The building was hardly threatening. Dirty white labeled with a large "Bienvenidos" and a few hand-painted crosses. Still, my stomach turned as we entered the Christian Community Center of Caimito, Puerto Rico for Sunday mass.
I have never been a religious person. My parents chose not to christen me, marking me a heathen child and forever freeing me from the Sunday school obligations that plagued my childhood friends. I know embarrassingly little about the Bible, and Catholic churches make me nervous. It always seems painfully obvious that I don't belong in a church, like a silent alarm warns God of my intrusion.
My intentions for being there were good. I had joined a group of like-minded students from my university to volunteer at Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in neighboring San Juan. We were put up in the Christian Community Center's guest house.
Driving into Caimito had been my first real introduction to poverty. Faded houses lined the winding, narrow streets, their laundry lines sagging with worn clothing, backyards piled high with junk. Locals eyed us warily, sitting on plastic chairs outside the corner store, a hub for the local drug dealer.
None of this seemed to faze Reverend Juan. He left Puerto Rico after high school to study medicine in New York. Instead, he returned to Caimito and found the power of God. Forty-one years later, he remains the Christian Community Center's unshakeable leader. His smile was magnetic — the wide kind that spreads all across the face and crinkles the eyes. Why is Puerto Rico better than where we can from up north? Under the yellow warmth of the sun, Juan reminded us, "Here: no snow."
He told us about his life, his family, his work. How we didn't need school to follow our passions — that the answers are in our hearts and not a textbook. We were all entranced. As I write down Juan's advice now, the words seem cliche. Coming from him, they sounded like truths. I had listened to sermons before, listened to men of God deliver similar messages. I always thought they were nice — warm and fuzzy ideas that never left an impression. But here we were with Juan in regular conversation, and I couldn't tear myself away.
It was decided we would all attend church the next day. We wanted to pay Juan our respects and thank him for letting us stay, and what better way than by seeing him in his element? My head agreed that it was the right tribute, but my stomach still tightened anxiously. Talking with Juan outside, eating pinchos and arepas — it had all been informal. I knew that, setting foot inside his church, the informality would disappear, replaced by unfamiliar rituals, this time in a language I barely understood.
We filed into the church early, interrupting Juan's wife as she led the morning lesson. The room was small, white, sparse. No more than 30 chairs made up both sides of the aisle, and there was a small platform stage by the lectern with a rainbow mural backdrop. About five people — and Juan — sat in the rows, all with their books open, sneaking peaks at us as we took our seats. We listened patiently until the lesson concluded, and I shifted in my seat worrying what would come next.
Juan wanted us to each introduce ourselves. I grasped the microphone. "Hola,"I said and was answered with a chorus of "holas." I said something terrible like, "My name is Samantha. I can't speak Spanish because I speak Italian. But thank you for everything," and everyone smiled politely and refrained from wincing.
One of the women seated got up and approached the pulpit. She was small and hunched, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, and she closed her eyes in front of us and began to pray out loud. Every now and then the doors to the church opened and closed, a couple teenage girls crossing back and forth to the attached Sunday school room. No one seemed to heed the interruptions.
At one point, the girls settled by the other church members on a nearby bench with two toddlers in tow — a little boy and an older girl, their skin fair with only a hint of underlying pigment, both with wide blue eyes. Everyone's focus shifted from the old woman's prayer to the babies, fidgeting on the girls' laps.
And all of a sudden there was singing. The woman stopped praying and broke out into a warbled hymn, and the rest of the church joined in. The teenage girls smacked tambourines and everyone clapped. Another woman stood up, lost in the song. They were off pitch and off beat. I wasn't even sure they were all singing the same hymn. The baby boy wriggled free and ran across the room, his shaky steps matching the beat as one of the girls chased after him. All at once it had become joyful chaos, and we all clapped along. This was not the calm and ordered mass I was used to — and yet it made perfect sense. The young and the old, singing to God in loud notes and baby shrieks, sincerity and laughter. Here in Caimito, a perfectly intimate display of what they were all praying for: life.
The song faded away and Juan finally spoke. In Spanish and English he thanked us for volunteering our time to help the community. The baby barreled toward him, and Juan crouched down to let him leap into his arms. He lifted the boy up and passed him around to us as prayed for gratitude and kindness and meeting one another.
And just like that, the service was over. I was not relieved because I had forgotten my anxiety, completely entranced by these people on a regular Sunday in their tiny church.
We went around hugging and kissing the church members, saying "Mucho gusto" and "Muchas gracias." I thought about what Juan had said as everyone clasped our hands firmly, looked into our eyes, and held us close: "We are a family. Our family is your family, our church is your church." Blindly and absolutely, I believed him.