Note to readers: The original draft of a true story of a drunk at a 1994 Christmas Eve Mass in a little Catholic church shown below in Ojinaga (OJ), Chih., MX, I wrote just weeks after it happened. OJ‘s a mid-size city directly across the Rio Grande from Presidio, Tx. — where I served as justice of the peace. It hit a long-dormant fundamentalist nerve in me! The story languished for years on my computer. But this past week, posting a comment of it on Facebook about this photo drew requests to post it online. Here it is, slightly edited. It highlights a schism in modern Christianity — e.g., Christians’ role in abusive behavior and defining proper response. — DB
Christmas Eve Borracho
In OJ Catholic Church
by Dan Bodine
On Christmas Eve, 1994, as a Far West Texas judge in Presidio, TX, I attended a midnight mass involving a drunk in a Catholic church across the Rio Grande in Ojinaga (OJ), Chihuahua, MX, that inexplicably altered me.
The incident showed Christians are best communally as one healing salve, I think, rather than individually as divisive protagonists, which is pulling us further toward violence — e.g., my would-be role this night.
Clinging to two short years of sobriety myself, I gripped the back of a wooden church pew to keep from getting up and grabbing the drunk, who’d noisily staggered in from the plaza outside. And booting him deservedly from the church. Me, gringo and not even a church member.
Borracho is Spanish for a wild, drunk person. To be honest, in my past 30 years or so, I’d lived many definitions of it.
Struggling like so many Americans, I guess (e.g., in search of their own raison d’etre), I think my fog also was in reconciling my speech stuttering to the concept of God being perfect. My stutter arose from a minor birth defect in the roof of my mouth, I’d learn when almost 30.
So here, still tracing the true source of defects, I was. As a once steeped Bible-Belt worshipper, it sure wasn’t a typical egg hunt for me! Only one explanation, which I repeatedly kept telling myself I would not accept!
“He just slipped up with us, I guess? that 2nd voice inside would ask. Wadn’t intentional! And all these millions of imperfect others — so many much, much worse — thru all the ages, the same, huh? Just now-and-then slip-up‘s?!?”
Rationing inequalities weighs particularly on the insecure, yes. I can remember an ol’ Universalist minister years ago, i.e., dramatically explaining a person is what she/he hates! Your mirror detestable comes back to fry your brain! Best to identify it, recognize it, then wave it goodbye along its harried path, when it comes by every so often on Life’s speedway.
Didn’t do it this night! Failed the test. Instead, wanted to reach out and choke the life out of that mirrored beast!
How my fiancée, sitting on my left, handled this moment of indignant anger by a whacky Texan she’d marry in a few months would forever affect my life with greater humbleness, though, I think.
And not just a lone gringo I was among all the Latino worshipers there. Apparently I’d also been the only person affronted by this scene, too.
The interruption of a sacred mass by a street drunk, an outsider invading the realm of the Sacred, struck deep into an ol’ religious fundamentalist’ nerve in me, I think. That in decades of more progressive Christian living I’d somehow managed to calmly avoid. But not here, though.
In hindsight, recognizing this later – e.g., that I had an undernourished, tag-along sidekick — pushed my own thinking eventually into a deeper level of forgiveness. 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!!!”
Ah, self-discipline, maybe was the culprit! Admitting existence of an alternate you, and acknowledging responsibility to it also, 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 – i.e., Shut down four weekly newspapers in noisy bankruptcy proceedings — and fled under the cloak of secrecy to La Junta de Los Rios in the Far West Texas desert at Presidio.
To yet another small weekly newspaper as editor.
As an aside, later after I’d taken on the justice of the peace job couple years or so for extra income — just to pay my new newspaper’s printing cost and for traveling a couple hours or so each week to Pecos and back for the printing — it wasn’t long I’d sold the paper, ‘cause of heart concerns. JPing had county health insurance!
But, yes, I was still a drying-out alcoholic my damn-self all this time, staying on sobriety’s road longer this time, yes, but still in full-speed-ahead mode in the good fight against all perceived evil – e.g., those lurking tripwires inside alter-egos that lay like minefields waiting, waiting…In my case, for another drunk to stumble in! Explosion!
Thus, even knowing alcohol is poison — in the psyche of someone still struggling to stay dry vis a vis toting fundamentalism dregs, as I was then — there’s still this struggle to find compassion in behavior off the straight-‘n-narrow.
Came in on wings of a dove, maybe? An angel scurried along by divine providence? Maybe.
