Advent With Romero, Week 1

“When we say ‘terrorism’ we do not only think about those that persecute those in uniform, but also in uniformed terrorism that is also horrible and kills and fills with fear.” Monseñor Oscar A. Romero, December 3rd, 1978

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Romero, A Time of Joyful Hope, 1st Sunday in Advent, Year B (December 3rd, 1978)

Texts:

Isaiah 63: 16b-17; 64: 1.3b-6
Mark 13:33-37
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

As I already said yesterday, Romero is an incredibly eschatological preacher; he often preaches about Christ’s second coming and the End of All things. For Romero, Advent is a time to remember the future, so to speak—to look to the second coming of Christ and to actively anticipate it by “organizing a world according to the heart of God.” (30) This is not new or controversial thinking, though most modern Christian preaching has stopped thinking of and using eschatology this way.

However, Monseñor Romero also argues that Advent is not simply something that remembers the past (Christ’s first coming in 1st-century Palestine), or anticipates the future. Advent is continuously happening:

“For this reason, it is repugnant, brothers, that a Church that tries to make present amidst current sins, amidst current errors, that Christ that saves, that it is criticized, and some want to conserve a Gospel so desencarnado that it does not mix itself in anything with the world that it has to save. Christ is already in history, Christ is already in the entraña of the people, Christ is already operating “the new heaven and the new earth,” and the work of Advent is, precisely, this faith: to discover that Christ that is always coming. Advent is not just the four preparatory weeks of Christmas. Advent is the life of the Church!” (31-32)

A little on Romero’s very radical, and very poetic, language here. If you blink, you’ll miss how incredibly awesome it is.

Desencarnado is not a word that you will find in any Spanish-language dictionary. Most people translate this word “disembodied” or (slightly more accurately, I think) “disincarnated.” But the word, taken apart, literally means “un-fleshed” or “un-incarnated” or even more shockingly “de-fleshed” or “de-incarnated.” For me, this word carries with it a real sense of undoing something. Furthermore, the word entraña, which is often translated as “core,” literally means insides, entrails, or viscera. Christ is already inside the people in a very visceral way.

In other words, Romero argues that to preach a Gospel that has nothing to do with current realities and current sins is to literally “dis-incarnate” to “un-flesh” the Gospel. It is to literally, not figuratively, strip the Gospel of its flesh, to strip it of its body—or rather, its bodies.

This is where Romero turns Advent into something particularly liberationist and beautiful: he argues that Christ is literally present, is literally advent, in the least of these:

“And this is one of the spiritual overtones of our Advent: a vigilance of that Lord that will come one day, or better said, that will be discovered that he was already living amongst us and we did not know him. And it will be discovered, ‘Everything that you did with one of these poor brothers you did it with me!’ How close Christ has been that we have little known him! Advent ought to call us to attention to discover in every brother that we greet, in every friend to whom we lend our hand, in every beggar that asks me for bread, in every worker that wants to use the right to organization in a labor union, in every campesino that is looking for work in the coffee farms, the face of Christ; would not be capable of robbing him, cheating him, of denying him his rights; he is Christ and everything that you may do with him, Christ will take it as done to Him. This is Advent, Christ that lives amongst us.” (34)

Note that this is not (and this is for you real theology nerds) realized eschatology—Romero clearly does believe Christ will literally come again—but Romero also believes that Christ is continuously present in the least of these. For Romero, Christ’s presence is literally realized, is Advent, is incarnate, in the bodies and lives of the poor and oppressed. We don’t have to wait for Christ to show up in our world, because Christ is here and is calling us to action through real, oppressed, present bodies.

This is the question for us: how can we live into the future coming of Christ by “organizing a world according to the heart of God” (30)? And how can we truly see and respond to Christ as the one-who-advents-in-the-oppressed in our own context? Where is Christ coming into the world today? In whose bodies is Christ made manifest?

I think you know where this is going.

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Christ is coming and has come into the world in Michael Brown’s body, and Trayvon Martin’s body, and in the bodies of all the tortured, oppressed, and murdered bodies of African Americans and other people of color in the United States. To ignore these bodies—and ignore the systems of racism and power that destroy and oppress them—is to ignore Christ’s body, which is immanently present and Advent, literally coming into being, in these bodies.

