Monday, May 4, 2009

Swine Flu: Faith, Love and Fear

Most Catholics have grown up with tales of heroic missionary expeditions in far away lands, imagining that their faith would be challenged in some exotic place and manner. This weekend our faith was challenged right here at home by a small, mundane virus.

My weekend was spent, as it almost always is, within the Latino community. When I told a friend at work that I would be going to the May Day immigration reform march, he expressed doubts about the wisdom of being surrounded by Mexicans and other Central Americans at this time. I answered that I had a better chance of catching swine flu on the subway commuting to work with a bunch of self-centered North Americans who won't let "a little cold" keep them from sealing that all-important deal or putting in a few extra hours at the firm. I donned my old "Mexicanos Sin Fronteras" tee shirt and hit the streets with the compañeros.

Unfortunately, according to news accounts, many stayed away out of fear. I think of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, of the members of the Salvadoran and Brazilian Christian base communities, of all of our antepasados who marched in the face of life-threatening persecution from military dictatorships and death squads and we are letting a little flu bug scare us into silence? Por favor, hermanos y hermanas,¿dónde está nuestra fe? ,¿Dónde nuestro valor?

Saturday night we gathered again for a wonderful concert by the D.C. Labor Chorus and the Sin Fronteras band. Again, the songs reminded me of the faith we should be showing in the face of danger -- the brave women in Nigeria fearlessly taking on the multinational oil companies, Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. "No basta rezar" and we surely aren't going to "let no swine flu turn us around"!

Sunday. An hermana reads the Diocesan recommendations: no holding hands during the "Padre Nuestro", no shaking hands and certainly no abrazos during the "Kiss of Peace", etc...These measures were welcomed by those who want to go back to the old days of "just me, the priest, and God", those who think other parishioners are just an unnecessary distraction one must endure once a week. Those Catholics would like to see the "Kiss of Peace" eliminated completely from the Roman liturgy.

This is so contrary to Hispanic Catholicism. For us, the "Kiss of Peace" is a high point in the service when we welcome and greet each other and affirm our solidarity before joining at the Mesa del Señor. We take our time, shaking hands or hugging as many people as possible. And we sing about peace -- esta paz que no tiene fronteras -- something else that bothers conservative Catholics who believe the "Kiss" should be brief, formal and silent, if at all.

The first challenge was the "Padre Nuestro". Everyone started hesitantly, unsure of what to do. It's almost like we can't say the words without being linked to our neighbors. It feels wrong to pray the "Our Father" in isolation. Fr. Joe takes control, setting the tone by holding hands with the altar servers. This act of faith in the face of contagion spreads like a ripple through the congregation. At Reina de la Paz, Jesus rules, not swine flu and fear.

Then came the "Kiss of Peace." We have been instructed to bow to each other, but I am sitting next to Lydia and Osvaldo, two of my oldest and dearest friends who by some blessed coincidence are here at Queen of Peace instead of in their regular parish this morning. I can no more imagine not giving Lydia an abrazo than not hugging my sister. She was one of my first and best ESL students, a Peruvian hermana who went from virtually no English to passing her citizenship exam and going to community college. She, in turn, introduced me to El Señor de los Milagros. We worship a Lord who overcomes earthquakes, calms tempests, and touches and heals lepers. Surely this Lord of Miracles is not going to be undone by a little virus -- and neither should we. Again, Fr. Joe led the way, shaking hands up and down the sanctuary as usual.

We only capitulated when we came to the Eucharist. Fr. Joe announced that we would only be having El Cuerpo de Cristo "como los gringos" and added that someone had commented during the Kiss of Peace: "At least we will all die together!"

And isn't that really the essence of Christian community? "None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's." (Romans 14:7-8). God is with us and His love is to be brought to perfection in us. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear." (1 John 4:18)

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