The Light of a New Parish by Alexander Orozco
For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. —1Corinthians 4:15
He questioned whether he could still love. To serve the parish was a blessing, but to echo the word of God produced a feeling that he couldn’t quite describe. For decades, the parishioners entered with their arms open to God. For centuries, the same sermon and the same liturgies were professed, but the parishioners never grew weary. He recited the same sermons and liturgies echoed by Father Emiliano in 1967; rest in peace. Ever since Father Lucas was anointed for Priesthood at twenty-three, he continued preaching.
Father Lucas scribbled in his notebook. His office was lit with four candles the size of his head. The scratching of pen and paper was iambic as it travelled down the page. His glasses slipped off his face constantly and the only remedy was to adjust them back into position, breaking the music made by the pen and paper. Father Lucas opened the cabinet behind him and, checking the door, poured himself a cup of his favorite mezcal. His office, located in an ambulatory location next to the high altar, was his sanctuary. When he inherited the office from Father Emiliano, it was decorated with figures and candids of El Señor del Amparo. Many of the figures were made with corn stalks, but some were bronze. Little by little, the figures were transported from the office and the candids and pictures were moved as well.
Father Lucas tilted the bottle until it was vertical. He shook it trying to drain the last few drops of mezcal. He sighed. It didn’t matter. He made progress with his writing. He developed two characters and settled on a location. He continued scribbling in his notebook when he heard the anxious footsteps crossing the aisle to his chamber.
“Father Lucas! Father Lucas!” the voice said, “Come quick!” He heard a banging on the door and saw a little flame of the candle emitting from under the door. Father Lucas closed the notebook and asked who it was.
“Father Lucas! Please, you must come. Please hurry!” said the voice.
“Yes, José. What is it?” replied Father Lucas.
“Oh Father! It’s the flowers. The Red Dahlias are destroyed,” replied Brother José. He could be heard pacing back and forth waiting for the door to open. Father Lucas rubbed his eyes. Of all the times Brother José could have pestered him with pettiness, he chose this moment. Father Lucas told Brother José he should stop worrying. He intended to open the notebook again when Brother José replied, “Oh but, Father Lucas, tomorrow little Juliana is getting baptized! It is a special moment for her.”
“She is three,” replied Father Lucas.
“What must we do?” asked Brother José. Father Lucas hid the notebook under drafts of sermons that were heavily marked in red. He opened the door. Brother José tugged on Father Lucas’s sleeve, imploring him to move quicker. From San Jeronimo’s dusty parish windows, the sky turned orange, evicting the last remnants of blue. Brother José ran to the front while Father Lucas strolled. He noticed just how dusty it was. The pews were chipped and limp. The lights were either dim or still being replaced. The stone walls echoed the sorrows of the dead. But the parish still stood. No matter how many raids, the parish would always be here.
Father Lucas walked through the front entrance. He did not realize how loud it was inside once he stood in the courtyard. He turned to look at the parish’s two bell towers. The bells were gone. All that was left were two black holes that stared back at him. The feeling was too intense. He walked along San Jeronimo’s perimeter. He smelled nothing but the cold dry air of a dying season. The Red Dahlias were there behind the parish. It appeared as if someone stomped on them. Father Lucas stood awhile, staring at the crippled Red Dahlias. They’ll be replaced soon enough, not by him, but by Brother José.
I’ll give them to Señora Isabela. She’ll make good use of this for her vegetable garden, he thought. Father Lucas chuckled. The flowers have a better fate than I.
The next day, Father Lucas rode his bike to San Jeronimo’s. He adored the small town of Huandacareo. He enjoyed riding at dawn when the sky looked comfortable enough to walk towards it. He rode alongside the roads of the corn fields. During summer, Father Lucas enjoyed greeting the farmers strolling alongside the cornfields and they would greet back. They carried hoes, shovels, pickaxes, buckets, canisters of water, and high spirits. The farmers lived another day and reminded themselves of what can easily be taken away. Father Lucas agreed. The raid changed the townspeople’s sentiments.
