Viernes Santo [Good Friday]

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Last year on Good Friday, we were enjoying our last day in Cholula, so I wanted to share some pictures from the amazing procession that town holds every year to commemorate the Stations of the Cross. I don’t have the most accurate information about this tradition; I’ll just tell you about what I saw and share the pictures, which will not do it justice. Sincerely, I tell you, this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I found it incredibly moving.

We woke up early with Mary Tobin and went ahead into the centro (town square) to claim our spot at the hotel restaurant where we’d already brunched twice that week—once to meet up with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and another time so that my mom could eat their chilaquiles. It was the perfect position along the colonnades from which to view the procession we’d heard so much about.

On our walk to breakfast, we saw this on one of the side streets:

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What in the world?

It was a chilly morning, and these people had clearly been there for awhile. After having swept the streets perfectly clean, they were working with huge stencils and buckets of what, upon closer inspection, we discovered were colorful wood chips.

(I love the picture above because of the little boy helping.)

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Further down the road, it appeared, another group of people were working on another section of the street. I was so curious!

We went on to our spot at the restaurant along the colonnade, and had to sneak around this to get there (apparently this section had been done at night or super early that morning):

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By the way, everyone respected the streets once the design had been laid, and didn’t step a foot on them until the procession came through.

We ate breakfast and made it a leisurely one so we could keep our spot and just hang out at our table until lunch time. (Thanks to a determined Abuela and a cute Mary Tobin the waiters were happy to oblige.) After a few bites I dashed out because I wanted to figure out what the deal was with this procession and all the street art. By that time we’d caught a few glimpses of the procession as it wound around the streets a few blocks further out from the centro. So I went around the corner on the opposite end of the colonnade, where we hadn’t passed by earlier, and I saw this:

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Another street full of people working! And on this one, it wasn’t one design repeated with the same stencil and colors, but they were busy with individual squares of separate works of wood chip sacred art—some very intricate and impressive.

(By the way, this was a little funny because the parade had clearly already started and they were racing against the clock. I asked one older lady when the procession was coming, and she answered half an hour. This also marked the peak of my Spanish speaking skills! Like, the best in my entire life! And, considering the day, it may have just been the Holy Spirit.)

Here are some of the designs:

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This was my favorite:

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“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Witnessing all of it made me nearly burst with questions: how long have they been doing this? Who decides who decorates which street? Are different parishes responsible for different parts? Is it the same every year? Do the artists jockey for prime real estate? (You could write a great little story or screen play about the old ladies competing with each other . . .) And where do all the wood shavings come from? But, as I wrote about here, there were a lot of Holy Week happenings whose meaning we had no clue about, so by this time I’d decided not to worry about the not knowing, and just enjoy.

I don’t know if you can tell in the pictures how beautiful all this was. I was moved on so many levels (and FYI, I was not pregnant at this time)—all the young and old, men, women, and children, working diligently and carefully, making the streets pristine, creating individual works of art that were powerful alone but breathtaking collectively. They were creating something huge and beautiful, pictures that would exist for half an hour, only to be trampled by the feet of the faithful and carried away in the wind.

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I found the procession itself a little on the kitschy side for an American sensibility, though it was still inspiring to see all the people out for this event. The procession stopped at different spots for each of the 14 stations and read the corresponding scripture passages. (Presumably! Again, I’m sure I didn’t know half of what was going on.)

As I think back on it, the language barrier and the not knowing was actually freeing. In our young family, we have traditions and rituals just starting, and it’s not important (or possible) for Mary Tobin to understand and articulate why we do certain things. And yet she senses that something is special—lighting candles (she LOVES), wearing a new dress for Easter this Sunday. In the first world, intellectual understanding usually trumps the physical, sensory side of worship and faith. But it’s that side of it that teaches us that some beautiful and mysterious celebration is taking place, even when we don’t quite understand.

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I mean, WOW. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We will all be in Memphis this year for Easter, and Mary Tobin will be wearing a new dress, sewn with love by Mama Rote (and in true second child fashion, Inez will wear one of MT’s old ones, once we locate it!). Wherever you are this weekend—geographically or spiritually!— I hope you’ll be be able to slow your racing mind and simply feel the beauty of the celebration.

Venid a mí todos los que estáis trabajados y cargados, y yo os haré descansar. (Mateo 11:28)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

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New City East Lake (or, How to Decorate for Interracial Couples!)

On the subject of churches and Spanish speakers, we visited a lovely church when we were in Chattanooga. Friends from Gracia y Paz had told us about New City East Lake, a diverse Presbyterian congregation in Chattanooga’s East Lake neighborhood, which from what I can tell has been over the years mostly white—my mom wondered if it was the same building she went to church in as a little girl; then black; and is now an increasingly Latino neighborhood.

Their building is a beautiful, old, mostly-but-not-fully renovated Methodist Episcopal church, with a simple sanctuary that retains its yellow stained glass windows, lending a beautiful sunny glow to the place. I really liked the atmosphere. (OK, don’t judge me for judging other people, but these were my impressions.) The congregation was majority white, fairly young, with a kind of preppy, southern, but still a bit crunchy feel—which seems like standard Chattanooga to me, and kind of feels like Charlottesville, which may be why I felt so comfortable. But then they had a solid number of black parishioners, numerous interracial couples (holler!), and a sizable group of hispanics, most of whom we learned are Guatemalan. That was the group I was interested in.

Those Spanish speakers used headphones with simultaneous translation (the reverse of our church, where there’s translation into English for the non-Spanish speakers, i.e. me). At various points in the service, Spanish was spoken. When it happened, without warning, I was surprised at how moved I felt . . . that a congregation whose majority did not need it, gave some time for a few people to be able to hear a prayer, a greeting, a song in their “heart language.” I kept my head down and tried to be subtle about dabbing the tears in my eyes.

At such times I wish I had a big name tag explaining, “I’M PREGNANT” to excuse my red face and erratic emotional behavior, and also bad driving. In a sweet way, though, those moments at New City East Lake showed me what a long way I’ve come in identifying with hispanics. Going to our church, I became the minority probably for the first time. The awkwardness and embarrassment that I experience once a week with my fumbling Spanish is what many immigrants face daily, and I respect their courage enormously.

But, what I actually wanted to get to in this post were the visual/design elements I noticed in particular. It seemed like the church consciously chose things to create a welcoming space for all their members, wherever they’re from.

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The first I saw was the cross, which looked to be made of steel or tin (some kind of metal) with candles. It immediately reminded me of the Mexican aesthetic (punched tin, candle altars), though much simpler. You could also argue it as a nod to Chattanooga’s industrial history. Am I over interpreting this?? Amateur art historian alert!

Then, when communion bread was passed, I noticed the lovely simple cloth napkins they used. They have to be Guatemalan, or something, right? Yes, I should’ve been thinking about JC, but I noticed the napkins.

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The baskets for the offering also looked like they had a story. A lot more interesting than stodgy old collection plates, I say.

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I think the vibrant baskets only worked so well because, as a whole, the place was simple and light-filled.

In my mind—again I’m way over-thinking this, probably—it was such a nice combination of design elements. The old reclaimed church, the crisp white interior, a couple punches of color, the simple beautiful cross lit by simple white candles. It was enough to please the crunchiest of yuppies and the freshest of immigrants, not to mention the spanglish-speaking, bright-color-loving, whitest-of-white person that I am.

Have you ever been to a multicultural church, or other group like that? I think it’s hugely challenging to pull off, and the visuals are probably the least of your problems! But symbols and appearance matter, and in this case they seemed to be a reflection of the church’s deeper values and commitments. Visit them if you’re in Chatta-vegas!