Incensed with incense, or, the Latino Catholic in America

Being what the Catholic church calls a  “mixed couple”, R (Catholic) and I (Protestant) split our time between two churches. This weekend is, as you can imagine, quite the juggling act (as any mixed marriage would be)- Maundy Thursday in his, Good Friday in mine, Saturday Vigil in his, Easter Sunday in mine.  While dizzying in some respects, the opportunity to experience the same event through both traditions is (so far) enlightening, humbling, and moving.

I just wish we could turn off the ice cream machine.

See, the service at R’s church, which is in Spanish (R and I are both native speakers) is held not in the glorious gilded sanctuary of the Catholic church,  but in what appears to be a converted cafeteria/gym. We sit on plastic chairs in lines, and the altar is one of those gym stages with curtains around it. The ice cream machine hums in the corner next to the stack of brown folded tables. This shouldn’t bother me, I am sure- especially considering that my own church meets in a converted gym, the only remaining remnants of which are those folding basketball hoops, tethered to the walls. What bothers me is that this church’s Latino congregation (jeans, hair wet from the shower, and callused hands) worship in the gym, while the fur-wearing, jewelled, “American” worshippers are in the main sanctuary. And the masses don’t coincide in their times- which means many times the main sanctuary is empty as Latino hymns echo through the corridors.

There’s got to be a reason for this. R says that I should ask the priest- a young guy, no older than I am, with a welcoming smile and kind eyes. I doubt he’s been there long enough to question anything- about a year. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe the Latino congregant feels more comfortable in that kind of an environment- but I don’t want to follow that logic to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe it’s a scheduling thing….maybe…maybe…

Last night, as, having arrived late, we waited until  the procession entered the gym, I watched the priest as he prepared himself for the service, surrounded by one of those high school trophy cases, the corridor to the bathroom, and several brown folding tables. His white and gold vestments were partially obscured by the smoke from the incense, which wafted back from the acolytes, a few paces ahead. I wondered if he ever asked himself the same question, whether it even crossed his mind to reflect on this. Whether he ever thought about the cars from his congregation, parked at a distance from the gym, because all the other spaces near the church were usually taken by the “other” congregation.

And I wonder if this is the experience of the Latino worshipper here in America, this unconscious segregation, this overlooking of the obvious. I wonder if there’s reasoning behind the divided congregation. Is there an iceberg here, or am I imagining things?

As the incense parted and we took our seats, I grasped R’s hand as if to shut out the observations I was making. This divide that we live daily is something we have chosen, something crucial to who we are as a couple, indicative of who we are. Icebergs abound for us, and this is OK, because we’re committed to engaging them. I just wonder if the jewelled passengers in the first class cabins are aware of the sleeping lookout in the crow’s nest.

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