To lose those bodies is to lose Advent, to lose Christ’s coming, to lose the Gospel. To lose these bodies is “de-flesh”, to “de-incarnate,” to skin the Gospel.

If we are going to preach and live into Christ’s coming, Christ’s advent, we cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson. We just can’t.

We absolutely must preach and live this Advent not just through and into history, into the sins and mistakes and issues of our time, but through and into bodies: African American bodies, immigrant bodies, poor bodies, female bodies, and other bodies subject to violent oppression—or at the intersection of multiple oppressions.

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Finally, we must pay special attention to those bodies subject to uniformed terrorism, both in the USA and elsewhere. This is a problem in our context (both within and at our borders), it was a problem in Romero’s context, and it was a problem in Jesus’ context.

This is where Christ is amongst us. This is Advent. We have to preach that. And we have to live that.

Other Resources:

To start listening and acting about race in the United States:

Black Girl Dangerous

Colorlines

Sojourners

12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson

The Baptism of Michael Brown, Sr.

If you’re interested in immigration, check out the links in my previous post.

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Random Thoughts, #Ferguson Thoughts, Advent Thoughts

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Idalia, being camera shy.

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Packing the coffee into bags to take to town.

Today, I went to pick coffee at the coffee farm owned and managed by Blanca and her family. That could have been a blog post in itself.

I picked coffee for three hours, and given what I managed to pick, I would have been paid $0.50 for those hours of work. This could have been another blog post in itself.

And after hearing about, and mourning, the decision of the Grand Jury in the case of Darren Wilson and his shooting of Michael Brown, I am struggling to write about it, and to do so in a way that lifts up oppressed voices and not my own (white, privileged) voice. This also should have been a blog post in itself. Yes, this is a blog about El Salvador, and not the United States. But as Christians, we believe that all lives are worth the same, and that means speaking out against oppressive systems of power and privilege—whether they be racist, classist, or both—wherever we see them taking and damaging lives. We can’t preach that Central American lives matter and ignore the fact that #blacklivesmatter, too. So please get educated about racial issues in the United States, and get educated about them from sources that lift up oppressed voices, like Colorlines and Black Girl Dangerous.

Finally, as a heads-up, I have decided to (attempt to) blog every week during the season of Advent. What am I going to be blogging about? Well, Advent. More specifically, I intend to blog about some of Monseñor Romero’s Year B sermons (the liturgical year that begins this Sunday) and how we might apply his theological thoughts to our own context. I’m probably going to fail at this consistent blogging thing, but I am going to give it a serious try, okay? The idea is to have each blog post done long before the Sunday in Advent that I am writing about so any preachers out there can take these thoughts and run with them, should they so please. But I really want to make Romero, and his beautiful thoughts on Advent, available to everyone—not just pastors. Why? Because his thoughts on Advent are freaking awesome, that’s why. In advance of said blog posts, a want to say a few things regarding Monseñor Romero’s preaching style, which (if you are a mainline Protestant, especially), might confuse you at first:

  1. Romero is not a particularly exegetical preacher. You will rarely find him picking apart the Greek or Hebrew behind a particular passage, and while you will sometimes find him doing other kinds of exegesis, you’ll find that he wanders from the text more than a Protestant preacher typically would. You’ll also find that he sometimes leans more on the tradition of interpretation regarding a text, a church season, a Papal encyclical, etc., than on the text itself. Just go with it. Be open. He’ll teach you something.
  1. Romero is an eschatological preacher. It is clear (this is my opinion, mind) that Romero believes Christ will literally return in glory someday and that this eventual return should motivate to act in this world in certain ways. This may seem strange to those of us who are not used to thinking about the return of Christ as something that will eventually happen in history—and end history. It is a refreshing perspective, however, and a theologically powerful and useful one.
  1. Romero is a sacramental preacher. He was a Catholic bishop for the last few years of his life, after all. Much of his theology is grounded deeply in his understanding of the Eucharist. Again, this is going to seem strange to Protestants who are accustomed to having scripture be the principal (or even only) source of knowledge about God. Again, go with it. He’ll teach you something about preaching not just out of The Book, but also about how to preach about, and from, Christ’s body.
  1. Romero is a contextual preacher. As we will see, he believes that any preaching or theology that does not touch the bleeding wounds of the world is not just lousy preaching or theology: it does not even qualify as real Christian preaching or theology at all.

