ON SABBATICAL: Imagine

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As I am on some kind of a pilgrimage – even here in the Big Apple – I've been hopping from one sacred place to another.  My home base is the Redemptorist community here in the Bronx, uptown New York and the Redemptorists run a parish here; the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint of the parish church.  It is a parish which is predominantly composed of non-whites; the majority are Latinos and blacks. The parish church is lovely; its lines that rise up to the equivalent of a seven-storey building, follow the Gothic architecture.  Mosaics on gold background and delicate stained-glass windows provide this place an ethereal beauty.

Saturday last week, I attended the anticipated Mass at 5:30 p.m. officiated by the parish priest, Fr. Ron Bonneau, CSsR.  As the Mass began, I saw two uniformed white men occupy the pew behind me (I thought they were policemen, but I was to learn later that they were firemen).  There were about 30 of us who came to church, majority of whom were colored (including me, of course).

I was a bit tired that afternoon and there was hardly any singing during the Mass, so my attention drifted elsewhere.  I wasn't focused on listening to the readings and my attention only perked up when I heard Fr. Ron speak about the war in Iraq.  Years ago just after the Iraq war erupted I was invited to a few symposia in Mindanao and I had no hesitation in stating what was not so clear at that time, namely, that Bush declared war in Iraq because the Americans wanted have control over the oil there.

Well, at this Mass, without any hesitation at all, Fr. Ron made the same point – Bush wanted the Iraqi oil. And he went on to explain why this war was immoral and why Americans should oppose this war and demand that the US troops be pulled out.

I could hear the grumbling at my back and knew that the two uniformed white men were not happy with Fr. Ron's sermon.  If Fr. Ron only made a passing remark, the grumbling would end and the Mass would have continued. However, to my pleasant surprise, Fr. Ron went on and expressed his displeasure at what the American government is doing in Iraq. Then he related his story about having been a missionary in Paraguay years ago and how he was jailed because of his concern for justice.

The two men could not take it any longer. They stood up and one of them shouted: "that is not the Gospel you are talking about, Father!"  Both then walked out of the church.  I half-expected some other parishioners to follow the uniformed men but no one did.  Fr. Ron, however, was shocked at the men's action; he said, he did not expect it at all. That this was the first time that it happened to him while preaching in the US, that he thought, it was only in Paraguay that someone would shout at him while he was giving a sermon.

But to appease the parishioners, Fr. Ron had to say that he loved his country, the USA, very much.  The sub-text was clear: he should not be judged as being anti-American just because he opposed Bush. I thought it was interesting that he had to do so; perhaps, he sensed that there would have been parishioners who were not pleased with his sermon, but were polite enough not to walk out.

The papers – except the really right-wing ones – have been indicating the low popularity ratings of Bush.  With elections coming up in November, Republicans running for Congress are afraid they, too, would be affected by a growing dissatisfaction of the Americans re the Iraq war.  But, one is never too sure where the votes could swing, not until after the results of the counting would be known.

Still, the overt opposition to the war remains hidden.  There are no reports of actual demonstrations in the streets.  While taking a walk at the Central Park last Sunday, I chanced into a gathering of about a hundred people at a place where outdoor performances are conducted.  This was supposed to be a gathering of peace advocates; at 5 that afternoon, they were going to hold a march where people carry the flags of all countries in the world and pray for peace.  I sat there for an hour listening to songs, poems and musical renditions; but there was no one who spoke about Iraq.  On the other hand, in a nearby place in the park, about 500 came to join a Paella Festival by Spaniards from Valencia and farther to the south, 300 came to dance while skating.

There was a sense of deja vu as I read a few sections of liberal newspapers and magazines recently printed.  From left-wing authors and artists came the same lament: unlike the youth of the l960s, the young Americans today are not interested in protesting against a war but are rather busy embracing the latest Apple technology; unlike those who proposed radical changes to consumerist America two generations ago, the present generation are only interested in earning more to be able to consume more.  Similar lamentations  from the mouths of martial law activists in the Philippines who are also frustrated that in the Philippines today, GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) has not been pushed out of office given the apathy of most Filipinos to the present political malaise in the country.

