Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Recalling a Visit to the Missions of San Antonio and Remembering Bartolomé de Las Casas, a "Passionate and Prophetic Defender" of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas

I recently read that UNESCO has added 27 new sites to its World Heritage list of natural and cultural wonders of “outstanding universal value.” Among the additions: the Jordan River baptism site in Jordan, believed by many to mark the spot where Jesus was baptized, and five historic Catholic missions in San Antonio, Texas.

Writes Andrew Mach of PBS Newshour:

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the listing of the five Spanish Roman Catholic structures, which includes the Alamo, that were built in the 18th century in and around what is now San Antonio.

The UNESCO description calls the missions “an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”

The missions were the only site in the U.S. considered for world heritage status during the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany.

I visited the San Antonio missions in August of 1999. I had traveled to Texas from Minnesota after being invited to present "In the Footsteps of Spring," my multi-media presentation on the coming out process as a spiritual journey, to the Dignity San Antonio community.

My time in San Antonio was memorable. My presentation was well-received and I was very much welcomed by the local Catholic LGBT community. I also remember thinking how the dry heat of San Antonio was very much like Australia!

Above and right: My hosts in San Antonio were a lovely couple, Nickie Valdez and Deb Myers.

In 2010, Nickie and Deb were the recipients of the Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio's Community Leadership Award. Following is what the SDSA website says about Nickie and Deb.

Valdez was one of five founders of Dignity San Antonio, a GLBT Catholic advocacy and support group. In the 1970's, she was a founding member of Forward Foundation, which organized the first Gay Pride Parade and ministered to inmates at the Bexar County jail.

In the 1980's, Valdez worked to create the Trinity Council to bring together local GLBT friendly churches and educate the community in self-acceptance and self-worth. She was a founder of the San Antonio Lesbian/Gay Assembly to advance GLBT issues at the local and state level.

Valdez' work extended beyound religious issues, into HIV/AIDS awareness, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the National Organization for Women and the advancement of people of color. She organized PRO San Antonio, an interfaith network of GLBT friendly clergy, churches and lay people.

Myers has served on the local, state and national levels of Dignity USA for the last 24 years. The majority of her time has been spent on the Liturgy Committee that organizes the liturgy and music for the weekly mass. She is a moderator for the Progressive Religious Organizations of San Antonio and has worked with the group since it's founding in 2006.

In addition to her advocacy work, Meyers served on the Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission, the Archdiocesan Anti-Violence Effort Committee and the Mayor's Commission for a More United San Antonio under former Mayor Ed Garza. She is a physical therapist at University Hospital.

Above: The Mission Concepción.

Notes Wikipedia:

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña (also Mission Concepción) was established in 1716 as Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainais in East Texas. It was originally meant to be a base for converting the Hasinai. The mission was moved in 1731 to San Antonio. After its relocation most of the people in the mission were Pajalats who spoke a Coahuiltecan language. Founded by Franciscan friars, this is the best preserved of the Texas missions.

The Battle of Concepción was fought here on October 28, 1835 between Mexican troops under Colonel Domingo Ugartechea and Texian insurgents led by James Bowie and James Fannin. The 30-minute engagement, is described as "the first major engagement of the Texas Revolution" by historian J.R. Edmondson.

Located at 807 Mission Road, Concepcion was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970 and is part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Restoration of the mission's interior was completed in March 2010 after six months of work. Catholic Mass is still held every Sunday.

Above: Mission San Francisco de la Espada (also Mission Espada).

For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the era of colonial conquest was catastrophic. This era began in 1492 and continued well into the nineteenth century. In many ways it continues to this day. It therefore includes the 1700s, the time when the missions in San Antonio were built. A figure that inspires in the midst of this terrible era of conquest is Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566). The following from Robert Ellsberg's All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, will help explain what I mean.

Bartolomé de Las Casas
"Defender of the Indians" (1484-1566)

"Christ did not come into the world for gold."

