Monday, November 19, 2007

God really IS -- and He's in prison!

In my previous posting did I state that November to that point had been a busy month? Well, I wrote that knowing full well that the most significant happenings of the eleventh month were yet to come!

I've just returned from prison. At this point, dear reader, you might want to go back almost a year in my postings (early December of A.D. 2006) and take in my report about the first Kairos Prison Ministry Weekend retreat held in the Dolph Briscoe (prison) Unit near Dilley, Texas. Read what a tremendous event that one was!

I've just returned from prison. Earlier this year I had desired to serve on a Team for a Walk to Emmaus such as the Men's Walk my own Emmaus Fourth day Group, Care Bexar, will do next month. But that Walk got closed to me. I happened to be in a situation to inquire about another Walk, and again the door wasn't open for my participation. It was definitely God saying, "No!" He wanted me to serve instead on a Kairos Weekend, specifically, Briscoe #2 which had been delayed from the Spring by a lock-down in the prison.

I've just returned from prison. When I arrived last Wednesday afternoon at the Dilley American Legion Hall, our outside-the-prison base of ops for the weekend retreats, I was anticipating that the Lord would bless this retreat just like He blesses all Kairos weekends, but nevertheless it wouldn't be as awesome as the first Briscoe Kairos had been. Well, let me tell you, dear reader, it clearly matched #1 for awesomeness of the Holy Spirit's working!

Despite Briscoe #2 lacking the excitement mixed with uncertainty that is always part of presenting a program or event for the first time in a new place. Despite lacking a couple of the details that were (supposedly) integral to Briscoe #1. Despite the cooks among the ladies of the Outside Team grousing about the lack of a functioning reefer. (Smile.) And despite me forgetting several small items in my packing; the only crucial thing was my meds. (Smile again.)

The Prayer Circle that is done during the final Team Formation Session on Thursday morning seemed to finish up more quickly than it had on my three earlier services on Kairos Teams (Torres #9 & #11 as well as Briscoe #1). Nevertheless, it was just as deeply moving a spiritual exercise as it always is!

On the other hand, my writing of my "love letters" to the 42 Candidates ("love" in the agapé sense) took just as long as usual. I only had a couple written upon arrival Wednesday. The last two didn't get written until early Saturday morning. We're supposed to submit the letters for the Outside Team to place in bags for each of the Candidates when we come for breakfast then -- I didn't dare eat a bite 'til I'd stuffed those last two in their envelops! (Smile again.)

On Thursday afternoon, when we Inside Team men enter the prison's gym where we conduct the retreat, we're greeted by the some twenty Stewards (or Servants). They are men in white (TDCJ inmates wear all-white uniforms) who were candidates on an earlier Kairos Weekend and get the call to serve. Big smiles and big hugs all around! I'm delighted that two of the brothers in white from St. Luke Family of #1 (I was Table Clergy for them) are serving as Stewards. I'm assigned two Sponsorees -- meaning that I greet two Candidates when they first enter the gym, lead them to the food table and then sit down and get acquainted with them. As Sponsor (or Host), each morning I also greet them as they enter and lead them to their Family Table in the conference room, check on them occasionally thru'out the retreat to see how they're doing, and take any prayer request from the Sponsoree back to the base of ops to give to the lady assigned to be the Candidate's "prayer partner".

My two are Andy Longoria and Luis López. They're already acquainted with each other. Luis and I are both in the St. Peter Family; in fact, he sits at my right hand. He'd been identified as being one of two Spanish-only speakers, but even tho' he's from Guatemala he'd been in the 'States 14 years and could understand and speak English adequately. (However, Luis finds taking notes during the ten Talks difficult, so I scribe for him in Spanish, as I'd scribed for a Spanish-only speaker from Zacatecas, Mexico, on Kairos Torres #11.) The identified Spanish-only speaker who really IS Spanish-only (a couple others certainly lean toward Spanish-only!) sits directly across the St. Peter table from me, next to our bilingual Table Leader, Jaime Gonzales. He's Porfirio Enríquez, natural de México, whose first name was misspelled on two successive name tags! ¡Pobre Porfirio!

