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Bishop Suffragan Mary D. Glasspool wasn’t just celebrating her birthday Feb. 23; she also was in Mexico to attend the service establishing Bishop Coadjutor Enrique Trevino Cruz as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Cuernavaca.

“Something about that feels more than just coincidental,” said Glasspool, who recently returned from a two-week language and cultural immersion pilgrimage in Cuernavaca in which Cruz participated.

“He’s learning English and I’m learning Spanish,” she said of Cruz. “I just feel like our relationship is meant to be,” she added.

“Enrique is someone who took an absolutely struggling mission with about three people in it and turned it around into an outreach-oriented center for young people and families in a relatively poor area on the outskirts of the city. It’s thriving now.”

Not unlike Glasspool herself, who stabilized and tripled the membership of St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s Church in Boston, Massachusetts, from 50 to 150 while serving as rector there from 1984 to 1992.

She hopes the deepening friendship between the two very different dioceses of Cuernavaca and Los Angeles represents “seeds of future growth,” she said. “We’re just trying to plant some seeds here and see how God gives and blesses the growth.”

Glasspool and the Rev. Vincent Schwahn, rector of St. Mark’s, Van Nuys, served as co-leaders for the Jan. 5 – 19 pilgrimage. The pilgrims spent two weeks in the Cuernavaca diocese, taking intensive Spanish grammar and conversation classes. They also met with local residents and professionals, visited cultural and religious sites, led worship services in Spanish and developed a healthy curiosity about all things Cuernavacan.
According to the Rev. Dennis Gibbs, one of the pilgrims, “We arrived as strangers but left as friends.”

Making connections

The friendship between the two dioceses first sparked a few years ago during a conversation between Glasspool and the Rt. Rev. James Ottley, retired Bishop of Panama, who has been serving as bishop of Cuernavaca, she said.

Last year she attended the diocese’s 24th annual synod meeting, and shortly afterwards plans for this year’s eye-opening, intensive pilgrimage were underway.

With 25 congregations and 14 clergy, the Diocese of Cuernavaca is located about 45 miles south of Mexico City and about 2,000 miles south of Los Angeles, amid rolling hills, extinct volcanoes and weathered pyramids. The beauty of the landscape and warmth and hospitality of the people were palpable — as were the challenges, said several of the pilgrims, among them Jill Murch.

A parishioner at St. Patrick’s Church in Thousand Oaks and an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, Murch said she joined the group because “I love all things Spanish” and wanted to brush up on her language skills.

Six hours of grammar and conversation daily helped do just that. It also illuminated the many challenges faced by teachers, she said.

Wealth and poverty, faith and corruption

Cuernavaca, the capital and largest city in the Mexican state of Morelos, was established about 3,200 years ago where ancient Aztec emperors kept their summer residences. Nicknamed “the City of the Eternal Spring” because of its temperate climate and abundant vegetation, it once drew scores of tourists and foreign students to its language schools.

But negative publicity in recent years about drug cartels, violence and corruption has severely impacted the tourism-dependent economy; many language schools have closed, Murch said. “There’s just so much they’re up against,” she said of the teachers she met. “But they keep going nevertheless. Education is the most important thing to them, but it’s a very strong uphill road.”

There was also a distinct “us and them” sentiment, especially regarding immigration issues, Murch observed.
“They feel that it’s the color of their skin that really does hinder anything they can do in the North, that they have problems with immigration just because of the way they look,” she said.

For Gibbs, who is a monk in the San Gabriel-based Community of Divine Love and director of Prism, the diocesan restorative justice ministry, witnessing the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and governmental corruption, the impact of the drug cartels and devout faith, “and then in the midst of all that to be engaged with the bright spirit and the warm hearts of the Mexican people was really something. I’m still sorting it all out.”

He recalled pausing at photos and personal effects left at a memorial to those killed by the drug cartels. “I posted that image on Facebook saying that I don’t know how much Spanish I will remember, but I will never forget this.”

Wearing his Benedictine robe drew attention, not all of it positive. One man approached and struck him; at another site he was not allowed to take photos when others were because of his obvious connection to the church, Gibbs said.

“But in the midst of it all a young woman in her 20s or 30s came pushing up to us, pointed me out and asked in Spanish for my blessing.

“What an amazing experience for me to be shunned, to be aggressively resisted, to be physically hit — attacked in a way — and then to have this young Mexican woman come up and insist upon the blessing,” he said. “So there it is. That’s life in Mexico. I’ll never forget it.”

He hopes to return, however, adding that even the “choppy” knowledge of conversational Spanish he gained on this first trip “is already helping my relationships with those I visit in the jails [where he serves as a chaplain]. They really appreciate my trying. One of the guys said, ‘I really like your bravery,’” he added, laughing.

“There’s a connection there that being able to have that common language opens something up for us in new ways, so I’m very happy to be able to have the hermaños in prison to be nuevos maestros, to be my new teachers.”

A new appreciation

St. James, Wilshire (Los Angeles), parishioner Joanne O’Donnell said that while in Cuernavaca she discovered “a completely new appreciation for the people of Mexico that we met.”
She was struck by the contrast between the vibrancy of Cuernavacans, compared   to Mexicans she’s encountered who’ve immigrated to the United States, she said.

“One of our speakers talked about how many people who emigrate from Central America and Mexico to the United States really never are the same again,” she said. “The loss of their culture and their exposure to their cities and relatives and friends and ancestors takes something out of them that can’t be replaced while they’re here.”

In the United States, she said, “I don’t have a strong sense of who they are. But in Mexico I had a powerful sense of who they were all the time. I was really impressed with the sadness of the change that people undergo when they have to uproot themselves that way.”

2014 pilgrimage planned

Glasspool already has plans for another pilgrimage in early 2014. She hopes that Angelenos will consider participating as the two dioceses deepen their ties, although she hesitates to consider the relationship a formal companion diocese relationship.

“It’s not clear to me what a formal companion relationship looks like in our changing world,” Glasspool said during a recent interview.

“At this point, rather than formalizing something in the eyes of our church structure which is itself in the process of changing, we’re focused on building the relationship from the ground up and whatever official-ness comes into play will come at a later time.”

What is clear, however, are the opportunities “for learning and growth, not just for learning Spanish, but for observing and engaging with the people and the culture,” she said.

After preaching and celebrating at the Cathedral of St. Michael and All Angels, adjacent to the diocesan retreat center where the group stayed, and also at Cruz’s mission outpost congregation, Glasspool said she “definitely improved my conversational abilities and I feel very comfortable to celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish.”

She is also working on securing “Spanish language catechetical texts and resources that are other than secondhand, hand-me-down translations” for the Cuernavaca diocese’s ongoing mission. She hopes to discover ways to assist the diocese in marketing its retreat center as a destination for local and international groups, she said.

“In the meantime, we realize how important it is in Los Angeles for us to have at least a working knowledge of Spanish, so the emphasis is more on learning Spanish and developing relationships with the people in the diocese of Cuernavaca so we can share stories.”

The pilgrimage was just the beginning of a beautiful—and lasting—friendship, one that Glasspool hopes will eventually include the work of reconciliation.

“I’ve been exploring the history of the Mexican-American War and, no matter how you look at it, if we’re honest, it was a war of American territorial expansion into Mexico,” she said.

After years of telling the British to get over their colonialism, perhaps the time has come “for those of us privileged enough to be citizens of the United States, to examine our own colonialism and how we have become a power in the world,” she added.

“And where that has been through brute territorial expansion, to see what it is we can do 175 years later, to try to reconcile relationships that are formed and molded into stereotypical ways of dealing with one another.”