The touristy town of Ensenada on the Baja Peninsula was the furthest south we got on a family road trip the summer of 2007. It was our first time to Mexico and it felt good to have the distance of two international borders between me and my responsibilities as a Baptist pastor at a church in East Vancouver. We decided to put up at a local hotel in the seaside town for a few days R&R before turning back toward home.

On the last day of our Mexican holiday, I talked my husband into a day-trip inland to see the archaeological ruins of a 17th century Catholic mission a few hours drive into the interior.

The air conditioning on our hatchback had long since given out and we drove with all the windows down. The bickering in the backseat between our road weary 5 and 7 year-olds began almost immediately. I looked over at Loren. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

But Loren was as ready as I was to escape the tourist scene on the coast and get a taste of rural Mexico. So we pushed on, chugging our way up a lazy switch back into the dusty hills rising up from sea level.

It was at one of those turns, on a road without a name, that I glimpsed the arched pile of stones sheltering a life-sized painting of a woman wearing a blue hooded cape.

“STOP!” I cried. Loren slammed the brakes and we veered onto the gravely, roadside pullout.

I stepped out of the car stunned by this unanticipated turn-of-events.

“I can’t believe it!” I said my voice dropping to a whisper. “This is the place Adriana (our Mexican neighbour back in Vancouver) told me about!”

Loren gave me a look.

“Don’t you see?! It’s the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Behind us a transport ground its way up the hill leaving Loren standing in a cloud of dust.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, absolutely. And to think we just happened upon it.”

Loren didn’t say anything.

“Abigail! Oliver!” I called back. “You two have to see this.” On my urging they emerged from the car into the blinding midday heat and stood beside me.

“This is the location of a Marian apparition,” I explained. “It’s a world famous pilgrimage site.”

Abigail studied the chipped painting and folded prayers on scraps of paper tucked between the melted candles, plastic flowers and rosaries at Mary’s feet.

“It doesn’t look world famous,” she said.

“That’s because it’s the off-season. But in December, pilgrims come by the hundreds of thousands, some walking the last few miles on their knees.”

Oliver looked around. “Where would all the tour buses even park, Mom?”

I overroad their objections and proceeded to tell them the story of the Virgin’s appearance to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego over 500 years ago.

“The bishop was skeptical at first, just like you two. He only believed when Juan Diego opened his cloak. An image of an indigenous Mary was imprinted inside and a dozen roses fell from Mary’s hands to the floor at the bishop’s feet.”

My audience offered generous platitudes then wondered off, distracted by an upward-soaring hawk in the distance.

I had the sacred ground beneath the Virgin’s feet all to myself and returned my attention to her downward gaze. I wanted to offer a prayer fitting to such an encounter but my Protestant tongue felt thick in my mouth so I just stood in silence until summoned back to the car.

The next town we passed through was even called Guadalupe. “Told you,” I said to Loren who was busy navigating potholes and the lone donkey asleep in the road.

That evening back at the hotel I told our waiter about the miracle of our day. He laughed and said, “Of course you know the actual pilgrimage site is in Mexico City.”
“Of course,” I swallowed, ignoring the glance that passed between Loren and the kids.

Later that night I studied the map and noticed that almost every other town in Mexico is called Guadalupe and that grottos to the Virgin dot the countryside like stars dot the night sky.

It was three years before I returned to Mexico. This time to do a Sacred Canopy project with the children from the Cuchilla del Tesoro neighbourhood in Mexico City. We told the creation story from Genesis drawing on Mexican art and cultural traditions.

The character of Eve (pictured above) narrated the story. It began with her grief at the death of her second-born son, Abel. In preparation for this uniquely Mexican telling we interviewed a number of Mexican women who had lost sons to drugs or gangs or attempts to cross the Mexican/US border.

On the last afternoon I told my hosts there was one thing I wanted to do before I left Mexico: visit the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

They hailed a taxi and I joined the throngs coming and going from the religious complex built across a hill that takes over an entire neighbourhood in the eastern part of the city.

At the centre of the sprawl of churches and museums and plazas and souvenir stalls is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a circular building with seven entrances to accommodate 10,000 people at a time for mass. And at the centre of the basilica is the enclosed glass case that displays the original image of the VIrgin revealed to Juan Diego.

A conveyor belt has been installed across the front of the glass case to keep the pilgrims processing through the hall.

I stood and watched the moving floor carry a group of Mexican grandmothers up to the glass case. Some fell to their knees on the conveyor belt, others wailed and crossed themselves, all reached out their arms and called out prayers – not ashamed to admit their need – before they were carried off beyond Mary’s reach.

The strength of these women who had lived their lives under the weight of empires and patriarchies – both religious and secular – astounded me. The depth of their devotion seemed a fitting tribute to the grandeur of the basilica.

Still I’ve never forgotten the dusty, out-of-the-way grotto on the backroads of Mexico where I first encountered the Virgin of Guadalupe. To this day the memory stands as a reminder that there is no turn on life’s path where the mothering heart of God is not waiting to meet us.

So on this Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe I leave you with this prayer by singer/songwriter, Tom Russell:

She is reaching out her arms tonight,
Lord, my poverty is real.
I pray roses shall rain down again,
From Guadalupe on her hill.
For who am I to doubt these mysteries
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke;
I am the least of all your pilgrims here,
But I am most in need of hope.

(Listen to it here Guadalupe)

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