The fields were empty. Without the cornstalks, Father Lucas could see San Jeronimo’s bell towers. His coat flapped behind him as he picked up speed. The scarf wrapped around his face either slid too far up or too far down. Father Lucas felt warm. It was not because of the coat or the scarf, but the gentle wind. He invited the warmth. Winter was dying and spring was to be reborn. Father Lucas slowed down. Farther ahead, a group of farmers were tilling the soil. One man drove the machine hauling a plow that opened the soil and another man dropped fertilizer into it. In these teams, they sowed the field with nutrients. He admired the work they were doing. Farmers working for a common cause. Only ruled by the plow, which worked for the farmers and their fields. Father Lucas pedaled away.
The plaza across the street from San Jeronimo’s parish was bustling with people. Fruit and meat stands were surrounded like hummingbirds to Pot Marigolds. The same ones that Doña Lucia sold everyday right in front of the parish’s courtyard. Trees older than the town adorned the plaza providing wonderful shade during the summer. The plaza square was enclosed by the parish on one side and municipal buildings on the other three sides. Many of the windows were still boarded up, yet to be replaced. A few children, who were supposed to be helping their mothers at the fruit and meat stands, played inside and around the central gazebo. Señor Silva called to them so they could buy diced fruits from his shop. Father Lucas walked his bike past the plaza. Cars zipped by with no concern. Working men delivered fruits and vegetables fresh from the fields to the produce stands.
Father Lucas walked into the courtyard of the parish. Brother José was sweeping the front steps to San Jeronimo’s. He noticed the priest, dropped his broom, and ran to him. He held a letter in front of him. He placed the letter in Father Lucas’s hand. He opened the letter and read:
Dear Father Lucas Alvaró,
It is with greatest esteem that I write to you and proclaim a wonderful plan for the advancements of our Catholic mission. We have heard of the devastation that has reduced your community of Huandacareo. As archbishop, I’ve taken full liberty of meeting with His Holiness and finding a resolution for your community. As a part of our Catholic mission in Mexico, I am overseeing methods of expansion in the municipality and to the occidental states. I promise, with His Holiness’s blessing, I will rebuild your parish and make it twice fold the parish it once was. With faith, anything can be accomplished. Of course, we must think pragmatically and can only execute our goals using local resources. Thus, allocating the necessary funds for the aggrandization of San Jeronimo’s parish. I have also taken the liberty of wiring the money from the municipality.
May God bless you, Father,
Archbishop Ruben Quintero
Father Lucas walked back to his office, letter in hand. Brother José followed him exclaiming of the wonderous news that the parish would be repaired. Father Lucas looked at damages to the parish. He made note that it smelled grey inside. Of course, it did. Brother José and himself were the only ones willing to stay here.
They entered his office. Regarding space, it was ample for Father Lucas who was the only person entering and occupying the space but for two there was no room. The shelf adjacent to the desk was crammed with classic literature and science fiction novels. One of the science fiction books on his desk was titled, The Mutant Capybaras from Deep Space. Brother José noticed it, chuckled, and asked to see the novel.
“What crazy things kids read these days,” Brother José said. “Did one of the children leave it in the pew?”
“No. It is mine. I am reading it,” Father Lucas said.
“Oh... I see,” said Brother José. He set the novel down saying nothing more.
There is more to life than sermons, Father Lucas wanted to say, but instead he leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes.
“Father, I believe what the archbishop is doing will do us good.”
“And how is that?” replied Father Lucas.
“Well, it can restore the faith. And restored faith leads to a better community,” said Brother Lucas.
“José, where is the motivation once they find out they are being played for fools? How much faith do you need then?” said Father Lucas.
“No, but God always has a plan and—”
“Plan? José, what plan? A plan for more churches? More money? More disdain?” said Father Lucas, “It is giving me a headache.”
“Well, it is the only thing we have at the moment. They can take our money but never our hopes!” said Brother José. He stormed off. The priest sat staring at the letter. He tore it in two pieces and placed it in the waste basket. A drink would be nice, but there was none left in his office. Father Lucas opened his science fiction book and began to read.
