The sound of my shoes tip tapping against the terrazzo tiles of the cavernous room, creates an echo that reminds me of my past. It reminds me of another time that I was here in this church, Las Tres Ave Marias, when there were so few people present, that I could hear the sound of my own steps as they resonated off the high ceiling and white stucco walls. Back then, full of hope and optimism, I carried my baby to the altar for baptism.
With only family in attendance, the church had been ours, and it was then — without the usual crowd that would gather for a Sunday mass, a crowd that often poured out through the heavy wooden doors, onto the steps, and even the sidewalk beyond — that I became aware of the enormity of the space. Even with its grand scale, there was still a sense of humility within those walls, a lovely contrast between the architecture and what it stood for, that I have thought about often throughout the years that followed.
Twenty years to be exact, since the day I brought my last born child to this church, and I’m still moved by the simplicity of the space and the way it honors God without glitz or glamor. The pews are made of a dark polished wood but boast no carving or cushion. The floors are the same sandy colored terrazzo used in many buildings around the city of Barranquilla, and the altar — an austere slab of stone draped in white cloth — is easily overlooked because of the stunning mural on the wall beyond.
Painted in soft tones of cerulean blue, cadmium yellow and burnt sienna, is the image of the Virgin Mother. From floor to lofty ceiling, her presence is unavoidable — she is enveloped in the brilliance of heaven’s light, floating in a sky of billowing clouds, she is surrounded by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, her arms are open wide and she welcomes us. The soft glow of her sweet face shines as though a light were placed within the wall. I feel the artist’s love for her emanate through the tender brush strokes that are her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth slightly smiling.
My four children were born in the United States, but I brought them here, to this church where Mary greets me with a love that permeates the very atmosphere of the room. I brought them here to begin their life with Christ, because it was in this city that I first witnessed real faith, the kind that isn’t just a morning at mass, but a belief that fills you like a deep breath can fill your aching lungs. It’s the kind of belief that sustains you every day. I wanted to give my children that gift, and what better place to receive it then here in this church.
The church of Las Tres Ave Marias, is one of many houses of worship in this city located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where I came to work as a teacher after I graduated from a small college in New Hampshire. I met the father of my children in this city, and fell in love with the people, the culture, the music, the buildings and beaches, all so different from my life in the States.
Barranquilla is also where I first witnessed poverty, the kind where children lived in places with no electricity or plumbing, where heavy rains often raged through their shelters, splitting the earthen floor beneath their feet, creating cracks, deep and muddy, that they jumped across to get from their hammock to the door. Or the kind of poverty where it wasn’t uncommon to see someone struggle to live with an untreated birth defect, like the man who walked like a spider — arms and legs twisted and turned as he scuttled across streets using both hands and feet, body in the center of limbs, jerking his way along, making due; or the monk who sat outside of the 72nd Street market, draped in orange robes, whose eyes were black larvae, barely visible beneath the thick white cocoons that encased them, but who never failed to recognize me when I came near. Eres tu! Me trajiste algo? he would exclaim. And if I gave him bread, he would bless me with the words, Que Dios te lo pague!
Once I even saw a man with a leg so swollen with elephantiasis, that from a distance, I thought he must be wearing a large boot, but up close his peeling skin showed me a shocking reality — the bleeding ooze that was his calf, the broken flesh that barely covered his giant foot — could never have fit into a shoe of any kind. I stepped around him, careful to avoid contact, and I saw that a cup beside him was full of pesos. The people filling it must have been the shop keepers, the street vendors, and the people like myself, who came to purchase their everyday needs.
Although the poor of Barranquilla could not always count on the integrity of the floor beneath their feet, they still greeted each other and me, with unfailing joy, generosity, energy and grace, everyday. Barranquilla is where I first learned to be grateful for what I did have and to not be disappointed by what I may be lacking. I saw boys play fútbol with a ball made from tightly rolled rags. Their fields were often only a patch of dust or an open stretch of street. If the kids weren’t outside playing, they were with their families. Families were everything. Families were community, and at the heart of each community was a church.
My church was Las Tres Ave Marias, and even though I couldn’t understand what the priest was saying, and often I was part of the overflow that stood outside on the steps where I could hear nothing at all, it was really the passion of the people that I came to experience. Their brotherhood, their desire to be part of the extended family of the church, was something that I understood without having to speak their language.
I didn’t feel that same connection to my childhood church. It was a chore to attend mass and yet, something about Barranquilla showed me how deep my faith could be. There is something spiritual about the city — just under the rhythm and roll, the color and chaos of daily life, a belief that tethers men, women and children, the rich and the poor, to each other, to the dirt, to the field, to the city street, the sea, the forest, and the sky above. It’s their faith reflected in every interaction. Maybe it’s that spirituality that infiltrates the air with such palpable joy. It’s that joy that I felt for the first time when visiting Las Tres Ave Marias all those years ago, and it’s that joy that I’ve lost along the way.
Today, I’m glad to be back again, relieved to find benevolence still in Mary’s gaze. I’m a different woman now, older and worse for the wear. I’ve come to pray for my all-grown-up children who no longer understand what brings me here. At the altar, a young family gathers for the baptism of an infant. Older children run the aisles in their Sunday-best shoes, the baby cries, startled, as the holy water runs over his crown, men and women laugh and embrace each other in joyous congratulations and I remember that moment, so honest and simple.
Dear God, here is your child, whom you have given us to raise. We promise to teach him to love you as we do.
We made that promise four times but I think only once did we keep it, or rather, that one child kept it for us. The other three attempts at teaching our children to love the Lord have fallen on deaf ears, at least for now.
I can’t return to the young woman I was when I first brought my babies to this church no matter how much I may wish for it. Somewhere in the day-to-day of baths and homework, bills and battles, car lines and car pools, work and play, successes and failures, and even divorce, I’ve dropped the ball. I’ve forgotten about the humilty I learned of in Barranquilla, in this church most of all. I’ve forgotten too, where joy really comes from. Today I sit with Mary to renew my faith and recollect the optomism of my youth. Today I tell myself that my children will find their inspiration somewhere, if not in this church then somewhere else, but surely life will teach them the lessons of humility and grace and they will know joy.
Out on the street, I smell arepas — corn flour and cheese — that the vendor on the corner is grilling, and I’m led away from Las Tres Ave Marias. I focus on the world around me — the vendors, the traffic and the hot sidewalks of Barranquilla. Above me, between the buildings, there is a slice of sky — and there again are the warm tones of cerulean blue and cadmium yellow — an artist’s pallet, deep and vast and welcoming.