by Dan Bodine
On Christmas Eve, 1994, as a Far West Texas judge in Presidio, TX, I attended a midnight mass in a Catholic church across the Rio Grande in Ojinaga (OJ), Chihuahua, MX, that would change my life. A real-life drunk’d reached deep in me and snagged some underlying Baptist fundamentalism feelings.
While clinging to only two short years of sobriety myself, I gripped the back of a wooden church pew to keep from getting up and grabbing this guy who’d noisily staggered in from the plaza outside, and booting him from the church.
Barocho is Spanish for a wild, drunk person. To be honest, in my past 30 years or so, I’d lived almost every definition. Struggling, I guess, to reconcile a minor high-roof birth defect (in my mouth) – e.g., my speech stuttering — to the concept of God being perfect.
Finally I’d learned some years ago to keep this beast in me calm, treat it like the disgruntled inner child it is — e.g., toss a morsel of salving logic to it. But spin it nicely, such as:
“He’d just slipped up with us, I guess, ol’ partnuh! And all these millions of imperfect OTHERS like us thru the ages, too! Those mas, MAS WORSE than the more fortunate ones like us, ‘ya know! SAME thing! All of now just now-‘n-then slip-up’s!!!
I mean, that’s how most people handle it, right?. And always before it’d worked with this kid! But here it broke the stress test, though.
Furthermore, how my fiancée, sitting on my left, handled this moment of indignant anger by a whacky guy she’d marry in a few months, indeed, would forever affect my life with a greater degree of humbleness.
For not just a lone gringo I was among all the Latino worshipers; apparently, I’d also been the only person bent out of shape by this scene, too. Why?
The interruption of a sacred mass by a street drunk, an outsider invading the realm of the Sacred, had struck deep into an ol’ religious fundamentalist’ nerve in me, I’ve figured. That in decades of more progressive Christian living I’d somehow managed to calmly stifle.
Not here, though.
In hindsight, recognizing more fully this later – e.g., indeed, mentally I had a tag-along sidekick — pushed my own thinking eventually into a deeper level of forgiveness, I think. Deeper compassion.
Not just for others, but for myself also. God forbid, if there’s even proper decorum somewhere for it – e.g., “Hey, Jeffro, am I a gonna have to kick your butt out of this church, too? Huh!? Settle down, you wily yáhoo!!!”
Admitting existence of an alternate you, and acknowledging responsibility to it, is not a small fete for an ex-country boy journalist, after all.
Just a few years earlier I’d fled disaster in Dallas-Fort Worth – e.g., Shut down four weekly newspapers in noisy bankruptcy proceedings, and fled under the cloak of darkness to the Far West Texas desert at La Junta de Los Rios! To take over yet another small weekly newspaper, as editor.
As an aside, I’d taken on the justice of the peace job for extra income — just to pay my new newspaper’s printing cost, and having to travel a couple hours or so each week to Pecos and back. Wasn’t long I’d sold the paper ‘cause of growing stress of both workloads on my body. JPing had county health insurance, too!
But I was a drying-out alcoholic my damn-self all this time, too, staying on sobriety’s road longer this time, yes, but my sidekick still in full-speed-ahead mode in the good fight against all perceived evil – i.e., those lurking tripwires inside alter-egos that lay like explosive minefields, waiting for that 1st drunk to stumble in!
Thus, even knowing alcohol is poison, in the psyche of someone still struggling to overcome alcoholism vis a vis these still remaining vestiges of fundamentalism, as I was then — there’s still an ongoing struggle to find compassion.
How this one drunk would affect me, and how ultimately I’d handle the community who supported me in office to keep their peace – e.g., a gringo who couldn’t even speak Spanish, either – is a story worth repeating. Which in this another Christmas season, I’ll gladly share here.
Desert Mts Enterprises
El Paso, TX
Images of today’s church from photo commons https://www.joinmychurch.com/churches/Jesus-Nazareno-Parroquia-Ojinaga-Chihuahua-Mexico/245817#church-pictures
El Baracho en La Iglesia!