The following Sunday, Brother José poured the wine and set the eucharist on the table next to the podium. Father Lucas held the eucharist in the air with both hands. He recited a passage followed by a prayer. He stared into the circular disc when he heard trotting horses and savage yelling. It sounded like a wild herd of nineteenth century trains let loose with bellowing whistles. Some of the men stood up in their distressed jeans and sweat stained shirts to see who was making all that noise. One man donned his aviator sunglasses on and pushed open both doors. He walked out and was shot twice. Mothers screamed and braced their children. Some of the men did their best to huddle the women and children into cover.
Pedro Perez rose slowly from his seat. He withdrew his pistol faster than it could shoot. He aimed at the door. He twisted his face and snarled the same way dogs do when they sense a bad presence. Except Pedro Perez knew the bad presence. It was inevitable that he’d be back. It was one of the raiders that managed to escape. He was wounded; Pedro made sure of it. He would have liked to have his guts exposed and his blood drained that same day the bandits raided Huandacareo. Today was the day God answered his prayers.
A man sauntered inside San Jeronimo’s, resting his foot on the dead man’s blood-soaked chest. More blood flowed from his mouth. The man looked around and smiled as the parishioners cowered. Pedro steadied his aim when a raider beside him rose to his feet and poked Pedro’s ribs with the barrel of a pistol. Pedro snarled at the raider in the doorway and at the goon that smelled of dried winter sweat. Father Lucas dropped the eucharist.
He muttered a prayer and asked what the stranger wanted. The man continued to stand there in the doorway. It felt like a cruel joke. The man was statuesque until he opened his mouth.
“This,” he said, “All of this. Not just this but that. And those over there.” He swept his hand encompassing everything that was Huandacareo. His goons woohooed and hurrahed while shooting their rifles in the air. There appeared to be a couple dozen outside in the courtyard. Their horses snorted and reared constantly.
“Chente! You goddamned cur!” Pedro said. He lunged but was detained by the armed raider.
“Shut up, old man. I ought to teach you something about respect,” Chente said, “Everyone get up and get out.” Chente stepped aside and motioned with his hands to exit.
“Wait, everyone, stop. Don’t—” pleaded Father Lucas.
“Ahhh shut up you too, old man. God can’t save you here,” Chente said. Everyone cowered and whimpered as they shuffled to the courtyard. Once everyone was in the courtyard, Chente began to speak. He sat on his horse.
“I know about the archbishop’s letter. He made some promises. He gave some blessings. He said there is money floating around,” Chente said, “but when did you, the people, ever enter the conversation?” The parishioners nodded, motioning him to continue.
“But what about your homes? Your shops? Your schools? The plaza? Did he ever mention anything about Huandacareo itself? What’s more important, rebuilding the parts of the town that sustains you or this place that looks like it was built on second thoughts?”
“Everyone! He’s the man who caused all of this in the first place!” Father Lucas said.
“What? Can’t I have a change of heart?” Chente replied. The men and women, who had their homes and businesses wrecked, were considering Chente as an option. What if they contest? To many of the townspeople there were two options: a complacent one or a bloody one. Wounds from the last time were still fresh. The winds picked up and brought dry cold air that whipped their faces. One man stood up and decided to join Chente. And then another and then another. Eventually, even the most hesitant at least began to mull it over. Father Lucas choked on his words. He couldn’t regurgitate them. Chente and the parishioners left.
Pedro growled and sat down in the pews. He fidgeted with his three rings. One of his rings displayed horseshoes on its face, the second ring displayed two pistols forming an X on its face, and the last was a landscape of mountains. He rubbed his face with open palms. Father Lucas approached him.
“Pedro, what will you do?” Father Lucas said.
“Do? I can’t do anything if everyone is siding with the bastard. Besides, I’m getting old. An old man like me can’t keep fighting like this,” Pedro said. Father Lucas felt likewise. To see the same people that listened to him preach and respected him as a leader walk away demoralized him.
Father Lucas sat next to Pedro in the pews. The two men looked defeated. Both sat silent for a while. Within the parish, the warm winds of spring swirled. Pedro felt uncomfortable but spoke.
