Life settles into a familiar rhythm for pilgrims from the Diocese of Los Angeles to the Anglican Diocese of Cuernavaca in the heart of Mexico. There are Spanish grammar and conversational classes, educational presentations and cultural excursions and homework, interspersed with prayer, singing, guitars and delicious traditional meals.
Sundays during the two-week immersion experience are given to worship in local congregations, and to exchanges with clergy and laity, sharing challenges and joys, opportunities and faith, life and language.
Angelenos wanting to improve their competency in Spanish language skills began the pilgrimages in 2013; last year they reciprocated, teaching English to Cuernavacans with similar aspirations. It is a mutuality indicative “that, with the simplest of actions, we can achieve wonderful things together,” according to Bishop Enrique Treviño Cruz, in an email translated for The Episcopal News.
He compared the relationship to Acts 2:46-47: “Day by day as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Cruz and former Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool began the partnership, and about 35 people from the diocese have traveled to Cuernavaca in the ensuing four years, according to Glasspool in an email to The News.
“The Diocese of Los Angeles benefits from such programs by having hands-on, flesh-and-blood relationships with people of different cultures/languages/dioceses in their context, and exchanging ideas/information/materials and the like,” she said.
Glasspool said the partnership was initiated at the behest of then-Interim Bishop of Cuernavaca James Ottley, who was assisting the diocese with election of a new bishop diocesan. After Glasspool attended the Diocesan Synod in February 2012, the intercultural visits began in January 2013 and have continued annually since. The program has since expanded to other dioceses. A person from the Diocese of San Joaquin attended in February 2016, and the Diocese of Oregon has also begun yearly visits for language improvement.
“People who have participated have not only learned Spanish, they have also come to better understandings of the people, history, cultures and daily challenges faced by our neighbors to the south,” Glasspool said. “It is a uniquely enriching experience.”
In December 2015, the convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles approved a formal companion relationship with the Diocese of Cuernavaca.
A uniquely enriching experience
With one parish, 18 mission congregations, four prayer stations and 14 active clergy, the Diocese of Cuernavaca is located about 45 miles south of Mexico City and about 2,000 miles south of Los Angeles.
Cuernavaca has an established tradition of offering excellent language courses and is nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” because of its temperate weather and lush greenery. Nestled amid rolling hills, extinct volcanoes and weathered pyramids, the beauty of the landscape, culture and the warmth and hospitality of the people were palpable. So were challenges, both historical and contemporary, according to several pilgrims, among them the Rev. Canon John Taylor, who joined the pilgrim group in 2015.
“Fewer U.S. visitors have been visiting lately because of concerns about security, so our friends were helping us, and we were helping boost a vital local industry,” said Taylor, vicar of St. John Chrysostom Church, Rancho Santa Margarita. “Our teachers were first-rate; demanding, yet always gracious and willing to meet each student at his or her level of proficiency.”
Meeting Cuernavacans who were perfecting their English was a high point for Taylor because of the mutuality of the relationship. “When traveling abroad in groups, we’re prone to feel insulated from the communities we visit,” he said. “It was an amazing gift to get to know our conversation partners and learn more about their families, lives, work, and dreams.”
Like political journalist Francisco Guerrero, who briefed students during a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady in Mexico City but told the group “he couldn’t bear to step inside because of the Church’s exploitation of the Mexican people,” said Taylor, who blogged about the experience here.
For the Rev. Kate Lewis, a chaplain at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard who joined this year’s pilgrimage in February, sharing stories of different contexts but similar ministry challenges felt “very powerful.”
And while her command of Spanish is improving, building honest relationships with the people in the Diocese of Cuernavaca is of crucial importance, largely because it heightens awareness of “what developing and developed countries have to offer each other,” she said.
“Hearing about different perspectives to very similar problems has been both helpful and comforting,” agreed the Rev. Tamara Newell of the Diocese of Cuernavaca. “The warmth in these relationships is unique. I think that has to do with the safety that comes from the lack of competition between the two groups. They can honestly be brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Accepting an invitation to address a diocesan synod gathering, the Rev. Steve DeMuth said he felt the hospitality, warmth and genuine interest about his role as director of Spanish ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Covina, and again while making a hospital visitation with a local priest.
After that initial visitation, “there are so few priests and they are in such huge demand, that people would pull us into a room and say, ‘Would you pray for us?’” he recalled.
DeMuth “was very well received,” agreed Cruz. “These are the things that build common ground between our people and our cultures and the Episcopal Church and La Iglesia Anglicana.”
Immigration issues, next steps
The Rev. Jorge Pallares, priest-in-charge of San Simon’s Church, San Fernando, also accepted Cruz’s invitation to share with the Cuernavacan synod gathering about his ministry in the Los Angeles diocese.
This cultural exchange is as important as learning another’s language, said Pallares. The challenges are many: poverty; need for additional clergy and resources. “It is very important for me to stay in touch with my country and the people of Mexico,” he said. “I don’t want to forget where I come from.”
Also, he added, we can become isolated in our own localities. “It is very important to be in touch with more people around the world.”
The Rev. Barbara Stewart, a convener for the program after Glasspool’s departure April 1 to become assisting bishop in New York, said another trip is planned for Feb. 11 – 25, 2017.
“Initially I wanted to learn Spanish and I have learned,” said Stewart, a veteran of all four trips. “But what keeps me going is the relationship with the people, because they’re wonderful.”
The experiences have “made me much more aware of others,” she said. “We tend to get so absorbed in our own stuff that we forget the rest of the world is there, the rest of the world God loves. For me, it’s been having my eyes opened again and again to the richness of other people’s experience of God, their struggles as they do church and the wonderful things that happen in church.”
She hopes Cruz will be able to accept an invitation to attend the Los Angeles diocesan convention, slated for Dec. 3 – 4 at the Ontario Convention Center.
A next step, Stewart said, is “to identify projects we can work on together … (like) the question of immigration in both directions, people coming and people going.
“They’re concerned with the people coming back to Mexico and helping them reintegrate into Mexico. If their children were born in the United States, they don’t have the right papers to enroll them in school. It’s the practical part of helping them integrate back into the country and assisting with the spiritual and emotional aspects of that.
“And we’d like to be able to help immigrants who are here.”
Cruz agreed. “There is a lot of work to be done around Mexican immigrants; both those who are leaving here and those who are returning. Between us we can provide information for those who must return that would be beneficial to them and help them in their reentry. On the other hand, you can also offer information that might be helpful in aiding those who arrive there. What could we do to help prepare them?”
Additionally, parish-to-parish and other cultural exchanges are also possibilities. “It would be wonderful if our priests and laity could visit the Diocese of Los Angeles,” Cruz said. “As you learn from living among us and better understanding our culture so we can learn from living among your people.
News of the L.A. convention’s approval last year of a diocesan relationship with Cuernavaca “was a very exciting and hopeful sign for us that this vision of partnering can develop,” he said.
“We believe that we can establish programs that mutually benefit our faithful. Because we have so much in common, we can develop ideas that will mutually benefit us and because we also differ in some ways, we can learn to build bridges toward a better understanding of how we live and worship.
“It is always good to witness different ways of doing things,” Cruz said. “We, in turn, offer what we have, which is our culture and vision and mission for our church, which lives vastly different experiences. Our dioceses can offer hands-on training for many Christians in formation. We would welcome the opportunity to do that.”