The Lord cares for the stranger;
the Lord sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
As we look ahead to the Fourth Sunday in Advent, I am feeling a joyous sense of nostalgia. December 12 is the day Mexicans and many other Latin American countries celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. I will be visiting Iglesia Luterana La Trinidad this evening to preach and preside at the Eucharist. This is a return to the familiar for me.
In my first nine years of ministry I served this Latino Lutheran congregation in Canton, Ohio. Every December 12, we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Obviously, it falls during the season of Advent, around the third or fourth Sunday. The commemoration signaled the beginning of a festive time of non-stop activity, quickly followed by
Las Posadas, a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem that stretched out over several days.
These rituals are deeply rooted in the culture of Mexican and other Latin-American immigrants who, though far from their countries of origin, still cling to their traditions as a way of bridging the distance between them and their homelands.
We began at La Trinidad by offering worship services in Spanish in October of 2000. The primary objective was to build community and that happened primarily through the fellowship that we shared following the liturgy. It is during this time that, through word of mouth, people heard about available housing and job opportunities, and made social connections that they would otherwise find it difficult to make. We incorporated many cultural customs and traditions of their countries into our worship. We celebrated feast days, birthdays, anniversaries, usually with a meal. It was once stated by one of our parishioners that, if we didn't have a reason to celebrate, we would invent one. It was, and still is, a very social community.
I learned a lot from the worshippers of La Trinidad. But the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe has had the most profound effect on me personally and on my ministry.
Our first Guadalupe celebration was held in 2002. In 2004, our Bishop at that time was the Rev. Marcus Miller. He visited and 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.
The mothers 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. After that night, the first question I was asked each year when we began planning the evening was, "Is the bishop coming?"
I can honestly say that was the springboard to our ministry. We continued to grow using cultural festivals as a tool for evangelism. The church, for the parents, thus becomes the institution through which the culture and tradition is maintained and handed down. God, Jesus Christ and Mary were at the focal point of these traditions and celebrations, to be sure. But in the spotlight of most of our celebrations were the children. The concern was that many parents didn't want their children to forget the traditions of their countries of origin. The anxiety becomes increasingly greater 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.
Cultural celebration thus became 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.
Have a blessed week!
+Bishop Abraham Allende