Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Christmas Eve, Wilbo Found Himself in a Mission Church in the Heart of Chicago, Discovering that Mole and Tamales and Pozole Are As Vital As Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

I arrived in Chicago at Two-Thirty in the afternoon. I had already booked two nights at an AirB&B property near the National Museum of Mexican Art. I had stayed a night there in November and liked its location right on the Pink Line, near Western Station. I popped up my laptop to kill some time before check-in time. I was wondering about the evening. I couldn't wrap my mind around some of the events. They were all so diverse. I noticed an evening mass close to my home for the night, and I decided on that. The description promised a service in Spanish, and I just wanted to be immersed in another language for a few hours. 

Crossing over the Chicago River as the early sundown arrived made an impression on me. I was glad I hadn't taken a rideshare to the flat. I checked in, stowed my gear and began making sure I knew the directions to the storefront church. A group of four people arrived, and a woman struck up a conversation with me. The four had just passed the afternoon in Chinatown. All were Chinese students on break from their midwestern schools.

She finally coached me to say her name, which sounds like "Jiffy". She was very inquisitive. "Was it colder in Michigan than it was in Chicago"? The Great Lakes surround us in Michigan I answered. The lakes are like a blanket. I went over my plans for the evening. "Is that an invitation?", she asked. I said it was a bit of a walk through the streets of Little Village. She didn't mind a walk. I excused myself to change into better clothing. Most churches say, "Come as You Are". I'm not one to wear blue jeans and a Planned Parenthood tee shirt to a church.

I made extra certain I knew where I was walking. It turned out to be farther than I had estimated. It required walking west an entire subway stop on the Pink Line. "I trust you", she said. I kept checking the map on my cell phone. The sidewalk turned to a puddle filled rubble. We made our way carefully through the street. She started to hum a song. A brick building without windows or a back wall alarmed me. I saw plenty of places open where one could duck inside for safety, including an office of Alcohólicos Anónimos holding meetings around the clock. I was so relieved to see a cross above a door and a sign in Spanish confirming we were in the right place.

We sat in the front pew because all of the pews were taken. A man in priestly vestments walked in looking like a lumberjack with a long red beard and he questioned his flock in a voice with a deep tone, "Who would like to carry the baby Jesus to the altar"? A man was plucking out Christmas songs in Spanish on the guitar, using a ballpoint pen as a cheater. I asked her if she were a graduate student at Purdue. I was surprised to learn she was wrapping up her first semester as a Junior. I had brought pretty much my daughter, a Chinese daughter, on an adventure.

I liked how Father Tomaz Pels delivered his homily in Spanish and then English. He began with a humorous question. "Ever notice how we keep celebrating the birth of Jesus and never his Quinceañera"?  I never thought about that. Everyone in the congregation wanted to shake her hand when we all went around giving the sign of peace. "They were saying 'La Paz'?", she asked me. "Peace be with you", I answered. Looking it up later, we were wished, "La paz esté contigo."

After Baby Jesus and Father Tomaz proceeded to the rear of the church, we began Googling the sheet of carols for translations. Google revealed Campana Sobre Campana to be Bells Over Bells. "Don't leave", father declared from the rear of the church. We have mole and tamales and pozole. In marched a man with a huge pot of the spicy soup. After followed two women bearing a cooler of tamales. Children carried in trays of limes, cilantro, and enough corn tostadas to feed three congregations. I thought, "Dear three wise men, you can keep your gold, frankincense, and myrrh". Three men erected a table for this banquet faster than one could say loaves and fishes.

A woman of the congregation reached out to her to make sure she felt welcome. Father came to me to say that there was plenty. I asked how he learned his Spanish. "On the street corner. Every other week, I drive down to St. Louis to lead services in Polish". We talked about Hamtramck, the Polish city inside of Detroit where the people honored the visit of Pope John Paul II with a statue.  "I've just read about Hamtramck. It's where the call to prayer of the Muslims is heard and Catholics and Muslim live together in peace". I told him of seeing the call to prayer one day, the faithful walking to that mosque at Caniff and Joseph Campau. "It stands in the shadow of the bell towers of St. Florian". "Eat", he said. "It'll grow cold". 

I have visited Mexico numerous times. I once taught in Detroit near all the restaurants of Mexicantown, and I visited them all. I once had dinner with the Mayor of West Hollywood at his favorite Mexican restaurant near city hall. This was the best Mexican food I had ever feasted upon. "They fussed over us", I told her. "What does that mean", she asked. "Did you notice how they made sure the pozole had all the right touches on top"? "The lime? The cilantro? Oh, got it." Miraculously, I didn't get a spot on my khakis as I enjoyed two helpings of the pozole.

On the way home, we walked by three Catholic parishes with Spanish on the signs out front. Two ambulances rushed up California to a crisis north of the Pink Line. I picked out sign after sign in Spanish and translated. By the subway, I said, "Do you see that word 'Esperanza' in red letters. That is the Spanish word for hope". She spelled the word aloud. After this beautiful evening, my mind felt more Esperanza than when I had arrived in Chicago.

This morning, by the Esperanza sign, a building sign promised Pollo Vivo. I was on my way to a meeting and had little time to see the live chickens.

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