“Father, I attend mass every week. At times I question why you are still a priest and then I question why I still come,” Pedro said.
“Because it is our duty to God,” Father Lucas said.
“Is He doing a service to us or are we to Him?” Pedro replied, looking around the parish, “I fear what happened last year will be worse. Chente… he’s different than the rest of those bandits. He uses his head. Sure, maybe he can help us for a while. But how long would that last?” Pedro said. He stared at the crucified Christ behind the altar.
“I don’t know what will happen, but we must not lose faith,” Father Lucas said.
“It has become conditional, hasn’t it?” Pedro said, “I guess it has after so many years.”
He left. Father Lucas remained in the parish. He felt warm in his priestly robes. He felt a choking suppressive heat that made him sweat profusely.
The calendar marked the beginning of warmer days when the flowers started to bud, and fauna emerged from hiding. Even though it was April, the people in town weren’t filled with the energy and warmth of spring. The houses were left untouched, the businesses were still rubble, the schools were hazardous, and the people were left with little. Archbishop Ruben’s money was gone at the same time Chente’s castle was built. Most of the other resources like money, labor, and material went to fortifying the town. Walls were erected and guards were never at rest. The plaza that was once lively was dead. Even the gazebo that was used for musicians to perform was fitted with a guard surrounded by barbed wire. The people were never told as to what Chente planned, but everyone knew that if Mexico ever noticed the small town, another onslaught would occur.
Every Thursday, Chente walked into Father Lucas’s small office, with an edited and revised version of Sunday’s liturgy and sermon. Father Lucas hated what revisions were recommended by the archbishops, but the revisions from Chente sparked rage in Father Lucas’s soul. Father Lucas would nod his head when Chente tossed the revised sermons onto his desk. When Chente would leave, Father Lucas would rub his eyes, release a sigh, and begin reading the revisions. Much of the revisions were emphasizing trusting God and unity in the community. It sounded good at first. Father Lucas flipped the pages and noticed a message written on the last sheet. It read: Convincing the people to accept unity and to live by my beliefs is the first step. Now, you must convince them to spread their beliefs. Enforce them on others. It is the only way.
Six in the evening never felt so late to him. The bottle was empty. Father Lucas recalled when Father Emiliano gave the bottle of mezcal to him as a gift. Two weeks later, he passed away. He saw Father Lucas as a young bull, bursting with energy and ready to spread good. Over the years, as Father Lucas grew familiar in his role of being a priest, he realized that Father Emiliano was a fool. He thought of him, not as a follower of the parish, but as tolerable of it. Father Lucas vowed not to be like him.
The light bulb flickered in intervals of three, but he didn’t care to change it. The revisions were completed to Chente’s liking. Father Lucas reached for the bottle of mezcal. He tried refilling his glass but noticed it was empty. The Mutant Capybaras from Deep Space, was in the waste basket. It didn’t matter anyway, it got stale halfway. Father Lucas laid Pride and Prejudice on his desk and stared at the bottle. All the memories of Father Emiliano flooded his brain. It was odd because the memories moved so fast, he couldn’t grasp any of them. They flowed around and intermingled into one amalgamated memory. He put down the bottle and wept.
Easter Sunday arrived. The parish was full. Men, women, and children sat quietly with their hands folded on their laps as they waited for the priest. They wore their best with their humble means. In his office, Father Lucas adjusted the white chasuble. The vestments of the priest were speckled with little bundles of threads attached to the outer lining. It looked scratchy and somewhat stiff. The white colors seemed stressed and the golden stole that once sparkled only hinted at its forgone magnificence.
The parish might as well have been empty for not a peep nor a cough was released. This lack of commotion scared Father Lucas. He stood behind the door separating parishioners from preacher and stared at the floor without purpose. It was a hollow stare and yet his eyes paced back and forth.
It’s rather warm today, he thought, it’s burning, actually.
