Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The cool cleansing waters of the river

Sacramento River, taken with my iPhone
SACRAMENTO – The air here is very heavy with smoke from brush fires on the Sacramento River Delta. The evening breeze that usually brings us cool air brought us only stifling smoke last night, and the temperature today promises to be 104 degrees.

So it takes imagination this morning to think of the cool waters of the mountains, and to imagine the water long ago where Jesus and John the Baptist initiated people into the faith by immersing them in rivers.

The Daily Office reading this morning, from John 3:22-36, is a debate about the meaning of baptism and who is allowed to perform baptism. John is baptizing at Aenon near Salim, while Jesus is baptizing in another stretch of the Jordan River. A few nameless folk ask John the Baptist, who has the better baptism? John turns it into a sermon about belief in Jesus:
“He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”

Baptism in the Gospel of John has become about being initiated into a relationship with Jesus, and that has become the central motif of baptism in Christianity through the ages.

But the Gospel of John was written last (nearly a century after the time of Jesus), and it represents the early Church adding its claim of exclusive truth onto the story of Jesus. Perhaps it is a layer of smoke?

I cannot help but reflect that baptism looks and sounds different in the earlier gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In those gospels, Jesus is drenched in baptism and through it shares with us in temptation and suffering. God declares Jesus beloved in baptism, and baptism becomes a marker not only of his divinity, but also of his humanity.

Unlike in the Gospel of John, in the three earlier gospels Jesus does not baptize – he is not a rival to John the Baptist. Jesus casts out demons and heals people, feeds them and invites them to his table. He does not check their baptismal certificates at the door.

I am left wondering if these two ideas of baptism are mutually exclusive. Apparently not for the early Church, for both ideas were left in the New Testament: Baptism as Jesus sharing our humanity, and baptism as our initiation into life with Jesus.

Christians have had a very difficult time through the ages living in the tension of those two ideas. Can we find a way to live with both ideas?

Maybe the flowing waters can bring us there.

My prayers this morning take me to the banks of the river, and I am surrounded by many familiar people who are in this world and in the next. I prayer for the waters to cleanse us of all that harms, wounds and hurts us.

I feel connected through the water to many memories, many people, in the past and in the present. I feel connected through the water to life everywhere. And I await the promise of the water that has not yet reached us and for the smoke to clear away.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Friday, August 10, 2012

Letters from my father and a terrible war long ago

My father, David Richardson
SACRAMENTO – I am enjoying being back in my native state, reconnecting with friends and family, enjoying California food and wine, and the sunshine.

A few days ago, Lori and I spent an evening with my sister, Janet. We opened two boxes my sister had rescued from my parents’ house before it was sold. The boxes contained letters written by my father to his parents. He wrote one letter every week, starting in 1937. Hundreds of letters were in those boxes.

We barely made a dent in reading the letters; it was an emotionally draining experience.

My dad wrote letters through his college years and World War II, and on into married life after the war. He wrote one letter a week for the next half-century until his dad died in 1987.

My father died seven years ago after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s.

I would like to give you a snapshot of a few letters from World War II – they give glimpse not just of my dad but also of the era in which he lived and the challenges he and his shipmates faced.

A little background will help. In 1942, my father, David Richardson, enrolled in a Navy officer training program (“V-12”) while a student at the University of California, Berkeley. The V-12 officers were known as “Six-week wonders.”

He was 20 years old.

APc 38, similar to my father's APc 16
Upon graduation, he finished his midshipman studies in New York, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and shipped out to the Pacific War.

He had been trained to be a PT boat skipper, learning to run the fast boats on the Hudson River.

But when he got to New Guinea, there were no PT boats available. So he became the executive officer on a small patrol ship, the APc 16. It had three anti-aircraft guns: fore, aft and amidships. The ship had no other name than its number, and it was slow. It was made of wood.

My dad and his crew spent much of their war patrolling islands looking for downed American pilots. In the invasion of the Philippines, their ship escorted landing craft full of Marines and Army soldiers into the beaches under the fire. To add firepower, the crew of APc 16 supplemented the forward anti-aircraft gun with an Army field piece they had obtained by trading mattresses with an Army unit.

In his letters, my dad complains of being sick much of the time. He couldn’t keep food down for long, and most of what he ate was bland and out of a can. His skin turned strange colors after eating food he got ashore. He lost a lot of weight, and photos at the time show him very, very thin.

