But why is it so sad?


A few years ago, because of some local political controversy, we offered a safe place to worship to a group of Latinos who no longer felt safe traveling to part of Phoenix. That small group of ten or so souls has now grown to over 300 people with nearly 100 or more regularly gathering on Sunday mornings.

I've learned a great deal from this experience. One of the most important things I've learned is that when Americanos and Latinos work to make common cause, it's less important to be bilingual than it is to be bicultural. (Full credit given to Canon Carmen Guerro for leading me into this understanding.)

Commending the names of the Dead Why bicultural? Because sometimes we Americanos do something with the best intentions and find out that we've misstepped. Consider this year's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observance at Trinity Cathedral here in Phoenix. We've tried to do something to mark this important folk celebration of All Soul's Day in Mexico and other Latin American countries given that there is a very large number of Latinos living in the neighborhoods around the Cathedral. Generally though we (Americanos) constructed a beautiful altar in the Art Gallery part of the Cathedral, collected important artistic works and thought we were doing bicultural ministry. The displays were very lovely and lots of folks from the Anglo congregation brought their friends by to see the exhibit.

But now that we have a vital Latino congregation it was important to me that we move away from an observance of the day and toward an authentic worship experience. So we decided together that the proper place to put this year's altar of the dead was not in the gallery but in the Columbarium (which is where many of the beloved of the Cathedral congregation are interred). One of the priests on our staff, who has a real gift for design, was asked to put the altar together on Friday and Saturday in preparation.

He did a superb job. It was striking, senstive and theologically rich. It sent a message of our Christian hope, founded in baptism, that in Christ our lives do not end, but that death brings our transformation. He created a three part altar, covered with beautiful black cloth, a display of marigolds, focused on a cross and pascal candle; all of which were dramatically lit. It was elegant, understated and just what I had hoped it would be.

We were very pleased with ourselves.

Altar of the Dead Then on Saturday morning we had a group of parishioners and other friends come in to create decorated lamps that we were going to use in procession on Sunday night. Some of the women from the 12:30 (spanish language) congregation wandered in to see the altar. It was not what they expected. I was upstairs in a Commission on Ministry meeting. I was sent a note that told me I needed to come downstairs as soon as possible. "It's very important."

The ladies had gone to Canon Guerro very concerned about the altar. "It's so sad!" What I had seen as elegant and understated, they saw as effectively communicating a message of restrained grief; not the exubarent celebration of joyful transformed lives that Dia de los Muertos proclaims.

So, with my "permission" the ladies set to making it a proper altar. They went out and bought candied skulls, crepe paper and lots of colored votive candle holders. And they spent a couple of hours making paper flowers, bunting and streamers. You can see part of the result in the picture here. (I'll post more as soon as I have time to create a proper album.)

Where did we misstep biculturally? Well first, in my own sense that the beautiful altar was finished… Our staff priest actually designed the area to serve as liturgical "scaffolding" with the idea that it was going to be remade by the 12:30 congregation. But most of us, myself and the ladies of the 12:30 congregation included, didn't see that. It was so elegant that we didn't imagine that possibility. Where else did we misstep? It was in the idea that the ladies needed to get the permission of el Dean to make the altar their own. My understanding was that it was to be theirs from the beginning. But they could not imagine changing it without asking "The Man". Clearly we have some work to do to make them feel that they are full and vital members of the congregation, not people whom the rich Americanos tolerate out of some sort of noblesse oblige.

So, we have some work to do. But it's good work. I'm rather looking forward to it. Because, by pointing out my own misunderstanding of the basic nature of celebration rather than somber mourning surrounding Dia de los Muertos, I found myself rethinking my own relationship to my family members who have died. Particularly that to our youngest daughter.

The idea that she is attending an eternal fiesta in the presence of God held in the arms of her grandmothers and her namesake grandfather is a totally different way for me to envision her today, the 12th anniversary of her death. I like the idea of Fiesta much better. And so I'm grateful to the ladies of the 12:30 service for giving me a new set of lenses to see the world around me.

I think our family just found a new folk custom that we shall keep all the days of our lives.

(Thanks to Eric Brimhall for these pictures from last night.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Christopher says

    At our best, when we put aside certain Medieval problems in these matters, we like the Orthodox tend to think of the dead as family present to us in the Presence of Eternal God. Family rather than all of the various hoops and ladders of doctrines like purgatory, etc. marks the main point of our relationships, and always on the merits only of Jesus Christ who has once-for-all broken every barrier down, notably death.

  2. Theresa Stottlemire says

    Dean Knisely,
    Everyone missteps. But few, turn a misstep into something wonderful, like you did. Like I have always said, YOU ROCK, and of course Canon Carmen Guerrero ROCKS too.
    I love ya

  3. Elsie Szecsy says

    Beautiful story. Absolutely beautiful. If this story prompts others like it, wherever this dynamic is playing out, and we all act on them for a common good, then perhaps we’ll also start to see progress made in the work that needs to be done. I’m ready to pull up my sleeves and help.

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