In Santa Fe, we visited the Chapel of Our Lady of the Light, now known as the Loretto Chapel. The chapel was constructed in 1873 and the original architect died before he could complete the stairs to the choir loft. Legend has it that the nuns prayed a novena to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth day, an unknown carpenter appeared out of nowhere and built a circular staircase out of wood that was not native to the area with no nails or center pole for structural support. He left without payment and disappeared. The nuns and others in the area believed the stranger to be Saint Joseph himself.
We went to the chapel to see the staircase, but my children, ages 3 and 5, were less interested in old stairs. Their attention was fixed on the small statuesque scenes of Christ’s journey to the cross.
My children, good Sunday school attendees and Vacation Bible School participants, knew enough to recognize Jesus. But they were confused by the images.
“Why are they tearing away Jesus’ clothes?” my son asked. “To humiliate him,” I answered. “Why would they be mean to Jesus?” asked my daughter.
Confused, my son followed the series through three stumbles, through denials, and ultimately its conclusion — a crucifix very much different from the crosses he was used to seeing. He asked about miracles, suffering, death, and resurrection.
Then, he turned and asked his mother, “Where do we go when we die?”
In five years at our Methodist church in Texas, our children had never asked us such difficult, theologically wrought questions. And so after about 15 minutes in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Light, our children were catechized in a Catholic Church, though the Church would disapprove of our unorthodoxy.
We had started the trip heading north from El Paso, or as it was originally named El Paso del Norte, on Christmas Day. From there, we passed through Las Cruces on the way to Santa Fe.
Read in Spanish and out of context, it seemed we were on a pilgrimage — from the pass to the north, through the crosses, we’d arrive at the holy faith.
Centuries before, the Spanish tried mightily to connect their terrestrial actions to the celestial by inscribing their beliefs on the landscape. Even white Americans lent the area religiously portentous town names like Truth or Consequence, which one might think is an allusion to a historically stark Calvinism brought to the region after the U.S.-Mexico War from 1846-1848, but was really named after a 1950 NBC gameshow.
On Christmas Day, we drove across a cartography of competing theologies. We even journeyed through Belen, or Bethlehem. And before we reached our AirBnB, we passed the Camino de Calvario, the road to Calvary, a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere that didn’t seem to lead anywhere.
To be sure, we were not the first Mexican-American Protestants to find ourselves out of place in the religious spaces of New Mexico. In Country of Empty Crosses, Arturo Madrid writes about his family’s long history as Protestants and Hispanos. Madrid can trace one side of his family, the Barelas, to the earliest Spanish entrada in 1598. The other side, the Madrids, came a bit later as cart greasers in 1603. After the U.S.-Mexico War, Anglos brought new denominations along with their new national flags. By the late 19th century, Presbyterians had established churches and the Madrids were among the names on the earliest registers.
Their fellow Hispanos considered them heretics — dangerously flirting with foreign ideas and influence. But they considered themselves conversos — converts —who were not tricked and were not traitors, but believers who were convinced, filled with conviction, and forever changed. Nonetheless, these conversos, like the Jewish conversos of the previous centuries, were held in suspicion by both native Hispanos and Anglos alike, and both considered them interlopers.
If a family with such a long history in the region could be “heretics and interlopers,” as Madrid calls his family history, what was mine? What was an interracial family with no deep roots in any region, with a history of migrants pushed by the forces of the 20th century that moved labor and people to the regions that it needed, considered? In different times and places we might be transients, race traitors, or just tourists.
We take our children to the mountains so they can experience awe and adventure. In the mountains is where I find myself reaching for the words of poems and prayers. On the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and surrounded by religious sites, Santa Fe prompted us to reflect on our own faith. My children’s understanding of their faith is a greater reflection of my own theological hang-ups than theirs or our church.
I realized I minimize the miraculous. When I was younger, for a brief moment, I thought I had felt the workings of the spirit in my grandmother’s Pentecostal storefront church in a declining shopping strip. For many years I had suffered from painful shin splints. They would cause me to cry, as my bones ached and ached. My shins started to hurt one evening when I went to church with my grandmother. The minister and congregation laid hands on me and prayed away my pain. They had rubbed something on my shins and in the midst of their prayers they started to tingle and feel warm. After minutes, my pain subsided. I stopped crying. Later, I learned that what I felt was not the spirit, but the IcyHot I had been anointed with.
I downplay the suffering of Jesus. The suffering of Jesus during his life on earth has been used as an excuse by many to diminish demands for better treatment, better wages, or recognition of their humanity. I do not want to introduce my children to the line of thought that if Jesus suffered it only makes sense that all humans should too. It seems too dangerous to me, a Christianity complicit with systems of suffering and inequality.
And so, I minimize the miraculous and downplay the suffering. I try to delineate the causes of terrestrial problems from celestial will. I try to negotiate the omniscience of the spirit and the mystery of faith. But at some point, my children will ask their own questions of the cross and the Gospels. And maybe, for them, in the land of empty crosses, the road to Calvary can exist just blocks away from where we sleep.