I have driven by it so many times. It’s on my most common route home from school or downtown – that straight shot down First Avenue North. Ever since I noticed it last year, I had intended to go, but because of travel, and then obligations of serving and teaching at our own parish when we’re not traveling, never could make that single ten o’clock Mass they have. And then many times when it might have been possible, I just forgot.
But this morning we finally made it to Our Lady of La Vang.
The Vietnamese Catholic parish that is, in fact, the Catholic church that’s closest to my house. No more than a mile.
One of the primary reasons I had wanted to go was to experience the chant, which I had read was quite unique and beautiful. Which it was – the entire Mass was chanted and sung (hymns in the regular spots), and I have to say what was most striking to me about the chant was the pauses. The chanting was rather deliberate, with a discernible beat between each phrase. I’d never heard anything like it before.
Let me back up a bit.
We arrived just at ten. Soon after we arrived (sitting in the second to the last row), the congregation – which probably tripled in size during the next ten minutes – stood and began chanting, led by an older woman in the back. She had the hymn book open to some pages in the back but didn’t look down at it. I had no clue what was going on until at some point the tone of the chant shifted a bit and I heard, every time the woman did her part, Maria…ah, okay, got it – now they’re praying the rosary. I am pretty sure they were doing something else at first – but whatever it was they wrapped it up with the rosary. I’m sure someone out there can fill me in.
Mass proceeded as usual. My boys followed along the readings in their Magnifikids! .…and yeah, so did I. As I said, most of the Mass was chanted. The hymns and some of the Mass parts were in a more popular style, led by a very strong choir up in the loft – I couldn’t see them, but there seemed to be quite a few folks up there, with a violin and electric organ giving a definite Asian flair to the instrumentation.
I was surprised when the priest began his homily in English, but then I realized that it was for the children – he spoke for about ten minutes in English, finished that up, and then switched to Vietnamese. And I have to say that his children’s homily was a model of what such a thing should be. It was engaging, direct with one simple point – the Magi were lead by a light to Jesus. When we are looking for Jesus, we can be led by a light as well – the light in front of a tabernacle in every Catholic Church all over the world, where ever we go.
Simple and direct. I was impressed.
Yes, we stood out. I’d say there were close to 250 people there, and the three of us there in the back were the only non-Vietnamese. It was an interesting opportunity for me to reflect once again on the liturgy, universality, and the role of the ethnic immigrant parish in American church life. It’s a hard question. It seems odd to me that this little deeply Catholic parish with such a vibrant, evocative liturgy is tucked away, probably completely unknown by 99% of the Catholics in Birmingham. It would also be a complete shame if it did not exist and the traditions of the Vietnamese Catholic community had no expression here and these folks had no choice but to be swallowed up in one more refrain of Lord of the Dance and the dreariness of spoken/mumbled – rather than chanted – dialogue.
It was really lovely. I’m glad we went. But we’re not done here, not yet.
As I had pulled up to the fenced-in church parking lot before Mass, my instincts had whispered, “You’re going to get blocked in. Don’t do it. ” I ignored them and drove right in and found a place. The lot was not terribly full, a situation I knew full well would change, since I’d driven by the place at 11:30 am on a Sunday in the past. The instincts repeated themselves. “You’re gonna get blocked in. Idiot.” I pushed the instincts aside. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps to test – once again – whether what my mother told me was actually true: “Always trust your first instincts.’
You can predict what happens next.
We left the church and went to the car and found one vehicle on either side of me and an big old SUV right behind. Blocked in.
Well, I reasoned, Mass is over. They’ll be leaving soon. And sure enough, folks did start drifting out to the parking lot.
They certainly did. They’d come out to their cars, put something in those cars…and then stroll right back toward the church. Laughing, even. Once in a while someone would appear with a plastic grocery bag or a styrafoam food container and I’d get all excited and hopeful and think..this is it…this is the beginning of the exodus..but no. They’d just stash those boxes and sacks – it looked to me as if there were groceries as well as the prepared lunches - and head back. Of course – they’re having lunch. They probably do this every Sunday. Makes sense.
I wondered if we were going to be like Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny under the basket, stuck there for hours. I was fairly convinced that we were. And I really didn’t want to be the idiot white woman wading into the lunch crowd in their parish hall asking random people if they drove a silver SUV they’d parked behind a black Honda. We could walk the mile or so home and I could walk back in a little while. I considered calling our friends in the neighborhood and having them come pick up the boys while I would just sit there and wait it out. I felt fairly stupid. I let the boys play Fruit Ninja on my phone.
But then the instincts kicked in again. ”You’ve got enough space,” they hinted. ”Pull up a couple of feet, angle it right, and you can get around that SUV. ” I hesitated. I got out of the car and studied it and determined that, once again, the instincts were probably telling the truth.
But next time – believe me - I’m parking in the street.