I was confirmed a Roman Catholic in 1980, at the high school I would graduate from 5 years later (my parish’s church was still under construction). But spiritually, I re-confirmed at 28 because of how I experienced Catholicism in the Frontera, the border area southeast of Nogales, Arizona, in the months following law school graduation in 1995.
For a variety of reasons, I wasn’t ready to sit for a bar exam. A boyhood friend knew I wanted to learn Spanish as part of my dream of being a prosecutor. His wife had family in the tiny village of San Lazaro, about 35 miles (a three hour drive on execrable dirt roads) from the chaotic, dusty crossing at Nogales. Through Juanita, his angel of a wife, the family invited me to live with them. It was that simple. No time limit, no money required, not even a promise to help with chores or work, which of course I eagerly did anyway. But they took me in, sight unseen, gave me my own room in a four room house, and made me a part of their family. I immersed myself there for five months, stretching the limits of my ability to communicate on beautiful, high-desert evenings after dinner, sitting on the hoods of cars, passing around homemade tequila and Mexican cigarettes. When the sun sank and the stars came out, they explained the constellations to me, named there for the saints and not the gods. One forms, in their eyes, La Virgin, or the Virgin Mary; a gentle, sloping arc of stars forming a veiled, feminine head. As the earth turns, she arcs slowly sideways until “she goes to bed.” Se acosta.
Not all of them practiced religion; men tended to go to misa far less than women and children, although I went most weekends when our priest could make it into town in a Dodge 4×4. I enjoyed the mass in the language better suited for it, but it was the way they lived, both cheerfully and charitably although they had precious little to give, that re-confirmed me. On el dia de los muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, I loaded old women and children into my truck for a day at the local cemetery, lovingly decorating the graves of family and friends. They didn’t fear death; there was no reason to fear it.
I was warned against picking up hitchhikers, but I did it constantly in the Suzuki Samurai I’d driven from Chapel Hill to this dry new place. Frontera Mexicans get around that way. I picked up mostly families, making their way to visit relatives or do business at a fiesta. I never had a negative experience.
I also began to notice the dozens of tiny, beautiful structures set along the dirt tracks between the villages: Santitos. Usually encasing a small statue of La Virgin, the santito is a miniature house-like structure. People place them along roads for reasons I never fully understood. Raphael, the village patriarch who viewed me as his son, told me simply “they are there for the travelers on the road,” as if this was obvious.
So I re-confirmed, because I found in Mexico a simple, joyous, childlike faith. A faith that kept these remarkable, generous people in awe of the immensity of God, but close enough to stain His garments with their tears. A faith unpolluted by geopolitics and financial gigantism. A faith yet unhardened by the abuse crisis that has, in the fair words of Maureen Dowd, made the Church cruel.
That is the Church I re-confirmed in; the one I cling to. I cling because it has not been easy to hold on, no matter how strong a bond I still have to that simpler time and that happier, purer Love. A career in child abuse and the travel limitations of narcoterrorism now separate me from San Lazaro. I don’t know when I’ll see it again.
What I see instead are Church leaders fighting to block efforts to extend the statute of limitations in child abuse cases in several states because of rank, financial interest. Justice, wholeness, peace of mind and vindication be damned for untold thousands who lost their innocence and so much more at the hands of an institution unwittingly but chronically in evil service to a small but remarkably damaging and prolific group of offenders. It’s just the latest kick to my spiritual gut, the latest miserable exhortation from the mouths of men who sound far more like the lawyer I am than the spiritual guides they are supposed to be.
And yet, for now, I hold on. And I remember the quiet holiness of an old woman blessing me with a prayer and an enchilada. Of a child offering me the painted crucifix he would place on his Tata’s grave. Of crossing myself in unison with a group of browned, smiling men in sweat-stained clothes bouncing in a pickup, in tribute to the Lady praying for us as we passed.