Here is the gorgeous ofrenda that Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) created for our Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) service:
Last Thursday Juanita showed us how to craft large, elegant flowers out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners, and Carmen helped us to cut colorful papel picado banners. (Ancient experience making prom decorations and snowflakes came in handy.) We set up tables in a corner of the sanctuary and adorned them with our artistry. Additional decorations by the church youth group appeared on Sunday.
On Wednesday evening several church members joined us for a beautiful bilingual service. Added to our ofrenda were photographs of loved ones who had passed away. By each picture were offerings of their favorite foods: plantains, cookies, and chocolate candy, bottles of wine and cans of soda, believed to quench the thirst of the dead as their spirits make the long journey back to visit on earth. Marigolds, whose strong scent is thought to be a particularly appealing invitation for them to return, sat on the altar alongside burning candles.
We shared communion and then gathered in the parish hall for a potluck dinner. Rosa told some of us about baking pan de muerto, a special sweet roll, and visiting the graves of her family to leave flowers when she lived in Mexico. She took out her phone and pulled up a video of her favorite Día de los Muertos custom in her village. We watched a young man use two long poles to move almost-life-sized plastic skeletons attached a few feet behind and in front of him. When he raised his arms, they raised their arms, and when he turned in circles, they turned in circles, mimicking every move—to hilarious effect.
Rosa laughed heartily, and we joined her. “Día de los Muertos is not a sad day,” she explained. “It’s a fiesta of gratitude for our loved ones and ancestors.” But her broad smile evaporated as she added, “Well, it’s sort of a sad day. Because I’m not there to celebrate with my family.”
Civil rights historian and activist Vincent Harding, a beloved friend who passed away in 2014, offered a word of hope about the “cloud of witnesses” whose spirits still surround us. He likened them to “a great cheering squad for us. In the midst of everything that seems so difficult, that seems so powerful, that seems so overwhelming, they are saying to us: ‘We are with you,’ and ‘There is a way through; there is a way to believe. Don’t give up!’”
He described the scene when our spirits unite with these beloved ones in communion: “Well, here we are, all present and accounted for. What a gang! What a table!…No excuse for drooping—at least not for long. No excuse for not running—or at least walking strong. No excuse for staying down. ’Cause we are surrounded, folks. So…let’s get refreshed at the table, and then get down with some real long-distance walking and running—and maybe even some flying, like eagles, in due time. That’s our tradition. That’s our destiny. That’s our hope. So go right on, sisters and brothers: walk in the light, run with the cloud, mount up on wings…There is a city to build.”