New Life

Christmas and the New Year form a time when we draw close to those whom we love.  We yearn to be surrounded by family again, and so often that longing is satisfied by home—whether creating a new home, strengthening an existing one, or visiting one from the past.  Sometimes we manage to work in two or even all three of these, and often it all happens under the same roof.  I do not mean necessarily that people build houses at Christmastime; particularly in the northern climes, the frozen ground may well prevent this!  Rather, I mean that we focus on our families—how they grow and change, and how we respond to and welcome both new and old family members and friends.

This is along San Antonio’s River Walk.  Candles in bags light our way, while lights strung overhead in the trees create an enchanted forest scene.  A brightly lit tour boat can be seen cruising down the river.

This is along San Antonio’s River Walk. Candles in bags light our way, while lights strung overhead in the trees create an enchanted forest scene. A brightly lit tour boat can be seen cruising down the river.

Here in San Antonio, we YAVs have been busy cultivating our own family—the one that we have built together since August.  Not long after Turkey Day, with images of the Thanksgiving feast still fresh in our minds (and our fridge still stuffed with leftovers), we headed downtown to the Alamo to witness the annual lighting of a Christmas tree in front of the historic landmark.  The jovial crowd milling about in front of the blazingly colorful tree reflected the joyous spirit of the season.  We relived this festive mood two weeks later, when one evening we took a stroll down the city’s famed River Walk.  The soft glow of hundreds of candles nestled in white paper bags lit our path past restaurants and souvenir shops along the river.  Overhead, thousands of colorful bulbs hung in long strands from trees, such that it seemed as though we were walking through an enchanted forest in the middle of the city.  Tour boats decked out in more lights plied the waterway, their passengers soaking in the spirit of wonder that hung in the air.  Yuletide wreaths adorned the sides of buildings, while up on the street level, in front of the Alamo, the young and young-at-heart had their photos taken with Santa.

During the tamalada, Mexican women are seen preparing tamales.  The tamales are the yellow-white items that look similar to burritos, while nearby vats contain different ingredients.

During the tamalada, Mexican women are seen preparing tamales. The tamales are the yellow-white items that look similar to burritos, while nearby vats contain different ingredients.

One day, a couple weeks into December, we attended two events with our church congregation—a tamalada and a posada.  During the morning of that day, we YAVs met with some of the Mexican and Mexican-American women from the neighborhood to participate in the tamalada—an event at which we prepared tasty tamales.  One prepares a tamale by coating the (relatively) smooth inside of a cornhusk with a cornmeal dough, after which ground meat is layered on top of the dough.  The husk then is rolled up, twisted at one end, and boiled, with the end result being a miniature meat pie of sorts inside the husk.  The cornhusk itself is not eaten; rather, one unrolls the husk and peels it away from the cooked dough and meat mixture, then proceeds to devour the savory insides (Gerald Ford, in the famous photo, mistakenly ate the cornhusk).  The edible part of a tamale can be eaten with a knife and fork, but often it is just easier (and potentially far simpler and with less mess) to quickly pop the dough and meat into one’s mouth before they have the opportunity to crumble.  We prepared some of the 500 tamales that were cooked that morning, all in preparation for the posada that evening.

Here is a scene from one of our stops on the posada.  Our pastor (wearing the sombrero) leads the members of the house in singing the part of the innkeeper.  In the foreground, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, the Three Kings, guitar players, and the rest of us in the peanut gallery plead for a room at the inn.

Here is a scene from one of our stops on the posada. Our pastor (wearing the sombrero) leads the members of the house in singing the part of the innkeeper. In the foreground, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, the Three Kings, guitar players, and the rest of us in the peanut gallery plead for a room at the inn.