After the one-on-one get-acquainted time, we form a square "u" and each man -- Candidate, Steward or free-world volunteer -- introduces himself to the entire group, by answering a specific set of five questions, including where he's from and why he's in this Kairos retreat. We get to Bill Havard, who is my motel roommate or "cellie" to use the inmates' jargon, he steps forward and points specifically to three of the Stewards as the reason why he's here! (He had attended Closing of #1, and just like me when I went to Closing for Torres #8, the Candidates' testimony to the positive and awesome effect of the Weekend on them had "hooked" him.) It hits me as I listen to Bill that his words are surely impressive witness to the Candidates that not only will the Weekend have strong impact on them but that they themselves can be influential in their response to it! And then, two different Candidates at their turn make sort of confession and break down in tears before us all. But. . . tears aren't supposed to be shed until they get their bags of "love letters" on Saturday afternoon! Wow!

Well, I could go on and on about the work of Christ our Savior and Friend (or work of the Holy Spirit or work of God, take your pick -- they're the same in my book) during the three full days of Kairos Briscoe #2. But how'd I end? As in Emmaus, Kairos has its Fourth Day, which lasts for the rest of one's life! However, I'll summarize by affirming that I came to deeply love each and every brother in white (including Stewards), just as deeply as I love all my fellow free-world Team members (remember, I mean agapé love). The Candidates truly made themselves vulnerable fairly early in the scheme of the Weekend. Luis, Porfirio and the four other St. Peter brothers in white have an extra special place in my heart, I suppose, just as do the six of St. Luke on Briscoe #1. . . .

And I also declare and testify the following. If I ever, EVER hear some atheist say, "God does not exist", I shall firmly respond, "God most certainly DOES exist, and if you'll go with me to Briscoe Prison I'll introduce you to Him!"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A veteran plays tour guide

Well, well, well! This month of November in the Year of Our Lord two thousand seven has been BUSY and EVENT-FILLED! Herein I simply wish to touch on a very few of these happenings.

First, I got to play "tour guide" twice -- today and last Tuesday. Last week my mother was here to visit; she stayed at Patrick and LaRae's quarters on Fort Sam. Brother's residence must have been crowded, because others with whom Mom had come from Idaho also stayed there. (My efficiency hardly has room for me, and NO privacy!) One of these folks was LaRae's mother (Patrick's mother-in-law). With Patrick as driver the two moms and I took the so-called "Mission Trail" from The Alamo out to the other four old Spanish missions which form San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. We stopped at each mission and toured it, with yours truly serving as the informal, or volunteer, tour guide. In my talks I emphasized a trait or characteristic of each of the missions which was unique (distinctive) to that mission.

For example, the first of the N.H.P. missions, Concepción, features the ONLY one of the five missions churches that has not needed to be significantly restored. It has remained intact since the mid-1700s -- making Concepción the OLDEST unrestored church building in these United States!

The second mission, San José, presents numerous distinctives; among them, it has the main visitor center for the whole park and it's the most completely-restored of the mission compounds. Each mission originally had a surrounding fortress-wall (to protect against hostile Lipan Apache tribe) enclosing residences of the mission Indians (from Coahuiltecan bands of former hunter-gatherers), workshops, residences for Spanish soldiers and missionaries, as well as the church sanctuary proper. San Jose is called the "Queen of the Spanish Missions" -- of San Antonio, of Texas, of the borderland Southwest. Its famous "Rosa's Window" -- NOT a "rose window" of the European cathedral-style (round and stained-glass) but rather a stone window frame in ornate Spanish Baroque style -- has been termed the most beautiful work of art remaining from the Spanish colonial era.

We four also visited the outermost missions, San Juan de Capistrano (NOT the one of song and swallows -- that one's on the West Coast) and San Francisco de la Espada. This latter mission is probably my favorite of the five, and definitely would be my fave (with no competition from San José) were it more accessible. (It's a mile or more away from the nearest VÍA bus routes, and as you know I have no car.) Mission Espada's distinctive feature is its very remoteness which gives a visitor more of the "feel" of a mission as it was while actively converting native Coahuiltecans into good Catholic Christians and good subjects of the distant King of Spain.

As it turned out, the stop at Mission San José was appropriate rehearsal for the tour I did today. As an associate member of the San Antonio Conservation Society, I had volunteered to take a day off from sub-teaching to be a SACS tour guide for a group of fourth-graders on a history tour of San Antonio. My assigned school was Castle Hills Elementary in the close-in suburban city of Castle Hills. The city is astride Loop 410 North between Blanco Road and West Avenue. At the school I met four teachers and their students. Two classes got on one tour bus and the other two and yours truly boarded the other. There was a bit of confusion over the itinerary -- were BOTH buses to go to the same tour sites at the same time? Too late we found out "No" -- after a driving tour of attractions in downtown, including passing The Alamo, we showed up at Steves Homestead and found out our bus was supposed to have gone to Mission San José first! So away we went again, passing Misión Concepción on the way. Docent-led tours are available at the "Queen of the Missions", but on last week's visit we four were told that those tours lasted forty-five minutes. The two moms didn't feel up to that long a walk, so after watching a twenty-minute movie in the Visitor Center, called "Gente de Razón/People of Reason" about the Coahuiltecans who gathered at and built the missions, and their present-day descendants (who often are members of the parishes that these missions have become) I served as guide for a shorter tour of the mission compound.

