She's everywhere in my city. Looking down on us, blessing us. But I was unaware. Blind and uncomprehending.
She prays for us, surrounded by a sun burst, stars overhead. Flowers at her feet. Her hand folded in blessing.
She is the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
My epiphany regarding the Lady of Guadalupe came in Chapter Eleven of Sara Miles' new book City of God. In this chapter Sara describes the Hispanic, Latino, and Mexican devotion of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe is, perhaps, the central object of devotion in Latin American Christianity, Mexico in particular. In the Mission District of San Francisco where Sara lives images and devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe are ubiquitous.
And the same goes for my town here in Abilene, TX. The Hispanic population is the second largest ethnic demographic in Abilene. For example, our Hispanic population is almost 20% and our African-American population is about 9%. And that's not counting undocumented Mexican citizens living in town.
And because one in five Abilenians (if not more) are Hispanic Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in town.
I've seen her image in our Mexican restaurants, in the paleterias, in stores, on jewelery, and on the candles I pass by in the supermarket.
Like I said, I've seen her. But I hadn't seen her. And now I see her everywhere.
If you don't know it, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe:
On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a peasant, was passing Tepeyac Hill outside of Mexico City. Around dawn he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary who appeared in the form of a young Mexican peasant girl. The vision of Mary asked Juan Diego to go to the Bishop in Mexico City requesting that a church to her be built upon this spot.
Juan Diego took this message and the story of his vision to the Bishop. But the Bishop was skeptical and requested more proof, a sign of the vision's authenticity.
Juan Diego was delayed in returning to Tepeyac Hill because he had to care for his uncle Juan Bernardino who had come down with a severe illness.
But a few days later, on December 12, as Juan Diego was passing by Tepeyac Hill to seek help for his uncle, he again encountered the Lady who asked him why he had not been successful in granting her request. Juan Diego reported that the Bishop had been skeptical and demanded a sign.
Hearing this, the Lady told Juan Diego to climb to the top of the hill where he would find many flowers blooming. This was difficult to believe because it was December, no flowers were blooming at that time of year. Plus, no flowers grew on the stony summit of the hill. But upon climbing to the top the hill Juan Diego, miraculously, found flowers in bloom. He gathered the flowers in his peasant tilma (a cloak) and rushed to the Bishop.
Upon finding the Bishop Juan Diego repeated the request of the Lady. The Bishop again expressed his need for a sign. Upon hearing this Juan Diego opened his tilma and let the flowers cascade to the ground. This in itself was miraculous given that it was December and blooming flowers were nowhere to be found. But when Juan Diego opened his tilma to drop the flowers there appeared upon the fabric of Juan Diego's cloak a marvelously wrought, exquisitely colored portrait of the Lady, just as Juan Diego had previously seen her.
The Bishop was overcome with these signs and immediately set to work building a church at the site of Tepeyac Hill where Juan Diego had encountered the Lady.
This church is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just outside of Mexico City. Inside the Basilica is the tilma of Juan Diego with the image of the Lady upon it. The tilma with its image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most venerated relics in Catholicism, visited by millions of people each year.
Because of all this it is no exaggeration to say that Our Lady of Guadalupe sits at the heart of Mexican, Hispanic and Latino Catholic spirituality.
And discovering all this has had a profound affect upon me. And again, I have Sara Miles to thank for this.
Specifically, I've lived for years in Abilene among Hispanic neighbors and I'd never seen Our Lady of Guadalupe. Well, again, I had seen her, because she's everywhere. But I really hadn't seen her.
And finding this out both shook and startled me.
It shook and startled me as here was something so very important to my neighbors, something at the very heart of their Christian experience, about which I had absolutely no clue. How could that be? How could something so important to my neighbors be a complete mystery to me?
Well, of course we all know the answers to that question. Cultural insularity. White indifference to minority cultures. A lack of diverse friendships.
But now I see Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere in my town. It is like I was blind and now I see. I'd been swimming in a vast sea of Christian spirituality and hadn't even noticed it. But now I see it all around me.
And in coming to see Our Lady of Guadalupe I've come to realize just how very far apart are the White and Hispanic Christians in my town. Two groups of passionate and devout Christians living and dying side by side with little to no contact between them. Great chasms of incomprehension separating us.
Six months ago I couldn't have told you a thing about Our Lady of Guadalupe, this, the most important Christian symbol to my Hispanic neighbors.
I hope to change this.
This last month I was teaching classes at Freedom Fellowship, the church I worship with that reaches out to the poor and homeless in our town. Many of the people who go to Freedom are Hispanic.
I was teaching a class on the saints. And in one of the classes I was teaching about Mary.
After having talked about Mary and how she is a model for all of us--the first one to say "Yes" to Jesus--I went on to talk about Our Lady of Guadalupe, the apparition of Mary so beloved by Latin Americans. Here was Mary appearing to them as one of their own, not as a white Caucasian but as a brown-skinned Mexican peasant girl.
I wanted our White members to come to see Our Lady of Guadalupe the way I had recently come to see her. And in seeing her to come to see our neighbors.
After the service was over, I had a line of people wanting to talk to me. All our Hispanic members. They were thrilled to see Our Lady of Guadalupe talked about in our church. In seeing Our Lady of Guadalupe our church had, in some important way, seen them. We had seen their culture, their pasts, their families, their stories and memories.
In bringing Our Lady of Guadalupe into our white, Protestant church we had somehow made them feel more welcome. Like our church, too, was their home.
A few days later Jana was shopping and found a wall hanging of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
She bought it.
An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe now hangs in our Protestant church.
And if you look for her, like our Hispanic neighbors do, you will see her.