He and his shipmates looked for any excuse to go ashore. In one letter he describes how they spent an entire day getting the laundry done.

Japanese occupation money
found in Manila; my father mailed
home these bills
He repeatedly implored his parents to not send him food. It rotted before arriving. They apparently ignored him and keep sending food.

In several letters he obsessed over his Time Magazine subscription expiring. It was his one connection with news of the outside world. You would think Time might have sent the magazine free to the troops, but it did not.

In one letter, he describes being under air attack. The anti-aircraft gunners on his boat shot down a plane but he did not feel triumphant. He described the experience as “awful.” In a letter a few weeks later, he wrote that censorship rules now allowed him to describe what had happened – his patrol ship had been under attack by a Kamikaze suicide plane. He says the airplane was “almost as big” as his ship.

In another letter, he describes a friend who was severely wounded when a faulty hand grenade went off accidentally. “We threw all our grenades overboard.”

After the invasion of the Philippines, my dad explored Manila, devastated from war, burned by the retreating Japanese. Phillipinos gave him occupation money – “centavos” – that the Japanese had issued to them. My dad mailed home a few Japanese bills in one of his letters.

Finally, the war ended, and he mailed home a newspaper page from the Philippines, dated 15 August 1945, with a big stenciled headline in all capital letters:


He wrote this in a letter three days later:

“There must have been quite a celebration in S.F. when the Japs announced their surrender, but you should have seen the one out here. The word came over the radio the morning of the 15th at 8 o’clock, and by quarter after eight every ship in the harbor was blowing its whistle and siren, shooting off flares and colored smoke bombs, and displaying various signal flag hoists. What a sight! There may be some more excitement on the actual V-J day but this spontaneous one was the real thing.”

He and his skipper were ashore when the news came of the end of the war. When they got back to their ship, the crew had thrown everyone overboard “except the skipper and me, so in we went!” In his letter, he described the newspaper and what it meant to him and his crew:

“The newspaper I am enclosing was distributed ashore half and hour after word was received that the Japs had surrendered. I was kind of interested to notice that nobody says ‘We’ve won the war’ or ‘we’ve licked the Japs;’ The only phrase you hear is, ‘The War is Over.’ That shows how the main thing that the boys out here were interested was having the war end.”

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Friday, August 3, 2012

Remembering our pilgrimage on the California mission trail

Mission Carmel
SACRAMENTO -- You may have noticed that I've not posted here much recently. I am in my summer hiatus mode, and I just returned to my native land of California to see family and friends. It is summer break time.

Recently, a few friends asked me about a piece I wrote in 2006 about the pilgrimage Lori and I undertook to all 21 of the Spanish missions in California. The missions were established by Father Junipero Serra in the 18th and 19th centuries, and every fourth grader in California learns about them.

The missions begin in San Diego, and are one day's horseback ride from each other along the El Camino Real stretching to Sonoma north of San Francisco Bay. We did not ride horses, but rented an RV. It took us two weeks to visit all of them.

Here, for your summer diversion, is the piece I wrote in 2006 for the Diocese of California about the missions:

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On the California Mission Trail

We started out on a rainy November evening, driving South in a rental motor home. We were headed to San Diego to begin a two-week pilgrimage to see all twenty-one California missions founded long ago by Spanish Franciscan padres.

We had no idea what we were getting into.

Our plan: Drive South, and then start working our way north, one mission at a time, camping along the way with our dog, Chulita. We started at the first of the missions, San Diego de Alcalá, founded in 1769 in a river valley that was once the exclusive domain of the Kumeyaay Indians and is now dominated by shopping malls and a giant sports stadium. Next, we drove a half-hour to Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside. And onward we went for the next two weeks.

As we lumbered northward, on some days we managed to see three missions, even four, while other days we saw only one mission or took a break.

The day after Thanksgiving we pulled into Sonoma and the last of the missions, San Francisco Solano, now a state park. Along the way we experienced not only slices of history, but found amazing communities still living faithfully in the missions.

Why did we set forth on this pilgrimage? The short answer was to see the vestige of California’s past that I have heard about since 4th grade like every California school child. The more complicated answer was that Lori and I wanted to experience the places where Christianity first came to California. Yet this was not just an exercise in antiquity. We wanted to know: Could the past be transformed into something new that speaks to the era in which we live? Are the missions more than museums? And what unexpected wonders would the missions yield?

