Ever since I was twelve years old, I’ve had a weekend job playing the piano at Catholic churches. I was raised Catholic, and when it was presented to me that I could make fast money by just playing and singing super easy church songs, I jumped on it. It was this job that allowed me to live in New York during college and still have the time to excel in classes. Not religious, I find the job to be more of a social work project than a liturgical experience. The community consists of the Dominican and Puerto Rican population situated in the projects of the Lower East Side. Most of the older people were raised in the parish and have stayed in the neighborhood all their lives. It’s another job where my nickname is “muñeco.” I started at this particular church when I was a nineteen years old as the music director, and have since stayed. They treat me as their own. Apparently, I am not one of the gringo's trying to price them out of their neighborhood.
To this day, I have to orient my brain space in such a way as to not let the liturgies bother me. I zone out quite a bit. After awhile, all masses kind of feel the same. I never take communion at church, since I don’t believe in it, but I always pay attention to the reading. I interpret them, the prayers, and songs as I would poetry. Today, during the Gospel, Jesus visits some woman whose son is dead. The priest is reading in Spanish and I still can’t understand everything, so I usually follow along in the book in English. It reads:
“When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, He stepped forward and touched the coffin; “Do not weep.” at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
There’s a bunch of hub-bub and everybody talks about how great Jesus is and stuff. People realize through the healing that he actually is probably a big deal. I realized that in all the stories where Jesus raises somebody from the dead, you never really get the perspective of the dead person. You’d think that there would have been follow up with these once-dead people, where they were asked to report on what it was like to be dead. I also always craved a story where Jesus thought it wasn’t appropriate to raise an individual from the dead. Where he says something like, “bless you woman, but your son is dead and death is final,” and everybody actually deals with reality, and people get mad at Jesus but he just takes it and lets them be mad and calmly explains that anger is a natural phase of the grieving process.
After communion, people who are celebrating a birthday, or an anniversary, or any newcomers are invited to come up to the front of the church for a sincere but somewhat uncomfortable blessing. Sometimes (often), a mother will bring her newborn baby to introduce to the community. Frequently, this mother will be single and under nineteen years old. She’ll be wearing Joyce Leslie hand-me-downs, sometimes she'll be trying to monitor the behavior of the young child she gave birth to years before. She will look completely calm and horrified all at once; a state of being I think only a new mother can know. The entire community will clap wildly and loudly for her child, as if this was the best thing that could have happened for her.
This week, a little boy comes up for his ninth birthday. He is beaming. After he is publicly blessed, a woman comes up with what appears to be a baby. I begin the ritual mind-process of “not-another-baby,” when I notice that what she holds in the blanket in her arms is inanimate. It’s a doll. A broken doll, with one eye missing. For a second, the entire room freezes. Nobody really knows whether she is kidding or not. I look at the woman's face. She's for real. This is her baby. The priest gives me this look of “what do I do,” and I give the public smile that says, “we all have to pretend that this is real.” The choir kind of looks at me like, “this bitch is crazy,” and I just raise my hand so that nobody will look at this woman and tell her that her baby isn’t real.
And the priest follows suit. He says, “A newcomer! Okay. Let’s pray.” And he lifts his hands, and the whole congregation, in on the sad joke as well, raises their arms in solidarity over the new mother and her newborn.