Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lleva esta

So, the church in the Dominican is a bit more... conservative than the church in the US.

This is one of the difficulties of multicultural ministry—different cultures are at different places and have different perspectives on the question of the day. I remember when I was in seminary in the Churches of Christ in Texas. The University was seeking very hard to effect reconciliation with the segregation and racism of its past. (It was, after all, only desegregated when the federal government forced it to be.)

So, they were reaching out to historically black Churches of Christ, seeking to build relationships and bridges.

At the same time, they were moving forward with the question of women in ministry. Though ordination is not a part of the theology of the Churches of Christ, there are still questions about who an individual congregation will and will not receive as a pulpit minister. There were several women in my M.Div. program—many of them immensely more gifted than most of us men—but they knew that the odds of them getting a pulpit ministry job were remarkably slim.

But the historically black Churches of Christ were generally opposed to women in the pulpit, to the leadership of women in official positions. And they saw it as another example of "white privilege" that this university would ignore what the historically black churches believed to charge ahead with women in ministry.

What does one do in this situation? Which part of Christ's body do you cut off to save another?

There is no perfect answer—absolutely none to this question.

I spent the past weekend in Santiago. One of the seminarians, Domingo, took me there and I spent my time at La Anunciación. On Friday night, the vicar of the parish, Padre Tony, and his wife took me out to dinner.

They took me to this rather nice restaurant. I ordered a burrito and they said that was not enough. They cancelled my order and ordered me instead churrasco con arroz con pepinos (grilled skirt steak over rice with peppers).

It. Was. Heavenly.

We talked (entirely in Spanish since they didn't speak English) about our lives, about the church, about the Dominican Republic, about many things. At one point, they asked about my wife and I talked about how she is a therapist who has recently opened her own private practice. Padre Tony's wife said that she also is studying for her Master's degree in counseling and she started telling me about how much she is enjoying the work.

Now, when you are learning the language, your comprehension level in any conversation varies. In this conversation, I was at around probably 70%... until I heard one word: homosexualidad. At that point, I started comprehending more because I realized she was telling me about what she was learning when it comes to helping gay people change.

What does one do in this situation?

As I listened, I considered not saying anything, perhaps smiling and changing the subject. But then I thought, "No, this is a colleague and his wife. If I was in the states, and we were speaking English and they were white, I would have no problem charitably disagreeing and sharing my own perspectives."

And so I did.

After she talked for a while and Padre Tony talked for a while, she asked if I was understanding what they were saying.

"Si." I said, "Si, lo entiendo." Then I took a deep breath, "Pero para mí el problema es esto. No hay ni una sola asociación psicológica que cree alguien que es homosexual puede cambiar lo que son." But for me the problem is this: There is not a single psychological association that believes someone who is homosexual can change who they are.

What proceeded was a thirty or forty-five minute conversation—entirely in Spanish—about the question of sexuality, the bible, and Christian theology. We were all charitable toward each other... but we were all honest as well.

At one point, when Padre Tony's wife was gone, I told him how this year I celebrated a wedding for two men in my church, two men whom I deeply respect. I told him how I was honored to do it.

"Y esta es la pregunta. ¿Me puedes aceptar como un sacerdote cuando he hecho algo que tú crees que está mal?" And this is the question, can you accept me as a priest when I have done something that you believe is wrong?

He leaned back and closed his eyes. "Sí, esta es una pregunta muy difícil." Yes, this is a very difficult question.

The night ended and we went back to the church. The next day, I explored Santiago with Domingo, learning about the city, speaking only in Spanish the entire time. I was blessed to have lunch with his family at their home and spend several hours with his wife and son.

Saturday night, at the church, when I was around Padre Tony again, we wound up talking about Sunday. I told him I was happy to do whatever he wanted. I didn't have a small suitcase and so only brought a small change of clothes—no vestments. I was happy simply to sit with the congregation.

I didn't know, to be honest, if he would want me celebrating at the altar in the parish.

Then, this morning, I came down in my clericals and took a seat near the back. His wife saw me and immediately came up, inviting me to the sacristy. Padre Tony was just exiting, clearly ready to start the service, but he welcomed me in and said he had brought vestments for me. I said thank you, and went back with him. I put on the stole. I knotted my rope cincture and kissed the stole before draping it around my shoulders.

And then he took off the chasuble he was wearing and held it out for me, offering to help put it on me like the custom at a priestly ordination liturgy.