Mission San Antonio de Padua
We found powerful, holy places, each offering a unique spiritual oasis. The location seemed not to matter; some missions were tightly wedged into a city while others were down an isolated dirt road. Some missions were amazingly peaceful, like San Antonio de Padua. Others were spectacularly beautiful, like the ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano in the sprawl of Southern California. And we found communities alive with faith. At San Luis Obispo we arrived at the noon Sunday mass. There were two baptisms that day, and the service alternated between English and Spanish. At Santa Inés, near Solvang, we arrived in time for a wedding.

The first nine of the missions were founded by Father Junípero Serra at San Diego; other Franciscans built more missions after his death at Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo (Mission Carmel) in 1784. The twenty-one missions were strung from San Diego to Sonoma, each about a day’s horseback ride apart along El Camino Real, roughly following the route of what is now modern Highway 101. Several major California cities eventually formed around the missions: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Jose, and San Francisco. Others remained isolated and a few missions languished from the start.

Each mission was a working ranch producing food, cowhides and other products for sustenance and sale. The Franciscan vision was that each mission would be a self-sustaining monastery. While that vision is long dead, it is still possible to glimpse mission life as it once was. Mission La Purísima Concepción, near Lompoc, is in a state park that is preserved much as it was in the Spanish era. The only way to the mission is to walk down a dirt road, and La Purísima is still operated as a working farm.

An even more isolated mission, San Antonio de Padua, is on an Army base, Fort Hunter Liggett, nestled in the hills east of San Simeon. We had to drive past a tank and go through a security check point to get onto the base, and then drive another six miles to find the dirt road leading to the mission. The faithful from the surrounding countryside go through this routine every Sunday to go to church at Mission San Antonio. The day we arrived, we had Mission San Antonio all to ourselves and we sat for a long while in the peaceful sanctuary. Above the altar is a wooden arch painted sky blue and adorned with gold stars. I found the light switch and when the lights came on it was as though the entire sky lit up.

Some of the missions today are little more than ruins, while others have only a small chapel on a site near the original mission. Yet each mission is a jewel. Every mission, we discovered, has been shaped and reshaped by grace-filled people for generations. All but two of the 21 missions are still functioning parishes, and the two that are not are nonetheless unmistakably holy.

La Ofrenda at Mission San Juan Batista
The missions range from the ornate to the simple. In every mission, we found the symbols of piety from two centuries in a wonderful holy mix. We found old Spanish mission art next to Indian wall paintings, and Mexican Day-of-the-Dead shrines near shrines to Spanish Franciscan monks. Outside, contemporary statues of St. Francis were near the bright orange, blue and yellow wall hangings of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Nestled in the gardens were 18th century niches devoted to St. Benedict near the graves of Indians and Spanish monks. Even the ruins bulged with bells and statues and beautiful fountains. Everywhere we went we found a feast of color, symbol and life. Seeing California one mission at a time gave me an incredible sense of how each California community is connected to the other. Instead of whizzing up and down I-5 at 75 mph, we stopped every 30 miles or so to see a mission and the community that surrounds it. I can't really say where Southern California ends and Central California begins. In all, we drove 1,550 miles of California back roads and highways.

There were many surprises along the way. Mission San Fernando Rey de España, on the northern edge of the Los Angeles Basin, is now a convent and also the burial place of comedian Bob Hope. The story goes that his wife, Dolores, asked him where he wanted to be buried. “Surprise me,” Hope replied. She did. His gravesite in the mission convent gardens looks like a miniature Hollywood Bowl. Contradictions abound along the mission trail.

The missions were places of great pain. The Spanish padres who founded the missions used – and abused – the Indians in the surrounding regions in the name of Jesus Christ. The mission histories are difficult reading, documenting kidnappings, torture, and uprisings. Spanish soldiers forcefully rounded up Indians in the countryside, killing many. Tens-of-thousands of Indians died from European-born diseases, buried in mass graves near the missions. Today a few missions have memorials to the dead Indians, for example at San Juan Batista where a simple wooden sign marks the mass grave of an estimated 4,300 Indians buried on the grounds.