Are you all ready? I hope so. The first post will go up first thing tomorrow. Yes, I know it’s Thanksgiving. But reading it will give you all a break from listening to your uncle ramble on about something you don’t care about. Or give you something to do during halftime.

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The Compañeros Delegation

It’s been a powerful week here at the Pastoral House. A group of representatives from Compañeros, the board that coordinates the work of the Iowa partner churches of our mission, was visiting us. We had some very intense moments, but we had some lighthearted ones, as well. Be sure to check out Alisha’s blog, which has far more pictures and details regarding this delegation than mine does!

Many thanks to the Compañeros folks who took time to visit us and to the Pastoral Team and communities who cared for them while they were here. And thanks to the delegation members who shared some of the photos below with me, because I was so busy this week that I barely took any pictures! Enjoy.

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Our chapel this week. Notice that the table is in the center, Romero is on the wall, and a Diedrich Bonhoeffer quote is on the door.

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The delegation attends the procession to honor the 25th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women–their housekeeper and her daughter–who were brutally killed in the early morning hours of November 16th, 1989 by the American-trained-and-armed soldiers of the Atlacatl battalion. You can read an excellent reflection on this awful moment in history and the theology that inspired these Jesuits here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2014/11/17/the-jesuit-martyrs-the-pueblo-crucificado-and-the-kingdom-of-god/.

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The delegation receives hugs from people in the community of Virginia. We also visited San Francisco, Caserío Mediagua, and  Caserío Casa de Zacate.

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The delegation visits Finca Santa Emilia, where Don Justo Coffee is grown, and watches the de-pulping machine in action.

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The delegation peels and slices potatoes for our Thanksgiving lunch. It was quite tasty.

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The former and current mission co-workers celebrate a time-honored Thanksgiving tradition: eating olives off of their fingers!

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The delegation and Pastoral Team of Berlín.

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Día de Los Difuntos In Pictures

This past Sunday we celebrated el Día de Los Difuntos–The Day of the Dead–here in Berlín. If you want to read more about this beautiful tradition, be sure to read my post from last year. Pictures from this year’s celebrations are below. Enjoy.

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The grave of Maria Angela, Blanca’s mother.

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The Covenant Presbyterian Church Delegation

We just had an awesome week with the people of Covenant Presbyterian Church of West Des Moines, IA. We spent three wonderful days in their partner community of San Isidro, visited various historical sites, and saw the Don Justo coffee finca.

Thanks to the delegates for visiting, the Pastoral Team and community of San Isidro for all their help, organization, and hospitality, and everyone at Covenant Presbyterian for everything they do for Our Sister Parish in general and San Isidro in particular!

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Members of the Pastoral Team, delegation, and partner community of San Isidro visit the monument at El Mozote, the site of a horrific massacre in December of 1981. It is a sad and sobering place to visit but we were joyful to be experiencing it together.

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The delegation prepares gift baskets for their partner families in San Isidro.

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The Pastoral House pickup truck just barely squeezes past a washed-out section of road. The excessive rain has made travel in Berlín extremely difficult.

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Members of the delegation present chairs as a gift to their partner families in San Isidro.

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Members of the Pastoral Team and delegation stuff the piñatas for the celebration on their final day in San Isidro.

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A delegate teaches members of the San Isidro Directiva how to play frisbee.

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The delegation visits the Don Justo coffee plantation and watches the coffee de-pulping machine at work.

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On Liberation From The Inside Out

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Cecilia, trying very hard not to be in this picture. Nice try, Ceci.

Today, we went to visit a community in Berlín that had invited us to join them for the swearing-in ceremony of their new Directiva[1]. We were having a long, difficult week, so we were not planning to stay long—but we had to go in order to deliver the piñatas and candy that the community asked us to help them purchase.

As we arrived, we were greeted with smiles and friendly words, which is always how this community operates. When they handed me their attendance sheet so that I could sign in as a guest, I was delighted to see that they had already printed my name for me—and even spelled it correctly.

This is something that my doctor’s office cannot do properly.

I love a lot of things about this community—they are well-organized, united, tight-knit, and incredibly hospitable. But they are more than that. Today, they once again demonstrated that they are working hard to achieve spiritual and communal—and not just material or organizational—development.