"¿Quieres que yo celebrar la misa?" "Do you want me to celebrate the mass?" I asked.

"Si, por favor." he responded, with solemnity.

The entrance hymn was new to me, "Alabaré a Mi Señor."
Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré.
Alabaré A mi Señor.
Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré.
Alabaré A mi Señor. 
Juan vio el numero de los redimidos
Y todos alababan al Señor
Unos cantaba, otros oraban,
Y todos alababan al Señor [Coro]
Todos unidos alegres cantamos
Glorias y alabanzas al Señor
Gloria al Padre, gloria al Hijo
Y gloria al Espiritu de amor [Coro]
The sexton played guitar (classical guitar at that, and rather beautifully) and the singing was full of life and vitality. I looked around at the crowd singing, knowing that I couldn't quite translate the words of the song on my own but aware that they were words of profound praise.

Then, all of the sudden, I felt the tears start rolling down my cheeks. I was, quite literally, overcome with emotion.

I had wondered—I truly had—whether I would be welcome at this altar, whether my more liberal exercise of priestly ministry would be too much. And this priest—who does indeed disagree with me—literally took the chasuble off his back and put it on mine.

Aquí. Lleva esta. Here. Wear this.

With all of these Goddamned (and I use that phrase intentionally) walls we build around each other, pretending that we are carving out a community that believes properly... and this community welcomed a priest who believed things they thought were probably wrong. They put the chasuble on me. They asked me to celebrate Eucharist with them.

Tears, my friends. All throughout the service tears of gratitude that these people saw me as theirs. Not someone other. Theirs.

And it wasn't because I kept quiet about my beliefs. I spent the better part of an hour arguing as forcefully as I could in my broken Spanish, insisting that the partnered clergy I knew were some of the best clergy in the church, that the church always needs to be testing our practices, asking if they truly are consistent with a God who is beyond our limited perception.

I was clear... and still, "Aquí. Lleva esta."

Later, with the help of my friend Luis, I looked up the translation to the song from this morning. It goes like this...
I will praise, I will praise, I will praise, I will praise,
I will praise my Lord.
I will praise, I will praise, I will praise, I will praise,
I will praise my Lord
John saw the number of those redeemed
And all of them were praising the Lord
Some were singing, some were praying
And all were praising the Lord 
All sang happy together
Glory and praise to the Lord
Glory to the Father, glory to the Son
And glory to the Spirit of love 
We will all, I imagine, arrive to heaven rather soiled and screwed up. Having tried our hardest, we will still inevitably get things wrong. But the number of those redeemed—they wear white robes that were given to them just as much as the white robe Padre Tony gave to me today.

None of us earn that robe through the orthodoxy of our beliefs or the perfection of our prophetic stances. No matter what, in the end, we are redeemed, we are purchased back from the powers, from all the things we thought would save us, that we thought would make the world right.

We are bought back from that.

And those Goddamned divisions are thrown into the lake of fire, while we all join together. Some sing songs that are a little strange to others. Some pray. Everyone is doing it differently, in different languages and styles, but somehow in the mystery of God I believe it rises like a perfect blend of sweet smelling incense.

Because there will indeed come a day when we will all be together, praising the Lord.

This morning, at church, I saw a glimpse of heaven.... and, like I imagine heaven is meant to do, it almost obliterated me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Celebramos juntos.

You may have noticed that the rate at which I'm writing these essays has slowed some. That's primarily because when you spend almost all your waking hours either doing homework for class, sitting in class with a private language tutor, or studying more Spanish on Rosetta Stone... well, there's really not a whole lot to talk about.

Except, of course, when there is.

On Friday, I ended class feeling remarkably discouraged. We were working with verbs that require an indirect object, and at the same time, conjugating them in the past tense. "She gave it to me." "Ella me lo dio."

It basically requires several steps all at once: conjugate the verb properly (in the past tense), use the proper word for "it" (masculine or feminine), and discern the proper pronoun. And with the words all being so short, you can't cheat and think about what comes next while saying the current word.

And I kept getting it wrong.

I'd use the wrong pronoun, or mistakenly use a masculine object when it required the feminine, or I'd screw up the tense of the verb entirely.

I felt like I was never going to get it.

I was describing it to the TEC missioner who lives across the hall from me, "Es como que hay una pared y no puedo superarlo."

It is like there is a wall, and I cannot get past it.

The move from passable Spanish to fluent Spanish is not an easy move to make.