OJINAGA, CHIH., MEXICO – It was time for Christmas Eve Mass,1994, in a popular, and historical Catholic church anchoring the downtown plaza here, Parroqúia Jesús de Nazareno. Well into the darkness of a late December evening, Fr. Carlos Pérez was backstage ready for the start.
My fiancée, Noemi Fierro, and I were inside, sitting in the church pews on the left side, about 3rd way from the back, seated about middle of the bench, with a friend beside us on the left.
Just moments before the service was to begin, there was a small commotion behind us, sounded like something from the entrance way.
“El Baracho!” Noemi’s friend said. It was the entrance of someone named Daniel, I’d later learn. Coincidence?
We turned our heads and glared at the guy who’d just entered the aisle. Unkempt, late 30s maybe, black-haired, medium built, and bedraggled dark shirt and jeans.
Damn! A low-life drunk has entered with us, was my immediate thought.
Noemi and her friend, watching him a few seconds, calmly returned their faces to the front — e.g., Refused to give him more attention.
He’d come stumbling into the church from the spacious plaza outside, shouting noisily just as the service was set to begin, shoving people aside who’d initially tried to block him, it’d appeared.
Just to make a scene! On Christmas Eve! When we are to celebrate the Birth of Christ, it is! A Mexican baracho!
Yes, a rage in me had started.
There he stood, his head swaying back-and-forth reminding me of Carrie in that long ago, crazy movie, The Exorcist.
But here, as sordidly real a demon character as the vile life he represented, we were presented with a slight variant: CONTEMPT!! As in mocking our worship!
And grabbing at my throat was not one person moved to restrain him! Much less kick his butt back out onto the streets!
Why? Why, indeed, allow such sacrilege?! The audacity of it!!! On Christmas Eve!
I was holding tightly onto the back of the church pew in front — Anger tethered only by a thin spiritual leash. Becoming thinner.
His contempt for us was his message: Slowly moving up the aisle, stopping every couple of steps or so … to stare hard into the faces of parishioners on both sides. Daring them!
“You gotta problem with me, huh?!”
I could only imagine what he was saying, yes. No habla Espanol! But no one – NO ONE – moving on him meant hell’s bells were ringing, my fundamentalism screamed at me!
And the question ‘My God, WHY???’ lay in my throat like a wad of spent bubblegum that wouldn’t go down! I’d gagged!
I looked around at fellow parishioners for an answer. Instead, it was the same riddle: Everyone pretending what was happening wasn’t happening!
My freaking mind screamed.
“Surely, I’m not the only one upset about this! Huh?!”
Countenance then answered.
“As a gringo judge from across the river you don’t need to ride shotgun on church stuff over here,” was the musing!
So, yes, I was losing it!
“Don’t look at him!” Noemi said, taking my arm from the pew in front to pull me closer to her on the seat.
I’d been almost semi-crouched, ready to launch, I guess. And she’d felt or sensed the anger in me.
But Noemi and her friend were like the others in a way, too, I’d noticed — e.g., being quiet, and waiting for services to start.
“Could this barocho denigrating their presence not even exist with them?” I wondered. “Like the others, they were all pretending?”
How did I get so confused? This is playacting?
“Calm, calm, calm!” Noemi whispered again, squeezing my arm tighter.
And this time those lovely brown eyes were deadly serious, I’d noticed.
I nodded with my head.
Mad, still! But I’d calmed down, yes.
Slowly, El Barocho stumbled to the front of the church, and then onto the stage.
Even as he began lifting sacred figurines from the tables, waving them in the air, and shouting again, still no one arose against him.
Hell, now he’s preaching?! I wondered.
(Later I’d learn from Noemi, mostly here he was simply asking parishioners porque, porque, porque!?! Meaning, why, why, why!?! His underlying assumption to me of course, being: All you stupid?!!)