To explain: one of the things that I love most about Our Sister Parish it is that we really do believe that true, long-term development must begin from inside the human person. Otherwise, what we’re doing is charity—simply giving people the “stuff” that they lack—and not true development or solidarity. What people need for true development, for true liberation from their poverty, is not just to obtain the water, food, fertilizer, roads, or schools that they lack. What they need, before all else, is to truly believe that they are beloved children of God and as such are entitled to the same basic human rights and dignity as people who have more wealth and privilege than they do—and that they have a right to stand up for themselves when these rights and dignity are violated.

It’s one thing to teach people this. It’s something else entirely to watch them live it.

It’s a thing of beauty, really.

The community opened their meeting with an official greeting and a reading of the agenda. As part of the greeting, the Directiva’s president expressed sadness that the mayor could not be with them—and had not offered a response to their (very standard, very reasonable) request for $250 worth of food to provide the community with a snack after the ceremony. The greeting was followed by more formal greetings from members of the Pastoral House and members of the mayor’s office, as well as an opening prayer. The mayor’s representatives apologized that the mayor himself could not be with them. After that, the new Directiva was sworn in, one of the mayor’s representatives offered congratulations to the new Directiva members, and everyone applauded.

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The swearing-in of the new Directiva.

Then the other member of the mayor’s office, one of his close assistants, stood up to speak.

He apologized that the community’s request for $250 was not processed in time. He said that perhaps the mayor had forgotten about it or his secretary had not passed it on to him. He said that he had been working with the mayor for two years and they had been doing lots of good work in the communities and hoped to keep doing that. The president thanked him for his words and asked him if anyone else wanted to say something.

“Excuse me,” one young man said, getting up from his chair and coming from the front of the room. “Forgive me my words, but I have never seen you in one of the communities before.” He went on to say that he didn’t see much of the mayor or his other representatives in the poor, rural areas of Berlín, either. “And,” he said, looking the mayor’s representative straight in the eye, “I think you need to think about whether you all are actually doing any work out here.” He sat down.

“I also have something to say,” said another young man. “I personally took that request to the mayor’s office over a month ago, on September 10th. I rode my horse all the way there. When we didn’t receive a response from the mayor on this, we contacted him personally and he said he was considering it. Perhaps you were not aware of this, but I wanted to correct you, because this community has to trust us to properly follow-up on requests that we make, and I needed to let them know that we did that.”

The president of the community spoke up again. “Yes,” he said, “and we haven’t forgotten how we asked for a few hundred dollars to help repair the road to our fields last year, a request which you never answered, either. So we went to the Pastoral House and they were able to help us.” He went on to cite a city code that requires the mayor’s office to respond to requests in a certain way within a certain time frame.

I attempted to hold my hand against my face in a way that would conceal how hard I was trying not to smile. I also had to hold my breath so that I wouldn’t laugh. I stealthily glanced over at Blanca, who, with her eyes closed and her arms crossed across her chest, appeared to be in some kind of deep meditation. Cecilia had her face hidden behind the thick curtain of her hair. Having known them for two years now, I could tell that these were their attempts to hide their own (probably similar) thoughts.[2]

The president then said some concluding words and gave an official thank you, once again, both to us and to the mayor’s representatives. Then the people from the mayor’s office left, shaking our hands as they left. We soon followed, carrying our share of the snacks that the community had purchased for themselves and for us, (seeing as the mayor did not see fit to help them buy anything). There were more handshakes, more smiles, more thank-yous.

We walked back to the car, started on our way, and made it around the next bend in the road before I blurted out, “Boy, that escalated quickly.”[3]

We all burst out laughing.

“The mayor’s assistant lied to their face!”

“And they told him that it was a lie!”

“And that the mayor always ignores their requests!”

“And that they don’t help the other communities either!”

We laughed and laughed until we almost cried from a combination of mirth and pride. They actually stood up for themselves. They spoke truth to power when power was actually in the room with them. They truly believed that they had rights and stood up for them.

This may seem a small thing, but remember: this is El Salvador. The last time that these people spoke Truth to Power, Power shot at them.

It is a beautiful thing to see a building be built or a child finish high school. It is wonderful to see the physical, tangible evidence of development. But do you know what’s even more beautiful?

Watching oppressed people stand up for themselves.

