Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Way

I started writing something else last night but I became distracted along the way.

That's how people once referred to believers of Christ...before they were called Christians...they were known as followers of "The Way."

San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest continuously used cathedral in America. The first cornerstone for the church was put in place by 15 families in 1738 in what is now the heart of downtown San Antonio. It's a stone's throw from city hall - I'm not certain if that was deliberate, but it often seems appropriate for any number of reasons - it's also only a few foot steps from one of the area's original Spanish "missions" - San Antonio de Valero Mission which most folks now simply call the Alamo.

As you might imagine San Fernando has a deep rich history, not only among Catholics, but among Texans. There have been fires and floods. Ursula de Veramendi had her wedding there in a man named James Bowie. Five years later a Mexican general used the cathedral as a lookout at he wrested control of the Alamo from men who vowed to defend it to their deaths. General Santa Anna ordered a red flag be flown from atop San Fernando as a signal to those Alamo defenders...a signal that they would be shown no mercy. He was true to his word. Ursula became a widow.

A year or two ago a crazed man who disagreed with aspects of the Catholic faith went on a rampage inside San Fernando (until then they never locked the doors) and destroyed some of the statuary. Some was repaired....some replaced. It was senseless as so many things are these days.

Long before Mel Gibson put the images to film or video or digital dabbles, the community at San Fernando was graphically performing "the passion play" along the dusty streets of downtown San Antonio on Good Friday for hundreds of years. The performance was halted for several decades in the mid 1900's, I'm not certain why, but it resumed 21 years ago. It has since become one of, if not the largest such reenactments in the country.

The "Passion Play" winds through San Antonio's downtown streets - Jesus, battered bleeding and abused, is cursed and mocked by both actors and onlookers alike as everyone gets into the "spirit" of the event. It ends at San Fernando as Jesus trudges down one of the primary east west roads of downtown - Dolorosa street. A thorn crowned Jesus staggers down Dolorosa to the church towing the heavy cross upon which he is then hoisted to die.

It is a horrible event...beautifully performed.

Photo by: Nicole Frugé

Our little church has stood for five years. I helped clear the land with members of a few other families using everything from cheap loppers to machetes. We have no cornerstone per se, there is no statuary and usually we remember to lock the doors.

But we too have a service on Good Friday. It is very simple...very solemn.

Last night I was preparing to leave for that service when Amy called, somewhat frantic. A family had shown up at the church as she was getting things ready - a husband and wife with their three young girls. They parked in the lot and then the woman came to the door and asked Amy for only one thing - prayer. Amy described them to me in a rapid fire wave of one sided emotion. They were dirty and hungry and the man was hoping to find some quick work to earn money for gasoline. He had a promise of a steady job in the valley if the little family and their beat up car could only make it there.

Amy was anxious - wound tight and scatter shooting offers of aid which I was trying to interpret as she repeated them to me over her mobile phone all the while rushing home to change clothes for the service. I prayed she wasn't driving as fast as she was talking.

Finally, I thought I understood enough. I told her that some things were unreasonable - we couldn't hire the man to fix our roof that night or dig our garden - but we could bring towels and soap to the church so they could shower in our education building. We could bring food. Gordon had already convinced them to let him fill their car with gas, and they accepted some money from him but the husband repeated he wanted work not charity. I knew we could provide the family with additional funds and if they insisted on working that night I could find something for the husband to do at the church while the girls and his wife showered and ate.

When we got to the church I learned Gordon had already told them no matter what they would have to wait until our small Good Friday service was over. Amy was under the impression they agreed, and I assured her we would take care of this family as best we could, while admitting that I wasn't certain what form that aid would take.

They weren't at the church when we got there, but Gordon said they had promised to return around 8 p.m. if they hadn't found work elsewhere. They had thanked Amy and Gordon for their prayers and support. Amy calmed herself and began to focus on the service, but I knew she was watching closely for that little family.

Our service went on. It was not an elaborate passion play. Four members of the congregation read an account of the trial and Crucifixion of Jesus. We stripped the church of its decorations. We extinguished candles and turned out the lights.

Amy stood under a cross and sang...a cross draped in black.

The song was in both English and Spanish and it was called "Via Dolorosa."

Our service ended with everyone leaving silently in the dark.

Amy and I, along with our youngest daughter Lisa, Gordon and his youngest daughter, Lillian, stayed behind. We waited to see if this needy family might return. By then Gordon and I had arranged to have cash and explanations at the ready. Amy had brought food and an assortment of shower accoutrements - towels, soap, robes.

We wanted to help alleviate some of this small family's pain.

We wanted to pray.

We needed to help.

We waited but the family never came back.

Eventually I turned out the lights of the church, much as we had done during our service and dimmed the lights to the parking lot as well.

The moon provided our only illumination.

The word "Dolorosa" means suffering. The street which borders San Fernando Cathedral is essentially named "The Way of Suffering" although I would doubt the thousands of people who traverse it every day ever give that much thought.

As we drove out of the emptied darkened church parking lot last night I was mindful of it though.

No matter how we try to avoid it... at some point... we all will confront suffering along "The Way."