Last Sunday's walk through Central Park afforded a chance to be in communion with the supernatural as the park's beauty lends itself to a cosmic pilgrimage experience.  If one's connection to the divine is in nature, Central Park is the ideal place to be in touch with a creator God.  Despite the crowds of people who descended here on a Sunday afternoon, one could still carve a space of solitude and be in awe of the power of creation.

A walk to a more quiet corner at the park, however, made it possible for me to remember the Vietnam war and the protest against it worldwide. To celebrate the spirit of John Lennon, his widow, Yoko Ono, made a contribution to the park to establish the Strawberry Field.  Strawberry patches occupy this section along with a variety of tall trees. At a section where three long benches face each other to make a big triangle, there is a mosaic round figure on the cement ground.  It reminded me of the big eye design at the pilgrim site in Mt. Banahaw.  At the center of this mosaic is the word – IMAGINE.

This was, of course, the title of one of John Lennon's song which was an anthemn for peace.  John opposed the Vietnam war;  if he were alive today, would he oppose the war in Iraq? Most probably. Interestingly, there is a documentary film currently showing in town: The US vs John Lennon, which is about the attempt of the US government to deport Lennon on the basis of his anti-war stance.

There were about 30 of us who sat around the benches intently gazing at the circle on the ground even as bikers, hikers, mothers with children, tourists walked up and down to glance at IMAGINE.  It was late in the afternoon and the traffic noise further down the road was muffled by the trees and bushes.  It was quiet and everyone – except the children – had somber looks.  People remembered the poet-singer-songwriter who did stick out his neck. The remembrance was made easy as there was a man who wore the same type of glasses that Lennon was known for – except that the lens were red – and sang some of Lennon's songs.  It was easy to sing along with him in one of the songs' refrain: I'll get high with a li'l help from my friends, I'll get by with a li'l help from my friends (being quite homesick for friends back home).

That morning, I was in Chinatown; still more a pilgrim rather than a tourist.  There were two Catholic churches and a Buddhist temple to visit.  The first church was built at the time when a growing number of  Chinese came to migrate in the 1800s.  It must have been a big church that stood out in the neighborhood when it was built; today it is dwarfed by the surrounding tall buildings;  the first floor of these buildings are the shops that provide color and texture to Chinatown.  Its claim to fame is the painting above the altar, copied from the original Transfiguration painting of Rafael. Except for a statue of the Virgin Mother dressed like a Chinese empress, nothing would differentiate it from churches one finds in the rest of New York.

The other church, which is in the Little Italy section of Chinatown, is that of the Franciscans. It is about the same size as the one for the Chinese.  Clearly, this other one is for the Italian-Americans as the patron saint is San Genarro. Here, one can see similar elements of Filipino popular religious practices.  On San Genarro's statue are pinned American dollars and there are lots of flowers and candles.  The difference, however, is the American fervor that goes with the devotions; there are also American flags all around. And there are many signs inside and outside the church that manifest deep gratitude to American heroes who died in Vietnam and now in Iraq.

After visiting the two Catholic churches, the Buddhist temple along Canal St. was quite soothing. There were fewer people inside and there was great silence (except at one point when a woman answered her cell phone). It is quite a big temple actually; as many as 200 people could easily fit into the hall.  The golden Buddha that sits placidly at the main altar was about a storey-high.  As with other Buddhist temples, one is touched by the child-like quality of the symbols dominated by incense sticks, fruits and flowers.  With the solitude, one could easily enter into the spirit of prayer.

It was good to come to Chinatown and enter into the religiosity of those who founded this part of New York. It felt quite different to my earlier visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral along 5th Avenue.  There, to my surprise, there were guards who inspected the bags of those who entered the cathedral.  It was no different from the airports or malls.  And because there were just too many tourists, it was difficult to sit in silence.

I do hope to find time to visit a mosque and a synagogue while I am here. A friend from Davao who converted from Catholicism to Islam,promised to bring me to her mosque this coming Friday.  As it is Ramadhan season, she is on fast.  She asked if I could share about Mindanao's experience of Duyog Ramadhan when we go this Friday.

I also heard that Dorothy Day, the American woman who founded The Catholic Worker and is an uncanonized saint (although the process of her canonization is supposed to have been initiated) was laid to rest in nearby Staten Island.  I do hope to visit her graveyard soon.(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical).

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