The Cross on Third Street
By Paulina Gutierrez
Every Friday afternoon, I took the bus from my elementary school to the middle school where my older brother Alex stood waiting for me. We’d walk together four blocks to St. Barbara’s Catholic Church on Third Street. Our visit to the church wasn’t to attend mass, it was to clean the church. Simply clean it.
The weekly walk was always filled with a sense of dread and persistent wonderment as to why I had to work while all my other friends did not. I relished in those brief moments of freedom, however short-lived they were. But those Friday evenings cleaning the church with my mother and brother taught me more than many of the sermons I heard from its pulpit.
My mother, without fail, met us at the church with a box of McDonald’s chicken nuggets to share. This lessened the blow of the imminent few hours of work that lay ahead of us. The three of us sat on the cool linoleum floor of the side entrance of the church, eating our chicken nuggets, talking about our day. Our improvised dinner was set near double doors – seemingly with their backs to us, hooked together protecting the sacredness inside.
Then my mother, an untiring ball of energy, hurried us along, instructing us on what needed to be done. She cleaned the bathrooms; my brother swept and cleaned the two adjacent rooms to the altar; and I, being the youngest, pulled the easier jobs: cleaning the benches, sweeping, dusting, always taking more time than needed.
Once inside the sanctuary my mannerism changed. I grew quiet. I learned from watching my mother’s reverence. Regardless if she had a dirty rag and broom in hand and if she passed by the altar fifty times throughout the night, she always paused, taking notice of what was there. I contemplated the feeling of awe I felt every time I stepped inside, and my own need to pause. I knew God’s presence was there, boldly occupying the space.
Out of all the things in the church, none captured my attention as much as the cross hanging at the front of the sanctuary. The austerity of its form compelled me to focus on the sole reality of it: a man on a cross. Two dark pieces of wood met and held a bloodied and bruised figure. I remember sensing an urgency of wanting to take him down, of getting the rickety wood ladder to release him from his perpetual pain. I would then wrap him up and lay him on the altar below. In my young mind I would try to explain that he no longer needed to be up there, once was infinitely enough. My other feelings varied greatly: there was unmitigated doubt, sheer amazement, and a feeling of smallness. But in all of that confusion, the cross never failed to convey the feeling of home and the implicit comfort with that.
While I made my way through dusting the benches, it seemed like minutes ticked slower and the air thickened with the smell of incense. In those long minutes my mother and brother occupied my thoughts. They passed by, working diligently. My mother has always been an anomaly to me. Peace and chaos, confidence and uncertainty, dedication and impulse – it all mixed to create the person of my mother. Yet in all I can say about her the overriding description of who she is can be captured by one word: grace. Everything she does is constructed from an unwavering commitment to grace. Her expectations were high for my brother and me, yet there was an unspoken understanding that if we were ever to fall short of those expectations she would love us nonetheless, perhaps even more.
My brother knew our mother’s love full and well and was confident in it, and because of that, he was a caring brother. He has always been my compass, pointing me in the right direction and pushing me to seek what is right. Together we discovered God, the one that demands reverence and full devotion, the one who forgives and loves unconditionally. Those Friday nights formed my first perception of Jesus, and while those ideas swirled in my mind, I saw my mother and brother living out his teachings and life, all while dusting the corners of an old church.