Watching the smart-aleck representative from the mayor’s office, with his fancy-looking official vest and expensive smart phone, get a serious tongue-lashing from the impoverished people he is totally failing to represent.

Watching the poor take charge of the Kingdom of God that Jesus said belonged to them.

Today, the Kingdom of God didn’t just belong to them. They owned it.

That’s real development. Real liberation.

[1] Democratically-elected community board, for any n00bs out there.

[2] For the Millennials out there whose feelings are best expressed in GIFs, it felt like the president and other leaders should have done this:giphy

[3]

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With apologies to Ron Burgundy. I know that no one under 30 knows why this reference is funny, but trust me: it’s really funny. 

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The Death of María Angela

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On August 27th, María Angela, the mother of Blanca, passed away at the age of 86. She was a mother to many more people than just her six children, including to all the members of the Pastoral Team. Here is the story, seen through my own inadequate gringa eyes, as best as I can tell it.

You will be missed, María. Que descance en paz y resucite en gloria. Rest in Peace, rise in glory.

We are visiting a rural community, waiting for the mayor to arrive. They are swearing in the new Directiva today. This is a cause for celebration. Children run around in excitement. The air smells of freshly cooked corn and smoke. We sit with a community leader, laughing and talking. The mayor is an hour late. Cecilia and I contemplate leaving before he even gets here. There are more important things to do today than wait and wait and wait, even if they do have freshly cooked elotes here.

The call comes. Cecilia is on her feet, shaking Wifredo’s hand. She somehow walks to the car faster than any man or woman can run. What happened? I ask. But I already know.

“Mayita died just now,” she says. She cries.

There are only two things written about death that have ever made sense to me. Not in a theological or philosophical or logical way—in that sense, many stories that we tell, many things we say, make sense. The resurrection of Jesus makes sense. 1 Thessalonians 4 makes sense. 1 Corinthians 15 makes sense. There are many pieces that fit neatly in to the puzzle of Christian theology when death is a distant problem or an intellectual exercise, a problem to be solved or a question in a classroom.

But when death is closer, when we are staring at the starkness and chaos of it up close, when the puzzle falls apart in our attempt to use it for something other than display purposes, only two things make sense to me.

Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

So it goes.

The first is an ancient sentence, one largely unpreserved in so many modern rites of death and burial. But it calls to me. We, as Christians, can sing over graves, even unto alleluias, because we know that the eternal song of life is not over for the person in the ground, and nor is it over for us. At the grave, we sing. Maybe in grief or anger or loss or sadness or disappointment or guilt. But we do sing. Alleluia.

The second is newer, but it says everything that needs to be said. This is how it is. This is simply what happens. To everyone, always, eventually. So it goes. And yet it doesn’t. It is darkly true in its simplicity.

The remarkable thing is that, though they seem to contradict one another, I actually believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once. Even from the grave we make our song. So it goes.

The car crawls slowly uphill. I know Alejandro is driving as fast as he can, but the mountain is fighting our urgency. Not that rushing will change anything.

Cecilia alternates between talking on the phone, making plans, and crying. Talking, crying. Talking, crying. I offer her my water bottle.

“No, Katherine,” she says, in way-too-polite and distant tone. “I have my own water, thank you.”

Dark clouds start to gather, blocking out the sun. We hear thunder.

“It always rains when someone in our family dies,” Alejandro explains.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yes.”
“So people in your family only pass away during the rainy season?”
“No,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what month it is. When someone dies, it rains.”

I come down for breakfast and find the women talking to the men about the grave. They are drinking coffee, like they do every morning.

“How are we supposed to know how big the hole is supposed to be if we haven’t purchased the coffin yet?”
“Aren’t they all about the same size?”
“Yes, but we don’t know what that size actually is. It’s not like we have the basic measurements memorized.”

The Salvadoran period of mourning is nine days long. It is traditional, both on the night before someone is buried and on the final day–the 9th–to stay up all night, singing and praying for the person who has died.

Cecilia and I arrive at Blanca’s house in the pickup truck as the sun is creeping low over the mountain. There is a giant tent outside, borrowed from the mayor’s office. I guess, correctly, that they are expecting lots of people.

I find Blanca and give her a hug. I tell her that I’m sorry. She nods and smiles. “Come and see the flowers,” she says.

