Can you imagine the look on my face, when after our Thanksgiving Day Mass, I walked into our parish hall and the lights immediately came on and eighty to one hundred Guatemalan parishioners yelled “Sorpresa, Sorpresa.” Surprise, Surprise?” They sang a beautiful hymn to me - the song they sing for someone’s birthday. Then they sang the American version of Happy Birthday and then the children sang their own version of the American version. I was completely surprised. I didn’t have a clue as to what they had planned. I went to the hall thinking that they wanted me to say the meal blessing before they all sat down for a Thanksgiving Dinner of turkey.
A fabulous turkey dinner was part of my birthday party surprise. After dinner, it was time for cake. They had made three rather large sheet cakes. Each cake had fresh fruit that lined the border of the top of the cake – whole strawberries and sliced peaches. Sliced peaches were al-so included on the inside of this very moist and delicious cake. Everyone gathered around the cake table and I was directed to lower my head toward one of the cakes and try to get a peach off the top of the cake with my mouth only. Being the obedient servant that I am, I did as I was told. I know you are all thinking right now,” Oh know do not be a fool.” I was so gullible. It was indeed a set up. Right as I was about to get the peach with my mouth, someone put a hand on my head and pushed my face deep into the cake. I had layers of icing all over my face and I am still trying to get it out of my nostrils! The children were falling on the floor laughing and so were the adults. Smiling and laughing, I went immediately to the adult who pushed my face into the cake and brushed my heavily laden frosted face against his face and I shared a sufficient amount of this delicious sticky substance with him. He did not want to wipe the icing from his face. He was very proud to wear it. Again the hall filled with laughter, joy and good natured fun.
Most of the people didn’t know that it was my 62nd birthday. They just knew that two days from Thanksgiving Day I would be another year older and they just wanted to celebrate this day with me. They took this time on Thanksgiving Day to tell me how appreciative they are that I am their pastor and St. Leo is their parish and how grateful they are to be significant parts of our parish life.
Personally, the ritual with the cake, felt like an initiation rite for me - an acceptance of me as their pastor, a celebration of our lives joined together. As the parish has welcomed them into our parish family, they give thanks that our families are joined together. Whenever we are all together like we were on Thanksgiving Day, I normally address them as “Mis Amigos,” (my friends). I scared them a little when I told them that, from now on, I would no longer call them friends. Instead, I will call them “Mis Hermanos y Hermanas” (my brothers and sisters.) The hall filled with thunderous applause and shouts of joy.
- Father Jim