Where You Sit In Church Says A Lot About You

The church pews have been replaced. This is a slight shock to me. Tomorrow is the baptism, leaving me, the madrina, to meet with the church staff to make sure no one sits up front except us and the rest of the family. I imagine holding baby Cecile, not even a month old, and losing my hands under layers of white lace and satin. 

The old pews were mahogany. I always liked that word. I thought mahogany was supposed to be grand, especially the way my mom talked about it when she thought about replacing our own kitchen table. Growing up, she claimed the table we have now was where the Last Supper took place. It was where the bread and blood of Jesús Cristo (not “Jesus Christ,” the phrase my brother used when asked to turn off his walkman) was shared in peace, which was why every dinner had to be with the whole family together on the table. Cecile’s mom, Alicia, my best friend, laughed when I told her this decades later. She was told the same thing. 

The pews were there longer than I can remember. They were even there before Father Dave’s time. Before him, there was another priest: Father Iglesias. From my memory, he looked like he could’ve been with the church since the end of World War II, perhaps World War I. He had the Trinity of old age: baldness, thick glasses, and a tendency to yell, even inside the confessionals. 

He was still around when I enrolled at Santa Mariana elementary school. In my final days as an eighth grader, the mass requirement deflated from every day to once a week — but the number of confessions remained the same, a healthy once a month to ensure no sin was left too long unpunished, unrepented. Once a month, we formed a single file line from the classrooms and marched our way through the courtyard. The courtyard served a dual purpose: a playground for the younger students and a parking lot for the congregation. The diagonal, white lines of the parking spaces intersected the yellow squares and circles of tricycle lanes, hopscotch trails, and dodgeball rings. As children, we challenged each other to see how many hopscotch games we could get in before a teacher caught us; she would give a silent scolding in the shape of a stern stare and slowing of the whole line until we caught up, the champions with the highest numbers smiling in their uniforms. 

I was eight when Father Iglesias showed up for students’ confessions. He never had before, opting instead for masses with the adult congregation. Maybe he preferred them, the stooped over and quiet followers that mirrored his beliefs. The night before, my mom regurgitated the same speech before many of my visits to the confessional: speaking to an appointed leader of God’s church over and over would ultimately land me in the convent her grandmother found herself in. The fact that I had a grandmother who was once a nun confused me, but I didn’t ask. At the time, my belief that becoming a nun was my calling came from a coloring book. On one page, a nun and priest were praying in a meadow surrounded by animals underneath an outline of a light coming from the sky. I colored her skin peach and his skin peach and her habit pink and his chasuble orange. I thought how beautiful the scene looked, the vision I created to match the expectations of those around me. 

Before I went to bed, my mom remembered the green paper slip my teacher gave me, the one with a “How to Confess” guide for us students to use “just in case.” I already memorized the Act of Contrition and my sins — the words floated underneath an imaginary scene in my head like captions. I was ready. She smiled at it, placing it on top of my uniform after reading the prayer and numbered list: 

1. I forget to feed Panchito (only sometimes!!! his beak is pointy and scary). 

2. I lied about where the long socks were so I could get new ones. 

3. I called my brother stupid. 

She pulled the cobijas up to my chin. I said I was nervous, and she said there was nothing to worry about; I would be cleansed, like a bath but for the spirit. I asked her why I had to wear a uniform when it was so uncomfortable, and she said even though God was loving and kind, he also expected his followers to look presentable to the world so everyone would know they were loving and kind too. I wanted to prove to the world this was true — but I wished my clothes didn’t have to say that for me. 

In the morning, I changed into my crisp, plaid skirt and green sweater vest and prepared myself for the day. My mom created two, long, dark trenzas that would end up frizzy at the end of the day, baby hairs tangled over my tan face and arms. When my class and I reached the church, we entered through the second set of side doors. The first set of doors located at the front led to the altar and the pews closest to it, both reserved for special groups of people: the lectors, the families of an in-process marriage, baptism, or funeral, the church members who never missed a day of Mass. The 30 of us, organized by last name, trailed inside the pews. Seven students in each was the max. That way, there was enough distance between us to prevent chatting, but not too much, so we were still able to hold each other’s hands during the Our Father. 

I hoped to sit behind Manuel. We would never sit next to each other, his Eberlain preceding my Zuniga by almost twenty students. But when enough students were absent, and I cut the line by a few, I could find myself behind him, staring at the back of his blonde head while I and the rest of the student body prayed, chanted, and sang from the missals. Though the Our Father hand holding was not a possibility, the Sign of Peace was my way in. I’d wait for Father Iglesias or another priest to declare everyone to go in the sign of peace, and we all turn to the person next to us, in front of us, behind us, and shake their hands. I folded this page in my personal copy of the missal. 

We sat on the pews’ red, rough, cloth cushions while our teacher played traffic control, notifying us when the previous student completed their sessions. Each time the door to the confessional opened, those of us waiting looked at the sin-free child of God glowing with pride as he or she walked to the tabernacle to kneel and begin penance. As I got older, this pride intertwined with guilt, then succumbed to apathy. 

