Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sunday at a Mexican Baptist Church...er, Iglesia

My Grandmother's Old Iglesia Bautista
(Cleveland Avenue, Madera, California)
I was thinking the other day about how I used to go to church as a kid with my grandmother.  For a long time, she was the only one in my family that used to talk about Jesus and how much He loved me, and that she used to go to this place called Inglesia.  It sounded like a paradise, like the "Island of Inglesia," where Jesus lived.  I'm not saying that the rest of my family were pagan worshipers, and I did go on occasion to Vacation Bible School with my cousin, probably so my mom could have a break during the summer from our constant whining about nothing to do. However, for the most part, there was not much spiritual foundation-building in my childhood.

If I did go, church was on the weekends when I stayed with my grandparents in Madera, California.  My grandmother would get me up early and we'd hop in my grandfather's pickup and he'd park and wait while we went inside the "Inglesia."  From what I remember, the sign out front looked like it was a handpainted sign from an Our Gang episode, kind of like the "He-Man Woman Hater's Club" sign, but it would be in Spanish, and, lo and behold, one of the words on the hand-painted sign was the word "Inglesia," along with other words such as, "Christo" and "Domingo."

At first glance, Inglesia really didn't look like paradise.  It was in a very old building that really looked like a house...with a church attached to it.  Not big at all.  But we would walk in and I could smell coffee brewing, combined with the smell of perfume that the ladies wore and the Tres Flores hair oil that was popular with Mexican men for their hair.  There were no cookies or donuts; instead, it was pan dulce, which was fine with me.  But, all the grownups were nice, but they all spoke Spanish, so I really didn't know what was going on most of the time.

The other kids did speak English, so I wasn't alone.  We were all in the same boat since their parents or grandparents spoke Spanish, and so they'd drag their mijos and mijas to Inglesia with them.  Some kids I remember well - I remember one kid would repeat the phrase "chuga-luga-chuga" all the time, and another kid liked to wear his shoes on the wrong feet.  One poor kid peed his pants once, but no one made fun of him, fortunately.  Actually, he thought it was kind of funny that he peed.  We'd sing songs about Jesus and we'd learn about Jesus, freaking out silently as the teacher would tell us how He sees us ALL THE TIME. There were two songs I remember in particular:  "Christ for Me" and "Angels Watching Over Me.  When the teacher tried to teach us the latter, she wrote the lyrics on the chalkboard but wrote out "Angles Watching Over Me" instead of "Angels."  It really bugged me, but I didn't say anything.  It's good to know that there are angles watching over me. It's another reason why I remember that song.  

After the fun, we'd have to go sit with the older people, and they'd march us out from the back of the sanctuary (big room with chairs) and have us sit in the front rows.  The preacher, who was a big bald man with horn-rimmed glasses, would then preach in Spanish and would yell at us kids, talking about fish, I thought. He actually was saying "pecado" ("sin) but the only thing I understood was "pescado" (fish), which was one of the few words of Spanish I knew, mainly from playing La Loteria (a bingo game for Mexicans), and El Pescado was one of the tiles on the bingo card upon which we'd place our beans.

After the yelling...uh, preaching, the big bald man with the horn-rimmed glasses would greet us at the door as we left, and would hug me, which was strange to me, because I was used to only being hugged by family members.  I really didn't know this guy, so I stood there like a fence post as he hugged me.  I'm sure he was touched by my warmth.

Even though I didn't understand most of what was said in the Inglesia, I enjoyed attending.  The believers that were there every Sunday were some of the warmest people I knew.  I became friends with many of the other kids, and from time to time when I'd attend, they would remember me and we'd pick up where we left off, which might have been trying not to laugh during the service, or running up and down the hallways after service.

A few years later, this fellowship of believers would come together to help one of their own, who would lose three young boys in a house fire, an event so tragic that even brought my stoic grandfather to tears.  These three boys were also my friends, and I still think about them today, 45 years later.  When I recall the lyrics of "Christ for Me" I can always picture one of them sitting next to me in the classroom singing it with me.

Christ for me,
Yes, it's Christ for me,
He's my Savior, my Lord and King,
I'm so happy I shout and sing!

Christ for me,
Yes, it's Christ for me,
Every day when I go my way,
It is Christ for me!

I eventually learned that it's not "Inglesia" but "Iglesia," and learned about the nature of  the "pecado" in our life.  God's grace at Christ's expense delivers us from it, however, and for that I'm grateful.  Many of those people in that fellowship have since gone to Jesus, including my grandparents (my grandfather too, as he was saved after the fire tragedy).  Last time I was in Madera, I drove past the old Iglesia Bautista on Cleveland Avenue and it was still there.  It looked much smaller than I remember, but still stood, providing a safe haven for a different fellowship of believers.  My hope is that my kids will remember their moments growing in Christ, and think about the fun times learning about Him.

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