I was really upset, feeling very discouraged. She told me it was OK. She told me that she actually completely broke down on her fourth day of intensive Spanish, crying and telling the teacher she just couldn't do it. But she kept trying, and eventually it came to her.

Perhaps the best advice came from my friend, the cathedral Sexton, Victor, who said, "You need to stop trying to think of it in English. Just learn the Spanish."

I don't know if that makes sense to you, but it makes complete sense to me.

This morning, after my fruit, yogurt, and coffee, I went down the cathedral and vested for the English language Eucharist. I celebrated in English and preached in English. I felt very much at home, very reminded that as much as I'm struggling with some of the more difficult concepts (for me) in Spanish, there are some things I know how to do!

Then, I tried to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually for what would follow: my first time celebrating Eucharist in Spanish.

I finished my coffee in the sacristy with the other clergy and ministers and told the deacon, Alejandra, that I was going to go spend some time practicing with the missal. I went into the sanctuary, set the missal up on the altar, and started working my way through the service.
Bendito sea Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espíritu Santo... 
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...  
Dios omnipotente, para quien todos los corazones están manifiestos, todos los deseos son conocidos y ningún secreto se halla encubierto... 
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all secrets known, and from whom no secrets are hid...
Before I knew it, Alejandra was standing at my right elbow, "Mmmhmm, bien."

This is, of course, the traditional place of the deacon during the Great Thanksgiving, at the right of the priest, assisting as needed in the liturgy.

And, just like her order called her to, she came up alongside me, and helped me work through the Spanish, correcting a pronunciation here and there, but most importantly telling me I was actually doing it well.

She was quickly joined by a lay person, Luis. Luis is from Cuba and was originally in seminary as a Roman Catholic, but left the church and here, in the Dominican, discovered the Episcopal Church. Well, first he discovered it through books, he told me (something I can relate to!), but then he discovered it in person here at the Cathedral.

Now both of them were at my side, a deacon and a lay person, both committed to God—and to helping me not stumble through these holy words.
En verdad es digno, justo y saludable, darte gracias, en todo tiempo y lugar, Padre omnipotente, Creador de cielo y tierra... 
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and every- where to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth...
When I stumbled over a word, they waited and gave me a chance to try it again. When I asked how to say something properly, they said it a few times for me, getting me comfortable with the word or phrase.

After going through it all, before I knew it, I was vested and at the back of the church. Dean Ashton nodded to me, and I began the liturgy as is customary here at the Cathedral, with a preparatory prayer said from the back.
Oh Dios omnipotente, que derramas sobre todos los que lo desean, el espíritu de gracia y súplica: Líbranos, cuando nos acercamos a ti, de tibieza de corazón y divagaciones de la mente, para que, con firmes pensamientos y calurosos afectos, te adoremos en espíritu y en verdad; por Jesucristo nuestro Señor. Amén. 
O Almighty God, who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The organ began, and the procession, started. I fell into my place after the dean and from there... well, it just flowed.

Good liturgy is like a river, I think. One merely needs to step into the current and let it carry you. I was reminded, over and over again, I know this. I know how this works. When a word seemed about to get stuck in my mouth, I paused, took a breath, opened my mouth wider, and worked through it.

I'm sure there were a few mistakes—absolutely confident—but the people were kind. They were right there with me. Even if I stumbled in my line, they responded confidently with theirs—reminding me that we, the corporate body of Christ, are the celebrants of this feast. I am merely the presider—an honored position, no doubt, but not the place where the totality of God's work in the liturgy resides (thankfully).

At the announcements, Soila welcomed me once more, telling the people how this was my first time celebrating the Eucharist in Spanish (or something like that—Soila can talk very fast). The clapped, looking at me with such happy kind faces. I bowed, so grateful for the opportunity.

Es digno, justo y saludable, darte gracias, en todo tiempo y lugar, Padre omnipotente...

It is right, good, and a joyful think, at all times and in all places, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty...

I still feel like I have a wall in front of me, one that I must surmount. I still have to battle my way through these more difficult tenses and irregular verbs. Fluency seems, at times, like a far-off distant land that I've heard of... but can only imagine.

However, today I was reminded that as I run at that wall, I will not need to try to jump over it on my own.

The people of God are there, reaching out their hands, giving me a boost. When I fall, they encourage me to try again. When I succeed, their embraces as as full of God's grace as the hugs you wind up getting during the Peace in a Dominican Eucharist.

Celebramos juntos. Siempre juntos.

We celebrate together. Always together.