The coffin is in the front of their living room, surrounded by long, tapered candles and dozens of flowers. Some people are already there, quietly chatting with one another. I find Blanca’s father and hug him, too.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Por aquí.” Here, he says. Here. What an accurate thing to say, now that his wife no longer is.

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The music blasting from the amp and surprisingly beefed-up microphone and speakers struggles to compete with the sound of rain clobbering the metal roof. It’s flooding under the tent we rented from the mayor. 

While you go through life
you are never alone
With you for the journey
Mary goes.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

I should not have worn flip-flops, I realize. The footsteps of several hundred people, mixed with the moisture, have made the earth as slippery as an ice skating rink, and my sandals, though tough, have no traction in this thick, sloppy mud.

“Can you carry that?” seemed like a foolish question 30 seconds ago when Cecilia asked it. I thought that handing out chicken tamales and sweet bread to 20 people sounded relatively simple. Clearly, I was wrong.

I gingerly place my right foot ahead of me, trying to find a place where the mud isn’t quite as deep or as wet. I shift my weight slowly away from my left side, allowing my right foot to slide ahead of me several inches. The outside edge of my sandal is now coated in 1/2 inch of moist, wet earth. I think briefly that it looks like chocolate fudge frosting, sparking a sudden and inexplicable craving for the awfully fake but oh-so-good sweetness that comes out of those wee Betty Crocker tubs in the baking section of Pick-N-Save.

“Careful, amiga,” Cecilia says, clearly doubting my strategy.

My foot has stopped sliding. Quickly but carefully, I swing my left foot from behind me and place it in front of my right with a little hop. I can hear Cecilia’s relieved disapproval for my tactics as I enter the house, but I’m proud of myself anyway. “Tamale?” I ask, handing out plates of food.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

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It is 10pm, it is still pouring rain, and we are almost out of pan dulce. This is a serious problem.

“We need to go buy more bread,” Cecilia says.
“At least 150 people showed up. Surely they will understand if we are out of sweet bread?”

The look on Cecilia’s face is enough to tell me that I have crossed some invisible cultural line into unknown territory. Once, a church I attended had a potluck lunch and 70% of us brought a bag of potato chips. We all grumbled but tried every kind, and most of us went out to lunch afterwards. This is not that, I now realize.

“How are you going to get there? Will there be anything open at this hour?”
“We hope so. Someone’s bound to be baking for tomorrow.”
“Can I come?”
Cecilia gives me the kind of look only a mother could give. “It’s too dangerous in the dark, amiga.”

I watch them drive off into the rain in a very-rusty truck with a gentleman that they seem to know. I think of the creek at the bottom of their hill that becomes a rapids in a downpour, of the hill itself, which is slippery in most weather conditions and steep, always. I think about the risk they are taking in this country, at this hour, in this weather. I wonder if it is worth it.

Then, in a moment of both exhaustion and revelation, I realize:

Of course she is.

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The clock ticks on past 3am. Many of us are still awake and still here, though many people left a few hours ago when the band did, clinging desperately to the back of their pickup truck in the still-pouring rain.

Blanca’s brother is telling a story about something. I cannot remember what. What I can remember is almost falling asleep standing up, my eyelids involuntarily shutting, my waning willpower prying them back open as I dizzily tried to orient myself.

One of Blanca’s sisters notices and offers me the hammock hanging in their corridor, suspended under the dryness of the roof but still very much outside. I try to decline both the hammock and the blanket she has brought me from one of their own beds, but I fail. Before I know it, I am lying down and she is tucking me in. I vaguely try to remember the last time someone tucked me into bed, but before I can remember, I am asleep.

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I wake up an hour later, cozy under my blanket despite the tempest. The small channel of impacted dirt between the room that serves as the kitchen and the rest of the house, usually resistant even to this amount of moisture, has slickened into mud. I am vaguely aware of Blanca’s two brothers discussing how to fix this.

“We should get a few concrete blocks and put them in the channel between the kitchen and the house. The water can run through the holes in the blocks and keep everyone’s feet dry.”
“Or we could get a small concrete slab and make a little bridge. It wouldn’t shift around as much.”
“It wouldn’t break?”
“Maybe. Depends on who is walking on it. There are some bigger people in this house, I suppose.” They laugh.

