Glance with Compassion and Honor, Not Contempt

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2019. Tension brewed like a bubbling witch’s cauldron on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A handful of Black Hebrew Israelites yelled at a bunch of high school students who meandered over after participating in the March for Life earlier that day. The students took the bait, responding to taunts with words and gestures of their own. The hate was heated, toxic and overflowing, spilling onto the national monument for all to witness.

An elder from the Omaha nation came forward with his drum and a song. It was his prayer. His attempt to diffuse the situation was met with a red-hatted teen who stood in his path with a stare that brimmed with a smug disrespect and disdain for the indigenous man.

The sheer ugliness of the stare that Nathan Phillips endured still stings my memory.

***

1531. It was another time of tumult. The Spanish had defeated the Aztec peoples and conquered the city of Mexico and many points in between. In the wake of their victories, the conquistadors subjugated the indigenous people. They tore down temples, burned cities, raped local women and abandoned the children they fathered. It was the 9/11 of the Americas, though the devastation was more widespread and long lasting.

The indigenous people became chattel in their own land. They watched the Spanish take over their cities and establish Catholic missions and other colonial enterprises to erase their indigenous ways. While the priests intended to share the good news of Christ and tell of salvation, their methods were laden with contempt for the indigenous, or Indian, people of the land. The Spaniards, clergy and military men, understood themselves to be superior, and therefore misunderstood the local people to be inferior. This was the collective trauma suffered by the indigenous people on their own land, defeated militarily and vanquished spiritually.1

Juan Diego was a low-class laborer of indigenous descent. He came of age in these dark days, stripped of the traditional ways of worship and yet hungering for faith. He decided to go to Tlatelolco to be trained by the priests in the ways of God. He left his rural roots and was ready to assimilate by accepting the god of the colonizers.

As he made his way to the city he heard a beautiful and unfamiliar song coming from Mount Tepeyac. His curiosity drew him up the hill toward the song. There he met the Mother we now call Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She wore the clothes of an indigenous woman and was with Child. Legend has it that he recognized her as the Mother of God, knowing she was the Virgin Mary even as she looked like the local mothers in her color and dress. She looked at him with kindness and addressed him in his native tongue.

Listen, my most abandoned son, dignified Juan Diego …

So began their first conversation. She spoke tenderly, seeing his humanity and honoring his position in life. She then invited him to partner with her to turn the heart of the Bishop and build a place of worship where she could receive all the people.

And so Juan Diego, despised by the Spanish but respected by the Mother, began his journey in her service. In that first encounter he became a new man. He would advocate for a place where indigenous and colonizers could worship together, a place of reconciliation at the feet of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

***

There is much more to tell about the visitation of Mother Mary to Juan Diego on the Mount of Tepeyac—conversations, flowers and even a healing. But in our tense times I keep returning to that first interaction on the small hill between his rural village and the colonized city.

He met Mother Mary. And her first glance, as evidenced by her first words, was heavy with honor for his humanity. Others thought little of him as an indigenous man. Maybe he began to believe them and thought little of himself too, as often happens with the colonized. But she recognized his worth and offered him respect.

I wonder what Our Lady of Guadalupe would say if she were on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, hearing her son from the Omaha nation singing his prayer, drum in hand.

Listen, my most abandoned son, dignified Nathan Phillips…”

I imagine Her countenance full of compassion, unlike the stare of contempt that stood in his way. I imagine that she would understand his heart and would join in his song, together trying to disarm the tension they witnessed on the steps that afternoon. I believe Nathan Phillips wants what Our Lady of Guadalupe wanted in 1531—a place where all are respected, all are welcome and all can worship together in harmonious song.

After all, this is not unlike the prophet Isaiah’s vision that one day in the New City shaped by justice people from every tongue, tribe and nation will ascend to the temple and worship the Holy One. When we make our way up to that high and just place, Mother Mary will be there with Juan Diego and Nathan Phillips by her side. We will sing together to Our Creator, our faces lit with joy, all contempt purged from our gaze.

______________________________

1 Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation.

NOTE: To learn more about Our Lady of Guadalupe and the story of her visitation recorded in the Nican Mopohua, I highly recommend reading Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation by Virgil Elizondo. To learn more about the full story of Nathan Phillips, please read His Side of the Story: Nathan Phillips wants to talk about Covington

 

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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