“I think we may have just met God,” joked the Jesuit. But it was a half joke, like one I would make if I wasn’t sure the idea would catch on; a statement intended to test the waters. And just like that, God had disappeared from the parish where we stood that day in Dolores Mission.
She had waddled, and slowly at that, into the receptionist office of the church and tapped incessantly on the window. “Candles, candles,” she inquired in Spanish, “do you sell candles?” “I want to light some candles for my difuntos, my difuntos” she said in a raspy, hushed voice. She continued in Spanish.
She fumbled with the zipper of her small leather pouch and pulled out a few crumpled bills. I placed two large votive candles on the desk wondering how she would manage to carry them while using her cane. So I followed her slowly, carrying the candles on her behalf towards the church.
I play a few different parts here at Dolores Mission. As the youth minister, I try to create opportunities for the youth of Dolores Mission to be active and feel welcomed in their parish. As the confirmation coordinator, I am responsible for planning and teaching confirmation classes and organizing confirmation retreats. As the immersion coordinator, I act as a travel agent and local resource for high school and colleges that come to learn about Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries. The students come from near and far to hear about the unceasing work that goes into running one of the poorest parishes in Los Angeles County.
“I want to see the cuadra, there was a cuadra with Maria,” she half mumbled, “Maria barefoot,” she clarified. After all, Dolores Mission is covered with Marias: Maria of Sorrows, Maria of Guadalupe, Maria with her family. “I prayed to Maria, for her intercession,” she insisted, “I prayed for her to heal my leg, I had a bad leg, I prayed and prayed, to Maria, the barefoot Maria, and she healed my leg.”
Our Lady of Sorrows or Nuestra Senora de Dolores is one of many Marian devotions and the name sake of our parish Dolores Mission. A woman suffering the loss of her son is all too familiar to many of the women in the parish who suffer their own children lost to addiction, gang violence, incarceration, homelessness and poverty. And so, the suffering Mary is a companion and a reminder for women of the parish, someone they can relate to through their own experiences.
“Yes, I know the one you are talking about, she is still here,” I reassured here again and again. Reaching the door of the church I unlocked it and showed her “Our Lady of the Way” a painting of Mary immediately to my right. In this painting, a woman wrapped in a bright colored serape walks barefoot over uneven and rocky ground toward a group of buildings that looks conspicuously like downtown LA. “No, no no,” she protested, “she was descalza, descalza and she healed my leg.”
It isn’t until I clear the flowers at the base of the painting aside that the woman recognizes with acceptance the bare feet. She gazes for a moment at “Our Lady of the Way.” Maria’s feet dodging stones as she walks from what could be any village in Central America to Los Angeles.
A journey not unfamiliar to many people who see this painting.
Boyle Heights, the Dolores Mission neighborhood, has always been a neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants. After World War II the area became home to many Jewish families fleeing Europe. There is still a large temple up the street from Dolores Mission.
Later, the area grew to become home to a mostly Mexican and El Salvadorean population. Families and individuals fleeing violence, civil war, lack of economic opportunity and other hardships traversed to LA. A great many of my neighbors lack legal status in the United States.They may have crossed the border illegally or entered legally and later become undocumented. My neighbors know the stones in their path and often ask Mary to pray for them as they stumble forward.
Soon she turned her gaze to “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Noticing the other candles at the altar she motioned that I should leave her two candles there. “I want to pray for my difuntos” she repeated. Then, I handed her a decorative match before placing a chair from the altar behind her as she began to mumble in Spanish. Returning to the office of the church, I left her to her prayers and La Virgen. And I returned to the office of the church to continue my work.
Coming back to the church a few minutes later, the woman was gone. The pastor was walking out of the parish office. I asked if he had seen the woman.
“I think we may have just met God,” joked the Jesuit. But it was a half joke, like one I would make if I wasn’t sure the idea would catch on; a statement to test the waters. And just like that, God had disappeared.
How often do I take the time to recognize God when I bump into God in my daily life? Am I preoccupied with my my to-do list, or do I take the time to recognize the divine in every blessed individual I meet? As a Jesuit Volunteer I am constantly reminded that we find what we seek. If we look for the holy we can’t help to find it all around us.
Written by Brett Helbling (Los Angeles, 2017-18)