They keep laughing and joking about solutions. Perhaps that was the best thing they can do at 4am two days after their mother’s death: fix something that’s actually fixable.

I wander into the living room, where Blanca, Balmore, and several people from Virginia are, including Elida, the former president. She is trying to talk them all into saying one more rosary before the sun comes up. They all agree, heads nodding in assent, fighting exhaustion.

I join them, saying the parts I know and silently praying, “Lord, I second that,” during the parts I don’t. It’s a weird thing to pray, perhaps, as if Heaven were a congressional body and I need to announce: “The Presbyterian from Wisconsin seconds the motion from these Catholic Salvadorans.” But it seems both a respectful and an appropriately Presbyterian thing to do.

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The very nice gentleman from the Yom Kippur Funeral Parlor shows up right at dawn. I vaguely wonder how a Salvadoran funeraria came to be named after the Jewish Day of Atonement, but I doubt that this loyal employee knows the answer to this question, so I don’t bother to ask.

I turn away to speak to one of Blanca’s nieces, a bright young woman in her early 20s. The conversation finds a pause and I suddenly hear a sound that is both ancient and new to me, something I know from its iterations in shop class and my father’s early Saturday morning construction projects, whose hammering and sawing often interrupted me and my sister’s cartoon watching. We would run to our laundry shoot, which ran from the first floor down into the basement/workshop, and shout “DAD PLEASE C’MON CARDCAPTORS IS ON,” or “DAD PLEASE WE CAN’T SEE DIGIMON BECASE THE SAW IS ON THE SAME FUSE AS THE TV.” Surprisingly, he sometimes did stop.

The sound is a large piece of metal hitting a smaller piece of metal, pounding it into wood. It is slower than the song I heard from the basement on Saturdays, a tune I know turned into a dirge.

The sound is nails being pounded into a coffin.

Blanca told everyone to come at 7am. They are all here, waiting.

The sound of huffing and puffing turns me around.

“This thing is heavy,” Balmore says. This means something significant coming from someone who can carry a 100lb. bag of corn on his back. It looks for a moment like they are going to drop it, but they successfully carry it from the living room to the hearse.

The hearse from the Yom Kippur funeraria is a pickup truck with a glass case mounted on the bed. With less effort than I was expecting, they lift the wood box and slide it gently inside the glass one. One of the funeral parlor employees climbs inside and begins strapping the coffin down. Belt buckles are snapped and pulled across it. One, two, three, another one through the handle, just there. The coffin looks like a patient in an ambulance. Or maybe an astronaut.

The man driving the truck starts the engine. Instantly, Christian music blasts at full volume, the air filled with a jarring electric piano and tenor sax.

Cecilia and Patti are crying. I wonder why at this moment, after a night of prayer, that the full force of everything is hitting them now. Then I realize that we all believe María Angela is leaving home for the last time, and going home for the first time, all at once.

I honestly believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once.

Even from the grave, we make our song. So it goes.

And so it went, sounding like Kenny G. or the ending credits of Beauty and the Beast.

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We walk, first steeply downhill and then uphill. The community follows. Some talk. Some laugh.

I foolishly and stupidly step into the creek at the bottom of the slippery hill, regretting for the 100th time my choice of footwear. The slimy, dirty leather slides against my foot, making it hard to walk uphill.

“Stop, stop,” Blanca says. “Let me get a tissue from my bag.”
“No, no.” I say, “I can make it.” I figure my shoes will dry out if I can make it up the hill.
“Why don’t you ride in the car?” she says, pointing to the pickup truck following us.
“I prefer to walk with all of you,” I say.
“Hold on,” she says, rooting through her purse.
“No really,” I say. She feels the need to take care of me. I feel the need to take care of her, to keep her from having to think of or worry about me, as if taking or refusing a tissue could help or hurt anything at this point.

She gives me a look that I cannot read and hands me the tissue. I take it and wipe my feet. Even on the day when her mother is being buried, I am still the helpless one.

We walk, walk, walk, all the way to Berlín.

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The Mass is short and I cannot remember what Father Santos preaches. Something about repentance or conversion or salvation, I’m sure, which is what he preaches about whether someone has died or it’s Easter Sunday.

As he processes out, the people gather around to look into the coffin. Small children peer curiously but without much understanding. Adults weep.