Come evening, we headed back to the church, where we joined around 100 people from the congregation and neighborhood on a pilgrimage of sorts.  A posada recalls the story of Jesus’ birth, and specifically Mary and Joseph’s frantic hunt in Bethlehem for a spare room at an inn.  Led by our pastor, who was clad in a sombrero and traditional Mexican shawl and who sported a bamboo shepherd’s crook; and flanked by a couple dozen local children dressed up as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and the Three Wise Men, our group departed the church and walked to preselected houses in the neighborhood.  When we arrived at a given house, we began singing the traditional call-and-response posada song, in which we begged for a room at the inn, only to be told by our pastor and the family at that house that they did not have a spare room they could give us (never mind that we, collectively Joseph, called Mary the Queen of Heaven—it was still an uphill battle!).  After singing several verses, a prayer was offered and a Christmas carol was sung, and then we proceeded to the next house, still singing carols, and with the family from the first house having joined our group.  After visiting seven six or seven houses, we arrived back at the church, where we sang the posada song again, along with some verses in which the innkeeper recognized us as Mary and Joseph, and allowed us to end our wanderings by entering the church.  Once inside, we were treated to the sight of Mary and Joseph—played by young adolescents, so probably not that far removed from the real ages of Jesus’ parents at the time of His birth—cradling baby Jesus, played by a cute and impressively serene infant from a neighborhood family.  Following more carols, we and a couple hundred of our closest friends sat down to a dinner of the tamales we had prepared earlier, along with rice, beans, and cake.  While we ate, we enjoyed a dance performance by a troupe of women outfitted in traditional Mexican dresses.  All in all, we enjoyed the lovely festivities and the chance to make this custom a part of our new familial repertoire.

In the middle of this season of warmth and love, we YAVs embarked on a retreat—in the middle of the city.  A mere few miles from our home in the city’s Westside neighborhood, we settled down at La Casa, a large house owned by DOOR San Antonio just south of downtown.  Ensconced in this haven of peace, we laughed, played games, and swapped stories, and, most importantly, loved one another.  We baked nightmare-before-Christmas cookies using Halloween-themed cookie cutters—we had plenty of bats, ghosts, and coffins on hand, but no trees, stars, or angels.  We also attempted to make sense of why the buttons on our seemingly possessed microwave refused to work, yet the unit effortlessly beeped at us in Morse Code-like bursts.

This shot was taken at the naturalization ceremony I attended, just after the ceremony concluded.  The man in the foreground (with the manila and white envelopes under his arm) is a new U.S. citizen, while in the background other new citizens are in line to have their photos taken with the judge.  On the far left, way in the back, between the U.S. and Texas flags, is the judge (in black) posing with a new citizen.

This shot was taken at the naturalization ceremony I attended, just after the ceremony concluded. The man in the foreground (with the manila and white envelopes under his arm) is a new U.S. citizen, while in the background other new citizens are in line to have their photos taken with the judge. On the far left, way in the back, between the U.S. and Texas flags, is the judge (in black) posing with a new citizen.

Finally, just as I was in the middle of building a new home and family this holiday season, I had the chance one afternoon to witness 492 people find a new home here in the United States.  I attended a naturalization ceremony at which men, women, and children from around seventy countries and every inhabited continent swore an oath to become U.S. citizens.  JROTC cadets from an area high school presented and retired the colors, and a new U.S. citizen originally from Belgium spoke briefly about what motivated him to come to the United States.  Afterward, most of the newly minted citizens lined up to have their photograph taken with the presiding judge, who, over the course of well more than two decades, has used these ceremonies to swear in close to a million people.  Just as the new Americans found a home after years or even decades of being stuck between their culture of origin and that of their new homeland, so I, too, have built a new home and family with my fellow YAVs here in San Antonio.

As we celebrate this season filled with generosity, I am thankful for all the support—prayerful, emotional, and financial—you have given me.  Because of your generosity, I am pleased to announce that I have met and exceeded my required fundraising goal of $3,000 ahead of schedule—I have raised over $3,300 now!  Due to numerous significant unexpected costs over the last few months, however, DOOR San Antonio—the office that supervises me directly—needs to raise over $21,000 by December 31 to stay in the black.  If this deficit continues into 2015, that will have a significant impact on the experience we YAVs have in San Antonio, leaving us with less money to spend on everything from food to transportation to enriching community activities.  Please consider helping us continue to have a joyous faith experience by making a tax-deductible contribution.  There are two chief ways you can help us:

Please give through the DOOR Network.  In the “Donation Designation” box, please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio.”  Under “Additional Contact Information,” please provide your contact information so you are mailed a tax receipt.

Please make checks out to DOOR Network, 430 W. 9th Ave., Denver, CO 80204. Please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio” in the memo line.

As always, please continue reading my blog.  I am grateful for all of your prayers and support for me.

A Merry Christmas season and Happy New Year to all!

Giving Thanks for Life

First off, I apologize for posting a bit late for November. Nevertheless, while we still are in this time of gratitude and thanksgiving, perhaps you can take a moment to pause and reflect on the spirit and meaning of this season.

Halloween and Thanksgiving. One at the end of October, the other a month later. The first to remember death, and the second to celebrate life. These two holidays are not that far apart on the calendar, yet it may not seem logical that they are related. Though beliefs and traditions vary from one culture to another, here in San Antonio these differences come together to form a rather festive autumnal holiday season.

