Tuesday's UPI column
So There I was…
…In the St. Esteban del Rey Church up on Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. My youngest daughter and I were visiting my eldest daughter and her husband. It was Sunday, but there was not much interest in the group in finding the Quaker meeting that I knew was in town. The day was October clear and crisp. I suggested we take a drive out to Acoma Pueblo, an hour’s drive outside of Albuquerque. I had not been there in decades, but I knew the drive was beautiful, and I could enjoy my daughters’ company and get them a history lesson at the same time.
We ended up on the walking tour through a village perched on a small Mesa that rises 367 vertical feet out of the desert. Our tour guide was Dale Sandoz, a matriarch of the Eagle Clan of the Acoma people. We were lucky to get Dale. She is small and round, “Like the cedar trees that grow at the base of the Mesa – strong, dry country growth.” She splashes water on the ground from her canteen as a gift to Mother Earth, to secure a safe tour. The Acoma are matriarchal; all property passes from mother to the youngest daughter -- “Because we expect that she will outlive us all.” A couple of long tall Texas cowboys in our group discovered that you do not walk in front of an Acoma matriarch without being rebuked -- “ But you ladies can walk where ever you like.” Acoma governors are all men. “Women have more important things to do -- so we nominate them, and if they do good -- we keep them, if not, we don’t.” The village has been continually inhabited since at least 1150. The houses are two or three stories high, none have electricity or water. They are made of limestone blocks (the traditional material), or adobe, or cinderblock -- Dale regrets these innovations -- “But there are no zoning laws up here, and you can’t tell a youngest daughter what to do with her house.”
We started our tour in the church. It is huge -- at least three stories up from the plaster and dirt floor to the massive ponderosa pine beams that were carried many miles from Mount Taylor in 1629. “Because they were holy, they never once touched the ground between here and there. The men took turns carrying them, and rested them on platforms at night.” The Spaniards gave them a bell as a peace offering -- and a peace offering was dearly needed because of the massacre of 1598. Thirteen Spanish soldiers tried to steal grain and were killed by the Acoma. One of them was a relative of the governor, Juan de Onate, and he retaliated with a brutal assault on the pueblo that saw the women taken as slaves, the men killed or left alive but with their right foot cut off, and children were pulled screaming out of hiding in the kiva -- their throats slashed and dragged through the village behind horses. The atrocity shocked even the Conquistadors, and Onate was eventually prosecuted. The Acoma were ‘given’ a church. I’m not sure what ‘given’ means when you spend a lifetime of the people -- 40 years -- building it yourself. The Acoma chose Saint Stephen for their patron. When they heard the story of the man who prayed as he was being stoned to death, “Lord, do not count this sin against them”; they recognized him as their own. Dale says that they freely accepted the religion of their oppressors because they recognized the truth in it beyond the actions of its adherents. This woman is so NOT oppressed! She says they recognized that it was in harmony with their own native beliefs – “99% of Acoma are Catholic – 100% practice the ancient religion -- because they are so similar”. At the altar are four pillars carved from those ancient ponderosa -- carved as twisted, entwined beams of white and red “For the two religions that are practiced here.” Symbols of the people are painted on the walls of the church along side paintings of saints and a prominent picture of purgatory. There are only a few pews up front to accommodate the elders -- the rest of the space is left free for dancing. A small window is aligned to admit a ray of sunlight to fall directly on the Santo only on the winter solstice. It is a most integrated place.
We walked out through the burial yard and through the village, I bought a small pot. I was deeply moved, but it took days for the full truth to sink in. The Acoma built that church twenty years before Quaker George Fox stood and preached for the first time. The Acoma had found Christ in the church of their murderers. They found a faith that spoke to their condition. They found ‘That of God’ in the ugly ‘other’. They found a model for forgiveness in the worst of situations. We consider these to be Quaker testimonies. George would have had no truck with the Spanish church; but he would have understood the Acoma.
One of those near the stoning of St. Stephan was the Apostle Paul – spiritually preserved, perhaps, by the prayer of his victim. Paul’s image is also on the Acoma altar. I wonder if the prayers of the Acoma have saved Onate.
Wow, what a powerful story! Thank you for sharing it, Peggy. It's so amazing how God can work through anything, and how people in tune with God can recognize that work even in those who seem so antithetical to faith. It's also really cool how their faith was so similar already--that of God had been working in them already. It gives me hope...Post a Comment
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