Finally, slowly, the coffin is rolled out of the church and down the ramp. It goes back into the glass case and is strapped in again. The music is switched back on.

We walk down the hill again, cars and other traffic weaving dangerously around our slow procession. There must be at least 200 people with us, perhaps more.

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When we reach the cemetery, I begin to pivot left with the throng that is entering the gates, but Blanca, Cecilia, and Idalia have disappeared. I find them outside the crowd, on the other side of the road, paying a woman I recognize but whose name I do not know for the contents of three giant cardboard boxes, joking and laughing. The look on my face must have asked the question, and Cecilia opens the box.

Sandwiches, hundreds of sandwiches. But Cecilia is already answering that, too.

“Well, it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”

I wonder suddenly, heretically, if one of Jesus’ great miracles wasn’t actually a miracle at all, or at least not in the way we imagine it. I suddenly imagine myself on a hill in 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine, a young assistant to the army of women who kept Jesus and his followers fed. Jesus, seeing the throng of thousands and realizing they have only a bit of fish and bread, approaches us. He hands Cecilia a few coins and whispers to the three of them, “See what you can do with this.” Without hesitating, they run off in three separate but orderly directions. I give him a skeptical look.

“Well,” he says, “it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”

The service at the grave is short. Balmore leads it—Salvadoran priests can rarely be bothered with this sort of thing. I stand near the back, on the top of another grave so that I can see.

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It’s impossible not to stand on a grave in this cemetery. It is tiny, disorderly, overcrowded. Some crosses have broken in half and have been glued back together. Some headstones have dirty fake flowers tied to them, their immortality as plastic objects defeated by tropical rain and mud.

I oddly like the place. The straight and even rows of American cemeteries, in their understandable attempt to give it order and sense to something ultimately senseless (so it goes), sanitize the messiness of death and the chaos that surrounds it. This cemetery feels more real.

The women are not with me: they are figuring out how to feed everyone in an orderly way. Blanca, whose mother is being lowered into the ground with ropes (no fancy equipment here—just sheer muscle), walks over. I expect her to watch, to participate. But she simply whispers something in Balmore’s ear, hands him a sheet of paper, and then walks away. He nods and keeps singing.

Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.

Bueno,” Balmore announces as the song ends, his tone echoing that of a flee-market announcer or flight attendant—calm and chipper regardless of the circumstances. “We will continue singing, but we will now ask you to proceed to the front gates to receive your lunch, community by community. The first community will be San Isidro, so if you are from San Isidro, please go to the front gate now. Thank you.”

We all have our ways of trying to order death, I suppose. Feeding hundreds of people is, perhaps, the healthiest kind of attempt we can make.

Manuel Muñoz, another Delegate of the Word, strikes up another song in his strong, deep voice. Balmore joins in, glancing at the current length of the line to receive lunch and at the next community on the list.

Even from the grave, we make our song.

Here, at the grave of their matriarch, how could I expect them to sing any other song than the one they always sing, the one made with busy hands and bags of juice tied neatly with the straws used to drink from them?

Epilogue

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The flowers at the final vigil. All were donated by friends of the family. Amazing.

The nine days are over. Everyone from Blanca’s family has come and gone a second time. We stayed up all night on Saturday, the last day of the nine, feeding people hundreds more tamales, sweet bread, and hot coffee, dodging more raindrops and thunderstorms, admiring the hundreds of flowers people brought, shivering and saying rosaries in more cold. More singing, more prayers. Cecilia and I spent Sunday as little more than zombies, crawling into our respective offices and watching television, waiting until after dinner to sleep so that our internal clocks could return to normal.

It is now Monday morning. I find Cecilia in the kitchen, cooking breakfast as always, the sound of fresh egg hitting oil filling the space.

We sit down, not speaking much.

“It didn’t rain last night.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“I am so angry. It rained so hard on Saturday and last Friday.”

We sip more coffee.

“Someone told me that if it rains, it means that God is going to save that person’s soul?”
“Yes, supposedly. Supposedly, if it rains on the day they are buried, that’s true. It’s not true, though.”
I remember vaguely how hot and dry it was the day that María Angela was actually buried. It was us who had to fight with the rain, not her. So it goes. Another pause.

“Well, we have to work now,” she says.
“Yes, we do,” I say.
And so we do, as if we ever stopped.

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