 18 years I went to church with my family. I have brought a picture of Sally to show Father Steven. I get there and the place is maybe one third full. I notice with interest that maybe the majority of people are there alone. It is so different from my childhood when the church was filled full with families, some of them with eight kids.

it is a stark barren building with no Mary imagery at all and only has the crucifixion front and center. There is no color  except a dark red candle and the priest’s costume.

Father Steven starts off with us turning to our neighbor. He tells us we have 3 minutes total for each of us to express for what we are grateful. No one is near me in my pew (row) so I turn to the guy behind me. He starts to go on and on about himself and then I see that the guy at the end of his pew has no one to talk to so I invite him in and as the first guy continues to go on about himself I realize there is a young woman in the row behind these two men who doesn’t have a partner so I invite her in. The first guy is still going on about himself so I suggest we move on to the next guy since we only have 3 minutes. The next guy is negative and says little. Then the young woman, who is a bit shy and lovely and a student, is glad finals are over and she is going home to her family in San Diego. Then it is my turn and I say quickly that I am grateful for Guadalupe and the fact that there are girl god images. I look only into the young woman’s eyes as I say this. 

The choir is pathetic. It is a barely audible group of 7 people who look like they’d rather not be there. There is a screen with lyrics so we can sign along but sometimes it is not on the right verse and besides it’s hard to know where the melody is. 

Then the priest sits down and whoops! he see someone doing something and apologizes that he has forgotten the children’s part of the mass. About 9 kids (none of them dressed up) come on stage. We bless them. Then they leave to go somewhere else.

I am remembering when I was a kid and we suffered through mass every single Sunday. It was “good for your character” we were told; like brushing your teeth. 

I am also remembering all the many times I have been at Hindu services with the great humanitarian Amma (www.amma.org) where kids run around everywhere in full-on chaos and there is non-stop loud singing sung by many, most of whom don’t understand the language they are singing.

All that is as it may be and I am still hoping for something in church. The priest who is large and a bit round, though his purple gown hides that, sits down again and a woman comes to the pulpit twice and solemnly reads the “Word of God”. Her gone, the priest gets up out of his chair and makes a big deal showing off a bright red book with gold rimmed pages. I assume this is the Bible. 

He opens it and reads a prayer from Paul to the Corinthians but he sort of mumbles “Corinthians” and it sounds like Paul is writing to the “Bolivians” but of course he isn’t. That’s now. He’s writing then. 

Which reminds me, after we said our gratitudes to our neighbor(s), we were instructed to take a few minutes in silence to think about what makes us anxious. I have a pretty good life and I immediately think about all those tornado victims who’d lost everything just a day ago. I think about the refugees; so many of them all around the world. Often when I am breezing through Instagram where I mostly follow other artists, i come across an NPR photo of people fleeing for their lives. I am anxious about them. I am anxious about the people in Libyan prisons keeping migrants out of Europe where the director has told the guards, “You can do anything to them, You just can’t kill them.” (The New Yorker 12/6/2012). I am anxious for them and for babies still at the border.

The priest reads the passage for the day. It is Paul telling a story about John the Baptist telling the people in Corinthia (What is that land now?) not to be anxious.

The church is in the third week of Advent Father Stephen explains and he admits his sermons throughout advent are mostly the same but each week they get deeper and this week he is addressing happiness.

He asks everyone not only to sing but to be sure to do all the movements that go along with the singing. Participation is everything. 

He begins, “When you are happy and you know it clap your hands” (Clap Clap)

I clap and then I realize I am not happy and I do not want to clap. He says something after we clap and moves on to the next line which he claims is more difficult “When you are happy and you know it, stomp your feet”

I get up and leave the mass. I am looking for someone in the lobby to whom I can give feedback. It is more than empty.

I leave the building. A woman is entering. She is very late for mass so I ask her if she works there. She explains she is just going to church. I give her my feedback. I tell her my story. I show her the picture of my sister. She has blond hair and blue eyes like my sister. She listens. She understands. Both of our eyes tear up. She hugs me.

Sally and Red Roses

 And I go home.


One thought on “I went to church today

  1. My parents were atheists, not stridently like most they just believed science obviated god so I’ve never been to any church (except traipsing through all the cathedrals in Europe as an art student). They offer ‘entre’ to God which doesn’t work for me and it seems this church didn’t work for you either and that’s sad, man needs easy and regular ways to contact the mystery but look at us now with all our godless churches and their empty invitations and then look, as you have here, at all the struggling souls, like sheep with no shepherd. I could go on…thank you for sharing.

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