Letting us be Church

Serving as a lay missionary in a community on the outskirts of Trujillo, Peru, my job title changes by the day. At times I am the liturgy coordinator, other times community animator, director of music, or young adult leader. Through each of these roles I am being stretched, I am in process, learning new ways to live in our world.

 Last weekend I learned a new meaning of the word church. With 16 young people (featured at left) and a friend, Leslie, we journeyed to Cascas, a small wine producing region at the foothills of the Andes. As retreat coordinators our plan was to lead the group in prayer and reflection. We prepared prayers, scripture readings, and songs. We were on track and ready for whatever came our way. The only problem was that we lacked a place to meet. “No problem,” said Leslie, “we can just go to the church and ask to use a room.”

Upon arrival in Cascas we walked into the church and spoke with the priest. Apologetically, he was unable to offer us a space because he was visiting a rural village that day. Leaving the church we walked to the central plaza to devise plan-b. Moments later a woman we had met in the church approached us. “I heard from the priest that you need a place to meet,” she said, “I oversee the church when the priest is away and we would like to invite you to use a small room where we store things.” Sounded good enough to us.
After quickly cleaning and preparing the room, we commenced with our retreat while Mercedes, the woman who invited us in, hung around outside the room. During a break I walked out and asked if she wanted to join us. “Oh,” Mercedes said, “I just want to know what you are going to do for lunch. Some ladies in the community would like to prepare lunch for you.” By this time Leslie, who joined the conversation, responded, “that would be great.”

During lunch Mercedes told us she had a small vineyard where she made her own wine. She asked if we would like to come and visit her house that afternoon. The decision was made to shelf our afternoon session and go to visit Mercedes’ vineyard.

We enjoyed the visit to Mercedes’ home, but lost track of the time. We missed our bus back to Trujillo, the only bus heading out of the village that evening. “Not to worry,” Mercedes laughed, “now you all can sleep in the church.” It was getting dark, we had four dollars left in our retreat fund, and I had completely relinquished control of the course of events. We ran around the village scrounging up enough potatoes, eggs and bread for 18 people. We brought together 18 small pieces of bread, 10 eggs, and five potatoes. We were now broke.

The group sprang into action and whipped up a meal. By this time those ladies who prepared lunch arrived to find out why we were still in Cascas. Someone in the group invited them to eat with us. Leslie glanced at me with a look that said, “I’m not sure where this is going.” There were 21 of us gathered around the table and we had enough to eat.
With 42 hands at work, the kitchen was clean in no time. Mercedes asked if we could sing more songs. I grabbed a guitar and starting strumming. For hours we sang, and sang, and sang. During the chorus of one of the songs I looked around the room. Everything Leslie and I envisioned for the retreat was taking place before me. Everything and then some. We sang, “I am the church and so are you. Through our baptism we begin our life together and confirm our faith this day. We proclaim our faith through the breaking of the bread.” In that moment church was in our mouths. We were digesting it in our stomachs. We were inhaling it through our nostrils in and singing it into existence.

The next morning we awoke at 4:30am in order to catch the bus. Mercedes came over to help us pack up our things. The priest walked out of his room in his pajamas and, rubbing his eyes, jokingly asked, “what are you still doing here?” Mercedes smiled and said proudly, “they are letting us be the church.”