I think it was at this moment I glimpsed my childhood in Cleburne, just south of Fort Worth in North Central Texas, and smiled a bit.
Do you know what the church deacons in our little ol’ Baptist church there would’ve done to this guy by now?! Why, they’d had him out a door in 10 seconds at the most! And’d be pounding the pee-waddlin’ doo-doo out of him by, by gawd!!
But not here. Not with these people. Noemi squeezed my arm again, and whispered, “Calm! Calm!” And motioned to the front.
Something was happening on the stage, yes. Finally.
It seems this guy had wandered in before, my first thought was. The congregation even has a “designated driver” for this drunk!? I wondered. At Church?!?!?
A larger guy, chubby, dress shirt and shoes, nice appearance, had come upon the stage from the left side. He’d been above us when services began, in the balcony, Noemi would tell me later. Angrily.
It’d taken time — ‘more ‘n a few minutes’ — for him to get there! Once he’d even noticed “ol’ baracho” had entered, I’d assumed.
But yes, this guy’d slowly walked down those stairs, and then to the front and to the stage, and upon it. He (a friend of his?) casually walked across to the drunk and gently took him by the arm.
And that’s all!
As though saying, “Oh, Daniel, you know you don’t mean to be up here like this! Come!”
And then they quietly walked off the stage and out a side door.
And that was it!
Almost immediately then, Fr. Jesús stepped out from behind a back partition, smiling, and began singing – e.g., waving his right arm in the air for others to stand and join him in opening the mass.
There was some laughter, but then everyone soon stood. And joyous singing erupted everywhere — from the little OJ church on the plaza.
It was all over! Service had begun!
But I was still fuming.
And Noemi’s calmness and occasional laughter while participating in the service was like a pin prick in me! And she knew it, I felt.
“Why?!?” I asked her finally, reaching for her arm. “Why!? Why allow all that to happen!?”
But she wanted nothing of it!
“Shhh…” she whispered, never taking her eyes off the ceremony at the front. “He baracho!”
“Then why didn’t someone kick him out?! Before he ever got up there?!”
She ignored me, went back to singing, and recited in unison the Confession Prayer that precedes each Catholic service.
Finally, as we were sitting down, she turned. Using the first two fingers of her right hand, she pointed to her beautiful brown eyes. Now searing-with-anger eyes! She SCREAMED at me – in the softest of voices:
“The man watched all. He wanted to fight! You no see!? She was gesturing with her arms. Mas problemas! he wants. Es toto!”
And then she turned to hear to what was being said up front again.
Beside her, I continued to stew, a superior Muther del Norte ready to set this situation straight in a heartbeat.
But quickly it was obvious Noemi had had enough of my gringo superiority puffiness, too.
You talk about setting something straight! This night, this woman — broken English or not, I was about to learn — can do it.
She leaned over to my ear again: “You no see man separated, apart from God, and looking for way back, no?” she asked, her mouth aghast. “…The fathers, they say pray for him, help him…Not be angry!!”
She paused a few seconds. The fires in those oval eyes! Straight at me!!!
And yeah…Puffed out, I’d become.
“We have people can take him outside,” she added. “No worry! But he upstairs only; need time to come down. Es toto!”
And then she gestured with her arm and shoulder, as though to say, “What’s the big deal with you gringo?”
I couldn’t say anything. Literally…Could not…Say a word.
Grappling to sync her words (of the scene) to my reaction to it, something’d hit me hard. Pounding all air from me. And clamping me suddenly in a vice!
And to add more insult, my little voice came in:
“And you’re so high-and-mighty, Bodeen? You call yourself a JUDGE, huh?”
A kaleidoscope of feelings, it was, yes. What more can one say? But the incident changed me forever.
Gradually throughout the next few days, months, years, that drunk gave me a greater gift of forgiving, of feeling more closely for those around me.
And deep inside, too, God became my friend again.
The sidekick forgiven.
— 30 —