He walked to the altar with his hands clasped and head bowed. Brother José pinched the organ player to commence playing. She awoke and began playing. Nothing about today could lift any one’s spirit. The solemnity of the parishioners matched that of the poor old lady’s slow and solemn organ playing. Father Lucas stood at the altar, raised his head and said, “All rise…”
Halfway through mass, Father Lucas lifted the eucharist in the air. Everyone stood with hands clasped as they repeated what Father Lucas orated. He broke the eucharist in half. San Jeronimo’s trembled and the roof appeared to have shifted. The parish trembled again. Three men entered, pushing men and women to exit the parish. They waved their arms around to herd the parishioners.
“Come on, hurry! Get out! Come on!” they yelled. Father Lucas dropped the eucharist and ran outside. The courtyard’s brick pavement was uprooted, leaving dirt. The fence surrounding the parish was demolished. Wagons, carts, and trucks were used to haul bricks, scrap metal, and wood. The sky was brighter than usual and the winds hot. Birds were songless and the wild dogs were far off and forgotten. Everything disappeared.
One of Chente’s men held a blueprint for Chente. With one finger, Chente traced what he wanted his workers to harvest from San Jeronimo’s. With the other finger, he pointed where to begin working. He never opened his mouth. With a wag of his finger or a nod of his head, he commanded the two-hundred men carrying ladders, shovels, picks, and saws. Two men carried a ladder and positioned it in front of the right belltower. One of them peered into the hollow socket of the belltower and exclaimed that there was no bell.
“That’s fine. Start inside. The lights hanging from the crossbeams, and make sure to get the Christ hanging behind the altar. Careful, that thing must weigh one-hundred kilos,” ordered Chente. The two men excused themselves immediately. Father Lucas looked around. He saw Chente’s men excavating the paved courtyard, ripping apart the roof, and loading the pews into a truck. Father Lucas objected but the shrill pleads were smothered by the panic of the parishioners and the commotion around the parish. He wanted to yell. He scratched the outside of his hand as he watched his entire life being ripped stone by stone for a war effort.
“It’s what we have to do. Mexico wants war. I’ll give them war,” Chente said. His men hurrahed. Two men dragged Jesus Christ outside. The giant bronze Jesus would suit well as a cannon. Father Lucas felt hot. He was suffocated. His blood boiled.
“God damn you!” Father Lucas tore the vestments from his body. The ripping fabric caught the attention of the workers and the parishioners. Chente looked up from the blueprint. Everyone stared in silence as the priest pulled and ripped his vestments. Holding it in his hands, Father Lucas threw them on the ground and stomped on them. No one dared intervene. Only the sounds of the hot winds whistled. The poor priest panted, red-faced, as he analyzed the crowd around him.
“You damned monster,” said Father Lucas, “Look at what you’ve done!”
“What don’t you understand that THIS, all of this is a part of something greater, you selfish runt of a man,” Chente said. He was red-faced as well.
“No, you fool! It doesn’t have to be this way! None of this has to be this way. You dig, and dig, and dig, and dig deeper but never once thought of starting a new hole,” Father Lucas said.
Everyone retreated from him. He lunged at Chente. He knocked him off his feet and wrestled him. Chente, albeit younger and stronger than Father Lucas, failed to restrain the priest. He punched the priest, but Father Lucas felt nothing. There was an unquenchable rage that helped Father Lucas. Once Chente was under him, Father Lucas beat at the bandit’s face and chest. He continued until blood spattered and an unnerving squishing sound boomed throughout. No one dared to intervene. It could have been because they feared the priest, or maybe because they also lost their sense of proportion. Father Lucas stopped. On the ground, he left a body with its face opened and chest caved in. A pool of blood soaked into the courtyard’s paved floor. It traveled between the cracks of each brick. The air smelled hot, rich, and putrid. He touched his face and felt warm streams of blood trickling into his eyes and around the crevices of his wrinkled face. The blood mixed with the sweat and dirt into an amalgamation of maroon clumps.
Father Lucas looked at his hands. Exhaustion settled in his muscles. The crowd muttered words to each other. Everyone was afraid that they could be next. Pedro Perez approached the bloodied, panting man.
