Dotted along the California coast are 21 Franciscan missions. They slowly wind their way north from San Diego to Sonoma along the El Camino Real (The Kings Highway) each roughly a day’s journey from one another (by late 1700’s standards that is). This mission journey was led by Father Junipero Serra. The goal was to preach the gospel message and to spread the love and joy of Jesus Christ.
Growing up in California, I got to see some of the missions. In fact, I think every fourth grader in California has to do a mission project. As did I. We spent time in fourth grade learning about the missions, about the Spanish advance from Mexico into California. I remember learning about God, goodies, and guns. That is, the Franciscan friars brought God and goodies and then they would subjugate the Native Americans, force them to become “civilized” Europeans, and live the Christian life dictated by those who did not. It was then the Spanish government who brought in the guns and duly oppressed the people.
I saw the missions in California for years as relics to a past of imperialism and colonialism. I saw them as empty shells filled with historical items of a long gone era. For a number of years I lived near the mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, CA. It is the most northern (and last) mission in California. It also has barracks for Mexican soldiers right across the street from it (1st St East in Sonoma). It is also just 40 or so miles south of the southern most Russian trading fort, Fort Ross. I was taught at that mission of the political reasons why the mission was created. I was told about how the friars oppressed and subjugated the Native Americans. I was told of how horrible the place was and unChristlike. And I believed it. Taught it. I used to that is.
A few weeks ago we visited California to see family. We decided to visit some of the missions in California. And that is when my view changed.
During the walk through the mission in Santa Barbara, I began to see a list of things that the first friars did. There were journal entries displayed speaking of their respect for the Native Americans they encountered. They spoke highly of them, their musical and artistic abilities.
In fact, there were even statues of Joseph, Mary (with baby Jesus), and St. Francis made in the European style yet with Chumash faces looking back at you.
The tour spoke of how the friars tried to learn the language of the people, learn their culture, and use this to tel them of Jesus and His love. The tour spoke of the work the friars did in standing up against the Spanish government’s treatment of the Chumash.
As I stood in the sanctuary of the mission I was transfixed by the set-apart-ness of the room I was in. The walls were beautifully decorated, and I noticed a Native American influence in the art. The cross on the wall showed Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the central theme of the mass itself. It was a place set apart for worship. Set apart to focus on the holiness of Jesus, His suffering, and the salvation He offered. A sense of holiness filled the sanctuary.
While on the tour of Mission Santa Barbara, I noticed a sign that listed when various masses were held. After spending two spiritual retreats at a Benedictine monastery recently, I recognized the Latin worship terms. People still worshiped here.
As we continued to walk through the mission, there was a section set apart from visitors. I found out that is where the friars lived. The mission wasn’t an empty relic of the past, it was a fully functional parish run by Franciscan friars. There was a long line of photos (and some drawings) of each abbot and priest who led this parish from the very beginning until recent day. The habits and faces changed but the mission stayed the same.
As the tour ended, I caught up to my son who was transfixed to a TV screen showing a video. The video spoke of the things which the friars at Mission Santa Barbara were doing in the community of Santa Barbara for the homeless, the hungry, the hurting, the poor. It spoke of how the Franciscans up and down the central coast, from Santa Barbara to San Francisco were doing to help those in need. They were doing the very things they set out to do back in the 1700’s. They were doing the very things St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200’s set out to do.
Where there was hurting, the Franciscans desired to bring healing. Where there was oppression, the Franciscans were present to try to bring justice and alleviate the suffering. They were still on mission. From the very beginning they were on mission.
Now no longer hindered by the government they were on mission. The mission was still the mission. This mission outpost started in the 1700’s to bring the love of Jesus Christ and the gospel message to those who had never heard it before; this mission which had it’s work usurped by government for almost a century, was still trying to practice what it started off doing.
Some days later, in the smaller mission San Miguel Arcanghel, I met a friar (who was wearing blue jeans, a v-neck t-shirt, and a Franciscan cross) who told me that out of the 21 missions in California, three were still fully operated by the Franciscans and still doing what they started off to do. They may not all wear the habits they once did, but they still did the work they set out to do.
It makes me pause and think about the church today in North America, in the US, in west Michigan. Are we seen as relics of the past, empty buildings of a time and era gone by, no longer functional nor needed, just a museum to a past we’d rather forget? Or can we be more? Can the church get back on mission. Can the mission still be the mission of Jesus–the mission as he read from Isaiah 61
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1 (see also Luke 4:14-20).
For the church today, the mission is still the mission. The question is, is this: Will we join God in this mission? Will we serve Jesus in this mission? Will we move forward despite all odds and not be a relic of an age gone by, a museum of the past or will we be an active force in the name of Jesus?