How this one drunk would affect me, and how ultimately I’d handle the community who supported me in office to keep their peace for 17 years – 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.
Enjoy. While wishing you the best in your church family.
Images from church:
OJINAGA, CHIH., MEXICO – It was time for Christmas Eve Mass1994, in a popular, and historical Catholic church anchoring the downtown plaza here, Parroqúia Jesús de Nazareno. As darkness of a late December evening was encroaching outside, Fr. Carlos Pérez was backstage ready for the service to 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 though, there was a small commotion behind us, sounding like something from the entrance way.
“El Borracho!” Noemi’s friend muttered. 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 first thought.
Noemi and her friend stared briefly, but calmly returned their attention to the front — refusing 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 – e.g., 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! was my thinking. A Mexican borracho!
Yes, the rage in me started fast.
There he stood!
His head swaying back-and-forth reminding me of Carrie in that long ago crazy movie, The Exorcist. Also involving a devil.
And here, as sordidly real a demon character as the vile life it represented, we were presented with a variant in a slightly different disguise: CONTEMPT!! Mocking our worship, it was!
And mentally grabbing at my throat — e.g., my conflicted realism — was the fact 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, too!
I’d gripped tightly the back of the church pew in front of me — Anger tethered only by a thin spiritual leash. Becoming thinner.
His contempt was his message: A demonizing figure 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 Español! 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, weakly: “As a gringo judge from across the river I 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, 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 noticed — e.g., quiet, and waiting for services to start.
“Could this borracho denigrating their presence not even exist with them?” I wondered. “Just a figment?! And like the others, they were all pretending?”
How did I get so confused? This is all 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 glumly with my head.
Mad, still! But I’d calmed down, yes.
Slowly, El Borracho 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, of course, being: All you stupid?!! [My interpretation of it, of course.]
I think it was at this moment I glimpsed back at my childhood in Cleburne, just south of Fort Worth in North Central Texas, and smiled a bit at the thought:
“Do you know what the church deacons in our little ol’ 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 Gawd!!”
But not here. Not with these people.
Noemi squeezed my arm again, and whispered, “Calm! Calm!” And then she motioned my eyes to the front.
Ah, an intervention. Something was happening on the stage, it appeared, yes. Another person. Finally.
It seems this drunk had wandered in before, my thought was. The congregation even has a “designated driver” for him!? 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! But only once he’d even noticed “ol’ borracho” had entered, I’d tackily 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 they walked back off the stage to the left, and then disappeared thru a side door.
That’s all! As though saying, “Oh, Daniel, you know you don’t mean to be up here like this! Come!”
They’d quietly walked off. And that was it!
What? I thought. You don’t throw the bum in jail? Make him do 2 yrs. community service to this church for his abuse?
Almost immediately, 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!
I was still fuming.
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!?”
She wanted nothing of it!
“Shhh…” She whispered, never taking her eyes off the ceremony at the front. Adding only sideways, “He borracho!”
“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 those beautiful brown eyes that I’d first fallen for. Now searing-with-anger eyes!
She SCREAMED at me – in the softest of voices, of course — “The man watch 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 real sobriety comes slow, too. Our ideas are like plants, I feel sometimes. They don’t grow and maintain illumination themselves without proper soil nourishment, and maintenance, all by the Gardener.
Was I in need of some Repair & Maintenance? Me?
Slowly it was becoming clear Noemi had had enough of my gringo superiority puffiness. Broken English or not, I was about to learn this church’s policy.
She leaned over to my ear again.
“You no see man separated, apart from God, and looking for way back, no?” she asked. “…The fathers, they say pray for him, help him…Not be angry!!”
She paused for a few seconds. The fires in those oval eyes softened a bit, but still were dead on me.
Puffing out completely, I was by then. And she wasn’t finished.
“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. Stared straight ahead.
Literally…Could not…Say a word.
Grappling to sync her words (of the scene) to my reaction to it, something’d hit me hard. Dead on! Pushing all air from me, it was like!
And to add more insult, here’s my own little voice coming in: “And you’re you so high-and-mighty, Bodeen, you call yourself a JUDGE, huh?”
A kaleidoscope of feelings it was, yes.
But change was forged that moment.
Gradually throughout the next few days, months, years, that drunk — El Daniel, now — gave me a greater gift of forgiving, of feeling more closely for those around me, I feel.
And, too, eventually God became my friend again.
— 30 —