Yet as earnestly as the Franciscans tried to convert the Indians to European ways, the influence of the Indians on the missions is overwhelming to this day. The Spaniards are long gone, but the Indians are still there tending to the missions and their imprint is everywhere for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. At Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, an Indian holy man showed school children the mission of his ancestors, and he played a musical instrument that his father taught him to play. In other missions, abalone shells, spiritually powerful objects for the Chumash Indians, hold Holy Water in wall niches. Shells decorate graves at Mission Carmel and shells adorn the tabernacle that holds the Sacrament at Mission Santa Bárbara. The walls and ceilings in many of the missions are painted in bright blues and oranges, reds and yellows in geometric patterns designed by Indians.

The California missions have a tumultuous history beyond the Spanish era. The Franciscans maintained that they were holding the mission lands in trust for the Indians, but in the 1830s the new Mexican government secularized the missions, essentially revoking land rights for Indians and the Church alike. Secularization affected each mission differently. The Indians in San Luis Rey were so distraught that their priest was leaving when the mission was secularized that they marched 30 miles to the San Diego harbor to plead with him not to return to Spain.

Artist Christian Jorgensen painted watercolors
of the mission ruins in the late 19th century
Many of the missions were abandoned and fell into disrepair, ravaged by earthquakes, floods, fires and neglect. In 1848, the United States acquired California – and the missions – as spoils in the Mexican-American War. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln returned many of the missions to the Roman Catholic Church. But it was not until nearly a century later that the missions were rebuilt, many in the 1930s as WPA projects. Mission San José, in Fremont, is the last of the missions to be restored. A wooden Gothic-style Catholic church on the site was sold to the Episcopal Church for $1 and moved across the Bay to San Mateo. The old Spanish mission was reconstructed in 1985 and is spectacular.

A few missions barely exist today. Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, out in the lettuce fields near Salinas, was washed away in a flood in the 1820s; all that remains is a small chapel and a few weather-worn adobe walls marking where the mission once stood. Yet the mission still has a congregation and a group of elderly Mexican American women eagerly showed us their mission.

The missions reflect the rich history of diversity in our state. Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) in the heart of San Francisco, has the graves not just of the Spanish monks but of Irish immigrants who came in the years following the Gold Rush. At Mission San Rafael Arcángel, Sunday Mass is offered not only in English and Spanish, but also in Haitian, Vietnamese and Portuguese. In the garden is a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets.

Nearly all of the missions have shrines and votive candles devoted to those who have died. Lori made it her practice to light a candle everywhere we went. At San Juan Batista, a special altar has been set up in a transept adorned with an American flag. People have placed on the altar photographs of men and women who are serving in the military, with notes asking for prayers for their protection and safe return. We lit candles and silently prayed before we left.

It struck me that despite the flaws of the Spanish missionaries, the Gospel still finds a way in these missions to break through to a hurting and broken world – and breaks through to this day. The padres who founded the missions had something in mind that ultimately did not succeed: they attempted to build New Spain and turn the Indians into Franciscan monks. Politics overwhelmed their project and disease and abuse killed most of the Indians. The missions, as originally conceived, failed. Yet the Spirit succeeded. The missions still are hugely sacred places, alive with the Spirit and alive with people. The faithful who tend the missions gave me hope that however flawed my own efforts are, the Gospel will still find a way.

Mission San Miguel
Mission San Miguel Arcángel is one such amazing place still proclaiming the Gospel despite the odds against it. Isolated on a lonely stretch of Highway 101 in a neighborhood of shacks and trailers, the old mission was badly damaged in an earthquake three days before Christmas 2003, and the sanctuary remains closed to visitors. The congregation holds Mass in a converted storeroom, sitting on metal folding chairs. An outdoor altar on top of an old mission millstone offers visitors a place to pray. Mission San Miguel has many cracks but it is still a holy and living place. The only thing holding up repair work is a lack of funding; the mission has more than enough volunteers.

[Note: Since this writing, Mission San Miguel reopened.]

Our journey ended in Sonoma, at Mission San Francisco Solano, built in 1823 as the northern most outpost of the Spanish-American Empire. The mission is now a state park and the chapel is no longer a functioning church. The interior suggests what the mission might have looked like. We walked the grounds, pausing outside at an old wooden wagon that had once hauled the harvest from the fields. A few blocks away is Trinity Episcopal Church, on East Spain Street, on what was once mission land. At the end of our journey we celebrated at a nearby restaurant on the Sonoma Square, and we gave thanks for our safe passage and for this amazing land of California. And we would gladly do this pilgrimage again.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux