September 19, 2013
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson
Recently, I served as guest celebrant at Iglesia Santa Cruz in Cartagena. In a workshop a few days before the service, I heard my colleague, Padre Bladimir, telling people the service was going to be at 8 on Saturday morning. After the workshop I said, “Were you serious? … Did you really mean 8?,” to which he laughed and said, “No, for you it’s 9. I just told them 8 so that people would be there when the service begins.” Since I’m of German heritage, and Germans are known for … well, you know … we started a little joke of referring to “German time” or “Colombian time.” For the service, 8:00 became “Colombian time” and 9:00 became “German time.”
The service was part of a large festive celebration for Holy Cross Day (Santa Cruz). The church was bursting with people and activity, and one side of the sanctuary was filled with young people of all ages. During the service, as we were concluding the Sanctus an elderly woman rushed up to the altar holding a baby. She indicated that the mother was not feeling well and needed to leave, but wanted the child to receive a blessing. So, we offered a blessing for the baby, after which 3 more mothers showed up at the altar holding infants they wanted to receive a blessing. No one seemed to mind that we stopped in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer or that we were doing blessings at the altar. What’s more, when we resumed it was as if we never stopped for the blessings.
After distributing communion, I was tapped on the shoulder and handed a vile of holy oil and the children started to line up in front of me for a blessing. As the end of the line of children approached, adults started getting up and joining the line. Even a couple of elderly women who needed assistance to stand came up for a blessing.
As part of the day’s festivities, after worship we were entertained by a youth dance troupe that has become one of the church’s flagship youth programs. It provides an alternative for the children to drugs and violence in the streets, as well as provides them with an opportunity to learn about their culture and heritage. The program was started by a retiree in the congregation who wanted to do something for the children. After the dance program we were served Sancocho, a traditional Colombian soup made with many kinds of meat (most commonly pollo (chicken), gallina (hen), pescado (fish), and cola (ox tail)) along with large pieces of platano (plantain), papa (potato), yuca (cassava) and/or other vegetables such as tomato, scallion, cilantro, and mazorca (corn on the cob), topped off with a squeeze of fresh lime.
I’ve attended many services and church events throughout my life. But in many of the churches in the States there have been individuals who were, shall we say, rather particular about what they believed could and couldn’t be done before, during, and/or after a service. I’ve known priests who found themselves in a defensive position regarding something they did during a service. I’ve heard people grumble that the priest didn’t do this or do that “right,” or that someone didn’t receive communion “properly,” whatever that means. Truth be told, I find I rather enjoy the impromptu aspects of worship here in Colombia … the unplanned prayer and celebration of a birthday or anniversary, blessings like the ones we had with the babies in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, and requests during a service for blessings and prayers for healing for someone in serious need of emotional and/or physical healing. I think I’ve become so comfortable with not having a clue what might happen next, that my colleagues have jokingly begun saying that I’m now “more Colombian than German.”
As I reflect on my time in Cartagena, the impromptu aspects of worship here, and on the many places where I’ve served where a plastic table, a pile of plastic chairs, and a simple candle were the supplies for a community’s standard Sunday worship, I think about serving as a priest when I return to the US. I find myself pondering what practices will stay with me. I wonder how it will feel and how I will perceive myself as a priest, serving behind a traditional altar in the US rather than making something at hand into an altar. Will my experience serving in Colombia become my new “normal?” Will everything in the States begin to feel to me like “high church?” Will I be happy with my worship experiences in the States? What parts of my experience will I incorporate into who I am and will be, and what parts will dissipate with time?
As I reflect and ponder these and other questions, I find it interesting to note that they don’t raise concerns, but rather fill me with a sense of excitement about the future and about my life in the church when I return to the States.