After crossing the border, the bus pulled to a stop at a chapel overlooking Nogales Sonora. A wall of hot air filled with indescribable scents brought out the sweat and caused a faint dryness in the mouth.
It was Easter and Christ had died and Risen for the sake of love, for the sake of all, and for the sake of those who lived in the Colonias of Nogales.
During a meeting at a Tucson Parish, a visiting Mexican Priest told us that poverty was not just a lack of money, food, and clothes, but a lack of solace, lack of the signs of goodness that especially children of need suffered. In their lives, love was survival not happiness. No child there had ever had a teddy bear or a doll to hold, to talk to or confide in. As simple as that.
So here we were, a bus load of grandmothers, a couple of young postulants, a lone Secular Franciscan with his daughter, and our own 'coyote' that knew how to get us over the border smuggling dozens of dolls and teddy bears for the children of the Colonias at Easter Morning Mass. We were nervous. Caught between Herodias and Pilatus.
I kept thinking of Judas rebuking Mary of Bethany for using costly oils to anoint Jesus' feet instead of selling them. Certainly, the poor had more need of the money. Jesus though assured us that the Kingdom of God runs on another kind of currency.
The high bell tower of the Parroquia Sanario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe showed white above the shady gardens of Nogales. A line of indigent poor waited in motionless silence outside the refectory for the day’s free meal.
It was cool and dark in the Sanctuary, the sun blocked by shutters and stained glass. A huge Crucifix rose in the pale shadows of the great dome over the altar. Christ seemed to be looking out over the whole church, over the whole world. What would it be like to see with His eyes?
The Priest, a man in his early forties, met us in the sacristy. His sensitive face seemed to ebb and flow between youthful exuberance and depth of a much older patience and trust that only faith under great stress can bring.
He beamed in touching gratefulness when he saw our travel bags filled with stuffed animals and cherub-faced dolls. This was to be a resplendent Mass, a Eucharist of thanksgiving in the poverty of the Colonias. A Mass where the gift of self, of God, and of strangers meeting would become one in the Gift of all sharing. The Sacrament would fulfilled by the simple Glory of its Promise.
We walked together with the Priest, down through the long back ways of Nogales over to the steep dry hills of the Colonias. You could smell it long before you reached its bare, littered streets.
The Colonias is a shantytown a couple miles long built on hills of dry, sun-hardened wasteland just east of the main center of Nogales Sonora, like a city for itself. There is no church, and when the Priests come to serve Mass, a folding table that serves as the altar, is set up in a space dug out of the Nogales garbage dump, a massive wall of odorous refuse two stories high with rotting food and cast off rubbish sticking out of its sides like a medieval mosaic. The largest communal space in the Colonias.
The tones of the Mass flowed quietly through the abusing heat. Two of the older children serving the Priest at the altar. A long line of communicants, first the elderly, then children and adults, moved slowly forward to share the life of the Risen Christ Who moves unseen amongst us. Always the source, always the dream.
The children in their finest clothes.
After Mass, the Priest gathered everyone together. There was a whispering and peering around, a getting in line and trying to stand still. Finally the line moved.
The Joy was heartbreaking- that so much happiness, so much joy could come so suddenly. The longings of childhood became the gentle ground out of which love would spring forth again and again in a spray of surprise.
Toy bears and puppies were cuddled; dolls enfolded lovingly and soothed; even a few teenage girls lost in an intimate quiet cradled an infant and smoothed its synthetic blond locks. A young boy proudly carried a cloth dog with long floppy ears.
Life always reveals itself as true nourishment, not just food. Life is communion, sharing the table of Belonging with one another. This is the blessing and consecration that lies hidden in the bread and wine that becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. It is both a witness to life and Life itself- ‘take and eat, see that it is good’.
Soup was cooking in an aluminum pot over a fire in an old oil drum. People gathered around large flat trays filled with rolled tortillas, chilies, and limes. Bright red Kool-Aid poured forth like water from the rock. A true sign of grace and goodness for the children of a People chosen by the Mystery. There were no tables, but we all found a clear patch amongst the mounds of trash where we could eat and share the joy of God’s Angels that blaze unseen in the shimmering heat of the Colonias.
Then the walk back. Back to the air-conditioned bus that waited to take us back to Tucson, back to a contrived happiness of goods and privilege that was deceptively empty and barren. A life without justice, a life weighed and found wanting. A life accused by its own success.
Saying one last prayer before the Church's massive Crucifix helped and consoled, but I knew I would always miss these people, these people that had fed us from their goodness, these children who had taken us in and showed us something of life we had not known before. Taught us to celebrate. Taught us true gratefulness in spite of our plenty. Caught us off guard.
I am in their debt.
David Russell OFS,
San Xavier de Bac