Posted by: Carl Magruder | April 27, 2009

Somos La Iglesia

There has been some interesting discussion of the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the U.S. media lately.  Much of this has been provoked by a recent Newsweek poll and cover article, “The End of Christian America.”  A particularly lively debate between Christopher Hitchens and Kenneth Blackwell ensued.

My guess is that it is possible to think that something is disappearing when it is actually just changing.  Spirituality is very much a given for humankind—very nearly a universal.  Religion, on the other hand, may or may not engage people.   One of the interesting things the survey found was that one fifth of people who identified as “atheist” believe in God…  (?)  My own research has indicated that nearer to 90% of Quakers who identify as “nontheist” believe in God, so this doesn’t surprise me, though I think that it is linguistically problematic. 

Anyway, I had my own experience of a “post-Christian” community of believers a couple of summers ago.  I was trying to protect human life along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The group I was with was focused on human welfare, but there are some serious concerns about risks to the biotic community caused by the Border Wall.  You can find out more about that here.   


Somos La Iglesia

The broad brim of my hat shades my face and neck from the relentless Arizona sun as my old mule packer’s boots crunch along this dry creek bed.  A small band of us, strangers just days before, are holding what my journal describes as “Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Desert.”  Our ages span five decades, we are more women than men, we are citizens of four nations, and our faith walks include Judaism, agnosticism, secular humanism, Quakerism, Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, Buddhism, neo-paganism, and various others. We do not speak as we trudge down the watercourse towards a small copse of trees with our migrant aid kits of water, food, socks, and medical supplies on our backs.

A hundred yards from the trees we stop moving.  The silence is profound.  I take three breaths of air that is ten degrees warmer than my body’s temperature and let out:

“Buenos dias, amigos!  Tenemos agua y comida y ayuda medico.”

[“Good day, friends!  We have water and food and first aid.]

A moment goes by, but there is no answer.

“Somos amigos.  No somos la ley.”

[“We are friends.  We are not the law.”]


“Somos la iglesia.”

We are the church. 

What does it mean to live in a multifaith, multiethnic, multinational society?  It means transcending difference, engaging radical inclusivity, and continuing dedication to Truth seeking. So-called ‘post-modernism’ has too often included an apathetic moral relativism.  While plurality of truths is clearly necessary, it is paradoxically essential that each must follow the truth that has claimed her heart, ideally in covenant with the others.  Pluralism cannot simply lead us to a shallow inclusivity, a theology of the lowest common denominator, or an apathetic moral relativism; an opiate.  On the other hand, we must not react against it by becoming rigid, dogmatic, intolerant.

The old Quaker theologian and goatherd, Jim Corbett, walks beside me in this desert place.  Much of the impetus behind the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, Corbett pioneered something he called “civil initiative,” which involved enforcing the law, rather than breaking it as Thoreau had done with “civil disobedience.”  Corbett believed that Torah and international law with regard to political refugees required that the U.S. border be open to those in need of sanctuary, and so he crossed la frontera many times accompanying Central Americans escaping U.S. sponsored tyranny in their homelands. 

The night before, lying in my tent, I read Corbett’s words by moonlight:

“There’s no way for us to take our stand with the refugees while retaining the privileges and immunities the war machine provides us…. If we do give up our position of privilege, a place to stand with the dispossessed and serve the Peaceable Kingdom can only be found in a special kind of community that dedicates itself to such service.  During recent weeks I’ve been discovering this catholic church that is a people rather than creed or rite, a living church of many cultures that must be met to be known….”

                        Goatwalking p. 118 Jim Corbett 1991


 I like to believe that it is this small-c catholic church that is practicing Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Desert.  While our nominal religious identities might divide us, our covenantal practice of being church transcends all limited and flawed attempts to bind truth and fit it wholesale into a book or ritual.  The embodiment of compassion, the surrender of ego, the commitment to satyagraha, and the experience of the Earth as sacred are our religio, our binding.


The next day, we are at an aid station in Agua Prieta. Kneeling on the cement under a portable canvas awning, Chaim and I are washing the feet of two men who have just been deported without receiving food, water, rest, or medical attention from the US Border Patrol.  Their feet are raw and blistered. The younger man, Diego, pulled a cactus spine out of the top of his foot this morning, and the place is swollen and oozing pus.  I bathe it carefully, dry it, apply disinfectant. He is a mason from Oaxaca.  He misses his kids.

“Y tú?” he asks. He is curious about why we are here.  He nods at my plain clothing. In Latin America the broad hat, suspenders, and la barba identify me as a person of faith because of Mennonite and Amish homesteaders. “Christianos?” he asks.

“Sí,” says Chaim, who is as Jewish as a person can be. He means that we follow the teaching and example of rabbi Jesus. “Somos Christianos.”

“Somos la iglesia,” I say. 

            Diego nods and smiles, showing even white teeth.  Then he says in heavily accented English:

            “We are church!”







  1. Thank you, Carl, for sharing a beautiful example of change rather than disappearance of ‘the church’. This is a change to which many subscribe and yet may not have had such a simple and illuminating way to express it.
    N. Rowan
    Santa Barbara MM

  2. What a beautiful essay about how things change and yet stay the same too. It reminds me of the quote from St. Francis — Preach the Gospel at all times and only when necessary, use words.

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