“Father…,” said Pedro. He reached for his shoulder but meant to go deeper than that. “You’re not okay Father, you are bleeding. Does anyone have a rag?” A young child brought an old rag. Pedro ripped it into one long strip. As his hand touched Father Lucas’s shoulder, the poor old man winced. He dropped on the ground. Pedro retreated his hand as if he himself was hurt. Father Lucas covered his ears. The dreadful sound of the ripping convulsed the priest’s back. No one touched him. The parishioners and Chente’s men left. Lucas thought of the day he donned the vestments for the first time. Was it worth it? Maybe it was, Lucas was unsure, but he was sure of the relief brought upon him for the first time in years.
That evening the sky turned orange and then purple. San Jeronimo’s was barren. Half of it was on pallets on the ground. Most of the roof was torn off. Behind the parish was the small office that protruded from the building that was demolished as well. Father Lucas woke up and observed what they had done to his parish. Hot spring winds swirled into the parish and suffocated him. From the courtyard, the clonking of horse hooves alerted the priest.
There were twelve men. Each one was clothed in prestigious uniforms, shiny black boots, and equally shiny Hills Hats. They had badges that read Policia del Ministerio Público. One of the men, an older man, but more composed, looked down at the priest. He was covered in badges and pins. He made the other eleven seem inferior and unworthy of the rank they held. The man stood with his hands folded behind his back and feet shoulder width apart.
“Lucas Álvaro, you are under arrest,” said the captain, his moustache covering his lips. Father Lucas did not protest. He remained on the ground. The captain turned to his men and nodded. Four police agents rushed to the priest, each taking a limb to restrain. The police agents almost launched him into the air. They underestimated the frail man’s weight. Lucas looked up at the captain. Even after seeing Lucas’s defeated eyes, he remained stern. He slapped him.
“I’m arresting you,” said Captain Obregón, “Move him, now.”
“No, you must not!” said Lucas, “Please forgive me.”
“Me? Forgive you? I’m not the one you should be begging for forgiveness.”
“I didn’t mean to kill him! He— He was going to kill us all!” Lucas said.
“Does that make you a hero?” said Captain Obregón. Lucas remained silent.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucas Álvaro.
“Señor Álvaro. Under the law, you are facing twenty years in jail. Perhaps more, but never less. But I have something more fitting for you. You killed a man, very true. But you killed a bad man. An enemy of the state, in fact. Under law, you are both criminals. Instead, I’ll offer you terms in which you can, with some luck, see freedom much sooner,” Captain Obregón said. Lucas Álvaro nodded. Even Obregón’s men waited to hear what the captain had to say.
“I won’t send you to jail, but I will drop you off in the hills. You can take three things. If you live, well, consider it mercy. If you die, consider it a punishment well deserved,” he said.
Lucas never travelled this far in a long time since he left the seminary.
What good days those were, he thought. He looked out the car window. A never-ending pasture with green grasses as tall as the fencing and Red Dahlias speckled throughout like fairies. Fate works in most unexpected ways. The cows moved through the grass like whales at sea. Lucas observed. How much vivacity there is. How much beauty, he thought. The sun was awake and alert in the middle of the sky. Father Lucas rather appreciated the warmth of the sun.
The vehicle stopped abruptly. Father Lucas could not see the cows, the pasture, nor the fence. What he saw was the beginning of large hills. It seemed never-ending as well. Father Lucas was fearless though.
“Move,” said Captain Obregón. Lucas was not sure who the captain referred to, but it mattered little for the captain’s men had restrained him. They threw him out of the vehicle.
“Señor Álvaro, this is it. I’d wish you luck, but I’d rather never hear from you again,” said Captain Obregón. The vehicle drove away leaving a trail of dust in the air.
Once the vehicle was out of sight, Lucas turned to the hills. He smiled. Although it will be a difficult journey, Lucas was not worried. He didn’t bring anything with him from the parish. Not the vestments, not the eucharist, not a candle, not even a cross. When he was choosing his items for his punishment, he decided on an item that would not be above him. He carried his personal Bible, not as authority but as guidance. That authority was within him, not as a priest, but as a child of God.