Alice and I had spent the evening at the Harris Ranch Inn in California’s San Joaquin Valley near Kettleman City and on a wintry Saturday morning drove northeast in the direction of Fresno. If ever there is a spot on the planet scrubbed raw by nature it is the San Joaquin Valley plain, a brooding, featureless landscape. A hundred years ago this was a sage-strewn desert. In recent years, however, irrigation has allowed its alkali soils to be farmed. That day, the soil was combed into bare furrows that were yet to show a blade of vegetation.
The central San Joaquin Valley is a land that man has largely wrought, laid out in vast grids with its roads numbered not named. Little here is of human scale. We passed what appeared to be a giant insect on 8-foot high rubber tires with its insecticide spraying wings folded back along its sides. Large aluminum pipes edged the roadway providing water for the fields. From time to time, we sped by enormous agribusiness compounds with their storehouses and yards filled with heavy equipment flanking absolutely flat, featureless land reaching out to the horizon.
Five miles north of Highway 198 we passed the entrance to the “D” Ranch, and were surprised to see a small chapel amidst a cluster of decaying houses. The building was locked, but a sign on its door read: “Holy Family Chapel. Sunday Mass 8 AM. Confessions, Baptisms, Weddings, Quincineros at St. Anne’s Riverdale.” In a land where one road was as good as any other, we sought out Riverdale.
For a few miles we continued north and at Five Points, a crossroads featuring a lonely liquor store and an abandoned gas station, we turned east and followed the section-line highway for several miles leading to a pastiche of poor houses and abandoned automobiles. Pulling to the side of the road, we asked a young man for directions to the Riverdale Catholic Church. “This is Lanare,” he explained. “Riverdale is up the road ten miles.” We thanked him and went on. We were now in dairy country, and there was a pungent quality to the air. Set between the fields enormous metal roofed structures came into sight, shelters for thousands of cows lining feed troughs.
In this hard land the sky is lost in perpetual haze caused by the evaporation of irrigation waters. The human element that tends the ditches, discs the fields, or maintains the huge equipment becomes inconsequential. This place in which agribusinees have divided, flattened, and arranged every square foot for maximum productivity oppresses and weighs down the spirit. I longed for some hope of escape: an enclosed garden, an inner chamber, relief from the great emptiness.
About 10 AM, we finally reached Riverdale, population 2000. There had once been a town swimming pool here and a drive-in but these had gone away in the 1950s. As we came up the main street, we were waved onto the dirt shoulder by a flagman protecting a large forklift in the middle of the road. Some volunteers were using it that Saturday morning to take down the town’s modest Christmas decorations strung over the highway. In 1926 the Catholic Church had been built for a community of largely Portuguese immigrants, many of who were sheepherders. In more recent years a large Lady of Fatima Shrine had been built adjacent to the Church facing the roadway. It is a poor town, the median annual income of the population is less than $30,000 a year.
The parking lot was empty, but the door of the mission style church was unlocked. Entering the building, our ears were drawn to the sound of rippling water from a porcelain baptismal font in the sanctuary. The profusion of religious symbols was a far cry from the stripped-down asceticism of typical Post-Vatican II Churches. I knelt briefly in prayer, surrounded by the most familiar icons of our faith: the figure of Christ crucified, and a tiny flame indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I felt as if I had come home.
Yet there were questions. How, we wondered, could one small church contain so many statues: St. Joseph, St. Ann, St. John the Baptist, St. Margaret, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the infant Jesus of Prague, our Lady of the Sacred Heart? Why so soon after Christmas was the theme of the pastor’s reflections in the Sunday bulletin, “el valor de sufrimiento” – “the value of suffering?”
It is easy from the comfort of our suburban armchairs to discount popular pieties, and devotional elements that seem holdovers from an earlier time. In the world of Riverdale, one grasped at every element that would bring texture and meaning to the surrounding environment; the lowly paid jobs, the tedium of life. The religious symbols were lifelines to a world that transcended this particular time and place. The poor and the simple, Pope Francis explains, “live life in a transcendental sense, beyond the huge daily difficulties. In some ways, consumerism has not enclosed them.”
In the days that followed, my mind frequently came back to Riverdale and it’s surroundings. Our stop that morning made me conscious that every parish church is in its own crossroads where a community intersects with God in a special and irreplaceable way — and the humbling recognition that it is often the least of those in society who share the richest spirituality.
October 27, 2016