On that occasion I became distressed that a statue of Fray Antonio Margil which had been in the church's sacristy was gone! Friar Margil, often called "the Apostle of New Spain", founded Mission San José in 1722. He did this near the end of many eventful years of missionary service that had taken him from his native Valencia, Spain, across the Atlantic to Veracruz, up to the capital city (México) and down to Guatemala and back and then down to what is now Costa Rica, and up to northwest-central Mexico, and finally to east and south Texas as it was in Spanish times. He did most of his travels walking "barefoot" (in light sandals rather than sturdy shoes or boots) and NOT by mule or on a donkey! Yet in the midst of his prodigious missionary efforts he made time to be president of one Franciscan missionary school (el colegio de Santa Cruz de Querétaro) and founder of another (el colegio de Guadalupe de Zacatecas) -- and to write numerous letters about his work as a missionary and its challenges! Fray Antonio's letters have been gathered and translated in a book titled "Nothingness Itself" (the customary signature this humble servant of Christ used on most of the letters), which I possess and greatly enjoy reading.

Can you tell that I strongly consider this Spanish Franciscan friar and missionary to be a great "hero of the faith"? No wonder that I was distressed to not find his statue in the sacristy to proudly show off to my party!

Anyhow... back to today's fourth-grade tour. Knowing that we were behind time due to the earlier schedule error, I felt it would be better for me to again play tour guide -- and I certainly wasn't reticent about it! One of the most fun jobs I ever had was "tour coordinator" at Grand Ole Opry Tours office at Opryland USA in Nashville in the late 1990s. In addition to selling tickets for everything available at Opryland or in the city under the name of Gaylord Entertainment, I served as "step-on guide" for groups that came in their own buses and needed a tour guide to take them on one of our prescribed tours of Music City. And the very best part of the job was serving as tour guide for the walking tour we scheduled two or three times a day of the Grand Ole Opry House itself. I simply lu-u-uved showing visitors my favorite venue in Tennessee and telling them the entertaining story of the oldest radio show still in existence (pun intended)! Hence, I leapt at the opportunity to show off my favorite venue of San Antonio to these fourth-graders from Castle Hills!

Following the tour of the mission we returned to the Steves Homestead to do THAT tour. I gladly deferred to a docent to guide us there. I'm not all that familiar yet with this Victorian mansion (built in 1876) that was home to the Steves (pronounced something like "SHTEH-fehs" in Deutsch), one of the prominent German families of San Antonio of the late Nineteenth Century and up to today. Many Deutsch immigrants built their homes where the Steves did, in the King William neighborhood just south of the city's center. King William was the first "exclusive" or "silver-spoon" neighborhood of the Alamo City, and also the first area to be declared a National Historic District!

All in all, this tour was just as enjoyable and memorable as the one a week earlier.

But wait! Dear reader, you're wondering about the "veteran" in my title, no doubt. Well, sandwiched between the two Tuesday tours this vet celebrated Veterans Day weekend. Some institutions took Monday off in observance of the holiday. But most remained open, and the Veterans Day Parade of San Antonio, as usual, was on Saturday (the Tenth). This year I also attended the wreath-laying ceremony in front of the church at The Alamo. Among the program's participants a Chaplain from Fort Sam offered the invocation; I spoke briefly with him afterward about my own service as Army chaplain, before he and the others in the program walked the few yards to the assembly area for the parade. I stayed at The Alamo to watch as the parade marched by.

Next day, Sunday the Eleventh, the REAL Veterans Day, I made sure to run the American flag up the flagpole in front of Mexican Christian Church. The Sundays nearest national holidays I do this; as long as we have the national colors (the church actually has two American flags) and chicanos are notable for their patriotism, I feel strongly that we OUGHT to fly those colors at least to observe national holidays! Raising the flag presented more of a challenge this time; there was a stiff breeze and as I raised the larger of the two flags it threatened to fly away in that wind, with yours truly in tow! Thank goodness, lowering it after worship was much easier!

So. . . now you know why I apply the two descriptive labels to myself in the title of this posting. Hasta luego, amigo ("See you later, friend").