Editor’s note: Over the years, Joe Moran’s Christmas story has become a holiday tradition at The Herald-Sun. Most people in Durham know him as the Carolinas regional director of Church World Service. At another time and place, however, Moran was a Roman Catholic priest. This year’s story is drawn from his work in Latin America almost a quarter-century ago..
Almost everyone in the small, mountain village of Guarita, recognized that Alejandro was different.
On this particular day in November 1974, the 17-year-old came sashaying across the dusty central plaza, casting sidelong glances at the soldiers who loitered in front of their barracks. A couple of them hooted and whistled.
“Buenas tardes padre,” he lisped politely as he entered through the front door of my office. Delicate of feature and slight of build, Alejandro was not shy. I found myself uncomfortable in his presence.
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“Padre,” he half whined, “the soldiers are making fun of me again.” At this he stuck his head out the door and with a flick of his wrist directed at the soldiers he waved off, what seemed to me at the time to be, their not entirely unwanted attentions.
“Do you want them not to make fun of you, Alejandro?” I asked.
“Sí,” he answered affirmatively, but not very resolutely. His hand half covered a giggle.
I decided to cut to the chase. “Then you need to stop doing things like balancing a basket on your head with one hand, and placing the other hand on your hip as you walk across the town square,” I suggested. “It’s mainly the townswomen who do that, so when you do it it looks strange, and that’s why the soldiers laugh and tease.”
“Oh,” he replied.
Alejandro knew all this, of course, so I wasn’t sure whether I’d said it out of my own discomfort at his having drawn me into the obvious, or out of the more noble inclination to advise him on survival skills.
Some weeks earlier my church secretary had told me that Alejandro, while different, “wouldn’t harm a flea.” But she offhandedly had added something else, and it was that something else that had prompted me to ask him to come to my office that morning. She’d said, shaking her head for emphasis, “But the boy sure knows how to decorate.” That had set me to thinking.
The old Alamo-like church that sat in the center of the town that was my base of pastoral operations needed serious help. The outside was pockmarked with bullet holes, a legacy of the 1969 “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador. On the inside, a painted tongue and groove ceiling was supported by 16 wooden pillars that ran the length of the nave – eight on either side of the aisle. On the whole, the interior was plain and utilitarian.
Above the altar, however, was the unique centerpiece of the town’s adoration, a large crucifix on which hung an ebony figure known as the “Cristo Negro” – the “Black Christ.”
“Alejandro, would you be willing to decorate the church for Christmas?” I asked. “The word out is that you are very good at this.”
“Would I, Padre? I’d love to,” he gushed. He went on to explain that he’d often imagined what he could do to spruce up the sanctuary. He sat down and after calculating for a while, asked for a modest sum, saying that he knew all the cloth vendors in the city a few hours away who would give him a very good deal.
Alejandro was a young man on a mission. He was so eager to start that he got up at 3:00 a.m. the very next morning and took the early bus to the town of St Rosa de Copán to shop.
During the three remaining weeks before Christmas, while I made pastoral visits to the surrounding mountain villages, Alejandro worked daily behind closed church doors. When I returned a few days before Christmas, a delegation of elderly women from the Altar Society was waiting in my office to discuss “a matter” with me.
“Who gave this young man permission to be doing what he was doing in the church?” they demanded. “Did I know what sort this Alejandro fellow was?” And “Why aren’t you letting the women prepare the sanctuary for Christmas the way we’ve always done?”
I listened. Then I encouraged them to accept the boy’s kind graces and enthusiasm and to let him proceed. They could come and sweep, and bring flowers on Christmas Eve as they’d always done (they’d never done very much more that I’d observed). The women agreed, but they were not happy about it.
Christmas Eve came, and I cranked up the diesel generator to illuminate the old church. A larger than usual crowd jammed the plaza.
When at last the large church doors swung open there was one, loud, communal gasp, followed by reverent oohs and aahs.
Connected along the center of the length of the nave were sixteen 30-foot-long double swaths of lustrous white lace and brilliant red-tangerine cloth. These swooped down and were tied, on either side, to the 16 wooden pillars – eight on each side of the aisle. This procession of two-tone “Priscilla curtains” went from the front doors up the main aisle to the sanctuary. At each place where the curtains were tied to the upright pillars, Alejandro had placed palm fronds and large flower bouquets. The effect was breathtaking.
The church was bursting at the seams that evening. There were barefoot campesinos who’d come in from their mountain fields and villages, a unit of young mestizo soldiers, who stood stiffly in their two-sizes-too-big starched khaki uniforms, a few local “politicos,” a dozen mangy dogs and me.
Smiling from ear to ear, Alejandro sat in front. He was dressed to the nines in blue pants, yellow satin shirt, red ascot and black patent leather shoes. Around him sat the women’s Altar Society members, chatting in wonderment and praise. They asked Alejandro how precisely he had done this, how he had done that, and where had he obtained such gorgeous whatchamacallits; and how had he struck on the idea to put the palm fronds and flowers thus and so – questions without end.
From above, the Black Christ seemed to be looking down on it all admiringly, and especially so on this flamboyant young decorator in whose presence I had found myself so ill at ease.
I began to discern a lesson in my experience with Alejandro. In the scriptural narratives of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem we find him surrounded by an assortment of characters: poor shepherds, bearded foreign astrologist/scientists – one of them, black, according to tradition, as well as sheep, oxen, a donkey, camels and winged extraterrestrials.
Throughout his life Jesus moved in the company of a diverse group of people. There were poor fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, military officers, lepers. There were Jews and Goyim. There were Judeans, Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, and people who spoke strange languages. And though Jesus never took a course on multiculturalism he seemed eminently comfortable with the mix.
About gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people however, Jesus never said a word, much to the disappointment of many modern conservatives and liberals alike.
What Jesus did say, though, is that people like preachers and politicians, who in their indignant self-righteousness piled moral burdens and guilt on the backs of the common people – these were the folks he liked the least. At the same time, others upon whom many looked with unease, reproach and disdain, were “taking the kingdom of God by storm” because they “loved much.”
Christmas, among other things, is a celebration of God’s love of diversity and of God’s universal inclusiveness. The angels’ song to the shepherds was first “Fear not!” and then:”Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men (everyone) of good will.”
This wonderful gift of divine peace is given to lots of different folks. Certainly among them was Alejandro, whose lifestyle and flamboyance was so foreign to me, but whose good will gave the beautiful Christmas gift of the tangerine and lace curtains to the Black Christ and to the entire community.
If we could but unleash in ourselves such spontaneous and non-judgmental good will toward others, we might come to realize that God’s gift of deep inner peace and tranquility is also there for all of us.