Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Little Church and Its Purpose

The sunlight was late in coming, it was early afternoon when it finally broke through the clouds and scattered the low hanging gray masses that had accompanied me through the morning. I walked along a suburban street that was tinged with noise and dirt by its proximity to the big city that loomed just over the bridge. A pit bull barked furiously as I walked past the chain link fence, the thin barrier only made me walk faster, knowing for sure that if this dog escaped, it would tear me apart in minutes. Long after I was out of sight, I could hear the vehement barks and wondered who would be the next victim. I reached the corner, quiet except for the growls that continued.
There was a coral hued church, massive in the neighborhood of one story houses and small lawns. Its roof was a high peak that had a thick metal cross at the very top. Biblical scenes were sculpted into the front façade. I wondered if nuns lived in the back, something about the long hallway that ran from the front door to the small building along the side reminded me of the Sound Of Music, which is the foundation for my knowledge of nuns and Catholicism. I mounted the row of fifteen steps that led to the 2 sets of white double doors. They were open and I stepped inside. Immediately inside was a foyer, a very narrow and small room which presented me with another set of four white doors. In the center of each was a rectangular stained glass scene from the Bible. On the far left was a picture of two young children kneeling and looking forward. Next to it was a simple brown cross with diamond shapes creating the background, there was a scene of Jesus on a hillside with three small children at his feet, and on the far right was a cluster of white robed angels. The scenes were mostly made from stained glass, but there was a strangeness on the depicted faces, Jesus’ face was too detailed and the children’s faces were too placidly expressive. It might have been painted or been an appliqué, but the overall feeling was thick and sweet and unreal. The colors were brilliant and they radiated in the light streaming from the room beyond. There were some fliers on a table near the front doors and a bulletin board with an advertisement for bible study.
On either end of the foyer, there were closed doors. No one came in or out. The whole place was silent except for the sound of my footsteps. My hand reached for the handle of the door bearing the cross, curiosity pushed me through the door and I entered the inner temple. It was a very long room, filled with 60 rows of wooden pews that were separated by an aisle in the center. There were two wooden confessional booths on either side of the back doors, the ones I had come through. Their dark wooden doors were carved into trellised designs. I tried to open a small door that was attached to the booth, I wondered if there would be a priest inside, waiting to hear my sins…what would I say? I turned the silver knob to the right, but it opened to a small broom closet. I tried the more ornate door in the center of the booth, where I imagined a priest would be waiting. I tried to turn the knob, but it was locked in place.
I began to walk down the center aisle. I slowly took out my camera and began taking pictures of the stained glass that covered the top of the walls. The room was long, 4 or 5 hundred feet, and at the top of the tall walls, except for the back wall where I had entered, were long and narrow biblical scenes. Each one was its own unique chamber. There was a bloody Jesus, a group of bearded men…one by one, the panels colored the room in light. I kept snapping pictures, the click of my digital camera echoed loudly in the room and I wondered if I was breaking a rule.
I realized that in my experience, I had only ever walked into a church as a tourist. I had gone into a few in Italy, and one in Chiapas that had been taken over by the indigenous population who had taken out the pews and replaced them with mounds of pine needles. In that church, chickens walked around waiting to be sacrificed while mountains of soda bottles were stacked against the walls, a beverage they drank religiously to get the devil out…he escaped with their burps. This was the first time I had ever been alone in a church, without the crowds of tourists or indigenous believers.
I tried to adjust the manual lighting of my camera, the photos were coming out a little dark. I was looking at my camera when I heard the squeaking of the doors opening behind me. I turned to see two adults stepping inside with a little girl at their side. One was a young woman, perhaps 23 years old. She wore blue jeans over her thick legs and a baggy sweatshirt covered her wide torso. Her skin was a light brown. She walked down the aisle on my left, along the side of the wall just below the panels of stained glass. She did not look at me, she walked solemnly towards the front of the church. Behind her was a little skinny girl. Maybe seven years old. She was wearing light blue jeans and a pink T-shirt. Her hair was shoulder length and smooth and brown, it was styled in two pigtails that hung on either side of her centered part. I assumed the little girl was the daughter of the young woman. Behind the little girl was an older woman, about forty years old. She was the same height as the young woman, no more than 5’1. Her body was slightly more slender than her daughter’s. She wore blue jeans and a loose button up blouse. All three walked silently past me, just beyond the long length of pew that separated us. None of them looked in my direction.
I sat down in the pew, noticing the pads people knelt on to pray. I watched the women climb two carpeted steps in the front and approach a large painting of Mary that hung on the left side of the wall. The painting was five feet tall and very simple in execution. The colors were slightly faded. The three women knelt in unison upon the step that began three feet from the wall, constructed for this exact purpose. The little girl’s head was turned to the right, watching her mother as she crossed herself, the little girl followed along, lagging a couple seconds behind in each move. All three bowed their heads and remained in silence. The little girl held her head down for a minute, then she looked up at her mother who was deep in prayer. The little girl turned to her grandmother, who was also busy in prayer. She put her head down again, she kept it that way for a couple of seconds, then she began to walk on her knees towards the alter that was just a couple of feet away from the step. The grandmother looked up and shook her finger at the little girl, who seemed to freeze in place for a minute, fearing authority, but as the grandmother hung her head again, the little girl began walking on her knees again. Then she crawled down the step, walking on all fours over the carpet and down another step. Then she turned around and crawled back up. The sound of her limbs making contact with the floor was loud and I tried to time the sound of her movement so that I could turn on my camera and take a picture of them, but the sound of my camera seemed too loud to be discreet and I was reluctant to intrude on their private moment.
The little girl crawled back onto the step where her mother knelt, her mother looked up and wagged her finger at the girl in anger, another warning to be quiet. The little girl remained still for a moment, then started to crawl down the step again. Her legs were on the step behind her and her hands were on the floor below. She suddenly stopped and looked up at me. I was watching and we held contact for a second. She raised one of the hands that supported her body and waved at me. I smiled and waved back. She held eye contact with me for another second, then began to crawl. The two older women stayed kneeling for another five minutes as the girl crawled on her hands and knees across the carpet, finding a playground in the quiet church. The younger woman released her posture and sat back on her heels and wiped tears from her eyes. I wondered who she was crying for. I wanted to ask, but although we were in the same room, I felt we were separated by something strong and palpable, a barrier I could never cross.
The three of them stood up and walked out the church the same way they had come in, in the same order, without words and without eye contact. When I heard the door close, I looked back to see if I was alone. I turned my camera on and began to take more pictures. Like the little girl, I would find my own purpose and my own work in this little quiet church in the suburbs. And there was nobody there to wag their finger or say no.

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