It is Sunday afternoon, immediately after a beautiful Advent church service somewhere in Greenwich. A bunch of kids and a couple of grownups remain in the sanctuary.
Our Christmas pageant rehearsal is about to begin. The little ones, most of them destined to play angels or shepherds, and even sheep, patiently await their assignments.
"Who would like to play Mary? And Joseph?"
Most kids are too shy or too humble to aspire for those roles. It is finally suggested that this year, Mary and Joseph will be played by Martita and Miguel.
Did I hear that correctly?
Yes, I did hear that correctly. This year, the roles of Mary and Joseph will be played by two Hispanic children. Perfectly fluent in both Spanish and English, Martita and Miguel do not live in Greenwich but in nearby Port Chester, surrounded by countless hectic and magic places where you can find tacos, empanadas, feijao, dulce de leche, pasteles, mangos and air plane tickets to familiar destinations as far away as Quito, Cochabamba, Sao Paulo, Oaxaca, Huancayo, Medellín and Asunción.
Mary and Joseph and the other Hispanic children in our cast this year were born in the United States, yet most of their relatives do not seem to belong in America. One of the children recently lost her older brother to the "Migra."
"My brother was almost done with college here in Westchester," the angel-girl confides, "but he was deported back to Chile and my Mom cries every night."
Rehearsal begins. In a matter of minutes, all of the kids literally slide into a world of Biblical fascination, where everybody in the Christmas story has been chosen by God for a significant place and role in history. More or less aware of this awesome spiritual tradition, I wonder: Why do so many children have to put up with so much mistrust and discrimination? Without medical insurance, educational loans and retirement benefits, even though their families work as hard as everybody else and dream and behave as everybody else? So overwhelmed by the daily fear of being profiled, arrested and deported or just the simple fear of having to miss a couple days of work when they feel really sick.
It is Mary and Joseph's turn. As they sit together by the empty crib listening to the angel's glad tidings and the promise of new beginnings for all here in America, are they wondering how come today they are at the very center of God's story when their parents and abuelitos live most of the time in the margins of that same story doing our laundry, vacuuming our homes, washing our cars, driving our kids to soccer games and birthday parties, cleaning our tables wherever we go for a cheap meal, always treated as aliens and even usurpers?
I do some more wondering myself. Do Mary and Joseph suspect that many of us, so sweet and so welcoming in church today, may never do anything, not even pray, in order to change the status quo, as long as it fits our own interests and convenience? (Did I hear myself blurting out a "María, Jose, go home"?)
The pageant rehearsal is finally over. Martita and Miguel and the other kids find it hard to say goodbye. But it is lunch time, so they finally march into the parking lot. I am left behind, and for a good reason. It is my assignment to check lights and doors. As I walk by the crib, where a cute doll has been resting for the last 10 minutes or so, I prayerfully ask in such a sacramental silence, "Dear God, what would it take us here in this holy place and across our holy town to truly welcome María and Jose, along with their families, their memories and their dreams of a better life into our own mangers 24-7?"