The Joy of Community: My Visit (and a half) to the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas by Marni Gillard

At St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, I am taking an elective called American Catholicism that requires me to visit a mass culturally different from Kateri parish. My first visit to the noon Spanish Mass at the ShrineChurch in Albany (Lark and Central) will forever linger in memory because I stepped into a sidewalk “imperfection” and fell right in front of the church, fracturing my left fibula. I found myself laughing that my prayers to the Blessed Mother to help me “slow down” have definitely been answered. Less than 10 minutes before, I’d been at a free-dancing class and left with a feeling of perfect inner and outer balance. Dance is prayer for me, a deep connection with the divine and a chance to “hang with” my beloved dead ones. Like song and story, dance lifts me into fantasy and a clearer reality all at once. I connect to my grandmother whose limbs hardly moved from rheumatoid arthritis. I invite her now-freed spirit to dance with me and she does.

I think that day in Albany, Mother Mary offered me a chance to “cross the border” into my grandmother’s disability, just as I was crossing into a different faith community. My fall introduced me instantly to fellow mass-goers with kind faces and strong hands. I didn’t dare stand until the pain subsided. I felt tears come but retreat instantly, an old habit. Eventually with both hands planted on the cement, I got up and then others’ arms supported me up the church steps. At a Welcoming Table, I met more friendship and received a sturdy bag of ice for my now-ballooning left ankle. After many muchas gracias, I asked for names and offered my own. I didn’t like feeling needy and “different” in a sea of Latin faces, but Mary’s compassion, through her beloved ones, flooded me.

I hobbled into the worship space, securing an ice bag to my elevated leg along the pew. Should I stay at all? An older man teased as he sat near me, “Well, you won’t be dancing much for a while I think.” I smiled at this “cultural” friendliness. Our suburban parishioners are friendly, but they don’t often mix flirtation with kindness. My dad, a real Maurice Chevalier, taught me not to disdain men’s playful attentions. I thought, “Yes, I’ll stay. I’ve got ICE!”  But when I texted my husband, I knew he’d disapprove of my lingering for the whole mass. The phone’s “ding” showed “CALL ME!” but Mass had started.  I texted, “Soon?”

Blessing the parish’s children was fun, watching families with big smiles send little ones toward the sanctuary. Clearly a weekly ritual. A parish member fluent in Spanish lovingly explained the purpose of their leaving for Word-liturgy.  The elderly white pastor looked grateful for this lay assistant. The priest got through the mass in Spanish, but clearly it was not his first language. Mine either. A Spanish/English hymnal helped me with the Kyrie and Gloria. Then I stumbled through “Let your mercy be on us, O God, as we place our trust in You,” which I’d sung in English the previous day as Union St.’s psalmist. By the gospel, my ballooning foot warned me to get home. So as others stood, I awkwardly excused myself, using each pew as a crutch. My ice-bag dripped all the way, and white privilege reminded me I find treatment soon, thanks to insurance. That might not be true for those I was leaving.

I returned the next week in a clunky boot, moving slowly. I spotted faces that remembered me. My favorite moment was the congregation’s enthusiastic singing (in Spanish) of the “Our Father” (to the tune of “Sounds of Silence”?) I couldn’t stop smiling, and sure enough found an English version online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHxEkeBiFyc. Everyone also spoke Padre Nuestro, holding hands. My friendly teenage pew-mate this week reached for mine and hugged me wholeheartedly at the passing of La Paz. Suburban teens don’t so easily hug strange adults. I felt too shy to walk around the church as my young pew-mate did, hugging everyone she knew! I enjoyed watching all the families and friends sharing paz and take pleasure in traveling the church. I noticed a festive feel. Some parents kept little ones close, but others allowed children to run off to hug cousins and playmates. Parenting styles vary both within and across cultures I guess. Seeing teen boys hug their elders, as well as pretty peers, made me smile too. I’m a hugger by upbringing, and I liked this ritual which I’ve also experienced at the Black Catholic Church in Menands where I was once a member. Our big parish doesn’t seem to lend itself to such traveling and hugging. And I must admit, after years at St. Helen’s/Kateri, I still don’t know more than a small percentage of parishioners. I enjoy seeing our priest and deacons walk the church for peace-passing. I wonder if we could push through our reserve and try peace-hugging. Hmmm. It does lengthen the service a little.

I did OK on Spanish responses (printed in the book) and liked following readings, though I realized too late we were mid-Apostles Creed, not the Nicene one. I also followed the Spanish Eucharistic Prayer III pretty well and sang Santo Santo Santo and Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) pretty well. I started to feel at home! Catholic ritual can be a blessing when you are in unfamiliar territory. Both Eucharistic ministers smiled broadly and I noticed how people sing familiar music easily at communion or other times. But unless invited, they just give unfamiliar tunes a try. That’s true everywhere. It takes time for a choir director or psalmist to teach congregants a new song, but in the end, it’s a bonding experience, especially if we can laugh a little. This entire parish applauded wholeheartedly for two teen girls who sang acapella after Communion was over. I like when people clap or laugh in church. That seems to unite us. Those girls looked so pleased. And I noticed a nearby woman quietly singing along with them, perhaps recalling being such a girl.

I didn’t really get the Spanish homily, but having heard all the readings earlier, I sensed the pastor calling us to God’s friendship through His commandments to love. My heart went out to him and to his listeners. Both seemed present to each other across the hurdle of the priest’s effort.

I missed a level of joy I expected to find. It’s something I look for at any Mass. My big Irish family loved Mass for the singing. I can enter joy alone; I learned that at First Communion and deepened my understanding in 4th grade when I first sang morning Mass in Latin. Cantoring once again, in recent months, I’ve tried to send my joy out to others. Sometimes I can feel it connect, like when I story-tell to listeners. Before and after this Shrine Mass, I did see the joy of community as people greeted each other, entering and exiting. But during parts of the Mass I saw a too-familiar mix of boredom and weariness. I guess Mass is where we get to let it all hang out. I do love watching Fr. Bob begin Mass so enthusiastically, then preach with a deep connection to his flock and toss the “napkin” basketball to grinning servers, then hold the host as if he really IS Jesus speaking to his apostles. I can’t help thinking we Catholics who sit in the pews – or wherever we gather – need to work on our joy. God’s love asks it of us, and in our parish we have so much to be grateful for.

At one moment during this second visit to the Shrine Church, I did find a Fr. Bob kind of exuberance in a girl of about 4 or 5. She caught my eye the moment she and her mother arrived. They were fashionably dressed and the tiny girl exuded a Latina Shirley Temple zest. I remembered being such a child once, happy to be in my church dress, watching for family and neighbors to arrive and sit in their “usual” pews. I communed during Mass with my favorite statues of Mary, Jesus and St. Therese to keep away the boredom of grownups doing something I didn’t really get. This little girl was a strong cultural connection for me, as was the teen girl who unhesitatingly hugged me her Paz. Our Lady of the Americas gave them both to me, undoubtedly sweetening my week-ago fall into grace.

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