We saw this statue of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, or possibly a conquistador, on our ghost tour of San Antonio.  Commissioned by Saint Augustine, Florida, to celebrate the birth of de León, the city’s founder, the city rejected it upon learning the purportedly life-size statue was about 6’6” tall—de León was only 4’9”!  San Antonio subsequently bought it, placed it in front of the city’s historic Spanish governor’s palace, and declared it was a statue of one of the conquistadors who colonized the region that became Texas.

We saw this statue of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, or possibly a conquistador, on our ghost tour of San Antonio. Commissioned by Saint Augustine, Florida, to celebrate the birth of de León, the city’s founder, the city rejected it upon learning the purportedly life-size statue was about 6’6” tall—de León was only 4’9”! San Antonio subsequently bought it, placed it in front of the city’s historic Spanish governor’s palace, and declared it was a statue of one of the conquistadors who colonized the region that became Texas.

We YAVs started the season on October 30 by embarking on a ghost tour of downtown San Antonio. It seems that everyone in this city has a ghost story to tell from his or her personal experiences, and this was an interesting way to dive into that side of local life. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs on the existence of ghosts, we all had a fun time learning about the spine-tingling tales that have shaped many of the locals’ views on death and the afterlife. Perhaps San Antonio’s most famous ghoulish residents are the defenders of the Alamo, who 178 years later regularly are seen peeking out of upper story windows in the old Spanish mission-turned-fort. It is common knowledge that, due to so many past battles and struggles around here, one cannot take more than a few steps without walking over at least one body buried in the earth below. When the city installed wheelchair-accessible sidewalk ramps downtown several years ago, construction crews found so many bodies that instead of reinterring the dead, they simply poured cement over the corpses, permanently entombing them beneath the streets of San Antonio.

Much of this fascination with the dead is driven by Mexican and pre-Columbian traditions, which have combined over the centuries to form a popular veneration of death. Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of the Holy Death, is revered by many in Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and the United States as a way for people to remember the dead while looking forward to the future. It is based on this tradition, then, that on October 31 and November 1 and 2—all three days collectively known as the Day of the Dead—families visit the tombs of their relatives so they can give thanks for those who have passed on. The festive spirit of the occasion reminds everybody that this is not a day to be sad; rather, it is a time to celebrate life—past, present, and future.

Some of us YAVs recently celebrated life and those we know and love by attending a neighborhood Thanksgiving dinner at Divine Redeemer Presbyterian, our host church. A longstanding annual event, the dinner typically attracts 400 participants. Though we did not know the majority of the people in attendance, nonetheless there was the sense that everyone present was giving thanks for their families, friends, and blessings. After a short worship service, people lined up for plates of Thanksgiving favorites such as turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and—remember, this is San Antonio—jalapeños!

As we celebrate this season filled with generosity, I am thankful for all the support—prayerful, emotional, and financial—you have given me. I now have a favor to ask of you. I almost have reached my fundraising goal of $3,000—I only have $165 to go before I reach my January 1st deadline. Due to numerous significant unexpected costs over the last few months, however, DOOR San Antonio—the office that supervises me directly—needs to raise over $21,000 by December 31 to stay in the black. If this deficit continues into 2015, that will have a significant impact on our experience, leaving us YAVs with less money to spend on everything from food to transportation to enriching community activities. Please consider helping us continue to have a joyous faith experience by making a tax-deductible contribution. There are two chief ways you can help us:

Give through the DOOR Network’s website. In the “Donation Designation” box, please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio.” Under “Additional Contact Information,” please provide your contact information so you are mailed a tax receipt.

Please make checks out to DOOR Network, 430 W. 9th Ave., Denver, CO 80204. Please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio” in the memo line.

Be with God until we meet again!

We gave thanks for each other and the beauty of God's creation while camping at Guadalupe River State Park, north of San Antonio.  We also gave thanks that the raccoons that raided our food the previous night failed to pry open our guitar case--one of them nearly succeeded in that venture!  Perhaps it wanted to learn to play the instrument, or possibly snack on it instead.

We gave thanks for each other and the beauty of God’s creation while camping at Guadalupe River State Park, north of San Antonio. We also gave thanks that the raccoons that raided our food the previous night failed to pry open our guitar case–one of them nearly succeeded in that venture! Perhaps it wanted to learn to play the instrument, or possibly snack on it instead.