Bartolomé de Las Casas was the most distinguished of a number of Dominican friars who raised their voices against the rapacious violence inflicted on the Indians of the Americas. Las Casas was not content to denounce the excesses of the Conquest. Reading the gospel from the perspective of what he called "the scourged Christ of the Indies," he articulated a theological understanding of religious freedom, human rights, and the relation between salvation and social justice, that was scarcely matched again in the Catholic church before the Second Vatican Council. Five hundred years after the collision of cultures in the Americas, Las Casas is chiefly recognized as a prophet, who anticipated by many centuries the church's "preferential option for the poor."

As a boy of eight, Las Casas witnessed the return of Columbus to Seville after his voyage to the [so-called] New World. He made his own first trip to Hispaniola in 1502. After studies in Rome for the priesthood he returned to the New World, where he served as chaplain in the Spanish conquest of Cuba. Though a priest, he also benefited from the Conquest as the owner of an encomienda, a plantation with Indian indentured laborers.

In 1541 however, he underwent a dramatic conversion, prompted by his witnessing the genocidal cruelty inflicted on the Indians. He soon joined the Dominican order and became a passionate and prophetic defender of the indigenous peoples. For more than fifty years he traveled back and forth between the New World and the court of Spain, attempting through his books, letters, and preaching to expose the cruelties of the Conquest, whose very legitimacy, and not merely excesses, he disavowed.

Although the main attraction for the Spanish in the New World was gold, the Conquest was ostensibly justified by evangelical motivations. The pope had authorized the subjugation of the Indian populations for the purpose of implanting the gospel and securing their salvation. Las Casas claimed that the deeds of the conquistadors revealed their true religion:

"In order to gild a very cruel and harsh tyranny that destroys so many villages and people, solely for the sake of satisfying the greed of men and giving them gold, the latter, who themselves do not know the faith, use the pretext of teaching it to others and thereby deliver up the innocent in order to extract from their blood the wealth which these men regard as their god."

Las Casas vehemently opposed the notion that the gospel could be spread through slaughter or compulsion of any kind. While others claimed that the Indians were a lesser race, he affirmed their full humanity, and thus their entitlement to all human rights. For his writings on human equality and his defense of the right to religious freedom, Las Casas deserves to be remembered as a political philosopher of extreme significance in the history of ideas.

But Las Casas's theological insights went far beyond a simple affirmation of the Indians' human dignity. Identifying the Indians with the poor, in the gospel sense, he argued that in their sufferings they represented the crucified Christ. He wrote, "I leave in the Indies Jesus Christ, our God, scourged and afflicted and beaten and crucified not once, but thousands of times."

For Las Casas there could be no salvation in Jesus Christ apart from social justice. Thus, the question was not whether the Indians were to be "saved"; the more serious question was the salvation of the Spanish who were persecuting Christ in the poor.

In 1543, with court officials in Spain eager to be rid of him, Las Casas was named bishop of the impoverished region of Chiapas in southern Mexico. There he immediately alienated his flock by refusing absolution to any Spaniard who would not free his Indian slaves. He was denounced to the Spanish court as a "lunatic" and received numerous death threats. Eventually he resigned his bishopric and returned to Spain, where he felt he could more effectively prosecute his cause. There he died on July 18, 1566, at the age of eighty-two.

Related Off-site Links:
San Antonio's Missions Declared a World Heritage Site – Tracy L. Barnett (USA Today, July 6, 2015).
Pope Francis Apologizes for Catholic Church's "Offenses" Against Indigenous Peoples – Nicole Winfield and Jacobo Garcia (Associated Press via HuffPost Religion, July 9, 2015).
LGTB Catholics Find Worship with Dignity – Abe Levy (My San Antonio, October 11, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paulo Coelho
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
Clyde Hall: "All Gay People, in One Form or Another, Have Something to Give to This World, Something Rich and Very Wonderful"
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

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