The assembly line continued in and out of the confessionals until the very last student perfected the final note of her penance. Three Hail Marys here, six Anima Christis there. Though there were two or three priests, I wanted Father Iglesias. No one else liked him. Unlike the other younger priests, he never smiled at us. He never said we were just kids, that God understood our childish ways and didn’t equate forgetting to feed a pet bird with cheating on your spouse. Instead, Father Iglesias was a hardcore traditionalist. No talking while in line for the Eucharist. No skirts above the knees. No shirts untucked. No looking at authority in the eye while speaking. No leaving church without bowing and making the sign of the cross. No running to lunch. No running to class. No running. No standing within 2-3 feet next to a person of a different gender. No leaning back on the pew while kneeling for prayer. He was the symbol of order and self-proclaimed righteousness for us to follow, for me to refer to when I had trouble concentrating away from the back of Manuel’s head. 

But Father Iglesias had a secret. 

I had seen him before. I had seen him during his rounds of the courtyard and classrooms, had seen him scoff at the young seminarians who would join the kids playing basketball or handball, had seen his short, skinny figure slip in and out of classrooms during theology classes to ensure teachers were not tainting the Holy Truth. But I had also seen him — once — walking out from the church to the rectory in pantuflas and understood that a man cannot be so bad if he wears the same slippers as my father. 

“Vente, Yolanda. Father Iglesias esta listo para verte,” she said, an efficient receptionist calling a patient from a waiting room preparing her for the person behind the door to ask if the prescription has been working. 

I was only a little afraid, but as an 8-year-old, I needed Father Iglesias to know that I was loving and kind, that I knew what I was doing. I looked down at the limestone tile under my feet as I made my way to the confessional at the end of the church; it was the one under an image of a woman wiping the face of Jesús, who was covered in sweat and blood inside a plastic black frame. I knocked on the door, expecting someone to say come in, but I heard nothing. So I waited. Whether it was seconds or minutes that passed, I can’t remember, though my heels and neck were hurting from standing so still. Then a voice shouted from inside. 

“Well, if you’re not coming in, can you at least allow the next child a chance by leaving?” 

I didn’t want to go in at all then, but I had forgotten to feed Panchito. 

I closed the door behind me. It was just the two of us. I was surprised, even though I knew this was the way it went. In the coloring book, there was always a light waiting to be colored, another presence in an awful situation that implied He was always there. In that room, 6 the only light came from a yellow bulb in the middle of the ceiling and a radio clock on a short table placed against the wall. I wondered if he ever played music — maybe that’s what took him so long to open the door. Like my favorite songs, I needed them to finish completely before changing the station or turning off the music completely. If not, I had to start over. Other than the table, the only other two pieces of furniture was the chair he was sitting in and the one meant for me. They were the black, metal chairs pulled from the hall. 

“Buenos dias,” Father Iglesias said. 

After he looked up to greet me, he looked down. Father Iglesias only looked at me twice. Once when I entered and once when he made the Sign of the Cross over my head before I left. He was looking down at a JC Penney catalog, slowly turning the pages while I mumbled. He wore a white shirt and black collar. He wore light brown pants and dark brown shoes. There were no pantuflas. 

I was too scared to pull out the green paper slip. I was ashamed, too ashamed to admit that I suddenly couldn’t remember the Act of Contrition, that the only word I remembered was “Panchito,” so I rambled what I thought I could remember before stopping and waiting. I might have even thrown in a piece of a song I knew, a made up sin that came from my brother’s walkman, just for the sake of having something to say. He nodded along. His fingers slipped against the glossy pages when he turned them — the crack of an old page ending and a new side taking its place sounded louder than my voice. 

Once I trailed into silence, he turned over the catalog and closed his eyes, as if finishing a particularly insightful passage that needed deep thought. I looked down once he opened his eyes.  “… May God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins…” he said, the black-keyed words echoing off the walls. “For penance, One Our Father and One Hail Mary.” 

He looked up, gesturing his hand closest to me in the shape of a cross, and said something else before I left. I walked up to the tabernacle before kneeling to carry out my penance, my one Our Father and Hail Mary. When finished, I stayed a little longer. Is messing up a sin? Where is my green paper? Is it too late to go back? Is God really okay with me forgetting to feed the bird? Wasn’t the Holy Spirit a bird? Why didn’t Manuel like me? Is my skin not peach enough? Will I need to wear my uniform forever? The answers came in my aching back and knees, so I stood up to walk back to my pew. Everyone who had returned to their seats were kneeling, so I followed, dropping my forehead against my fists. 

The new pews are now a lighter oak, missing the dings and scratches of small Catholic school children or old men who stopped caring about what their wheelchairs hit. When Alicia got pregnant, she warned me I would be the madrina. I couldn’t remember who was the madrina at my own baptism, let alone the last time I went to Mass, a day so uneventful it blended in with the rest of the rehearsed days of worship. What I did remember were the uniforms, the white stitched “Yolanda” on all my sweater vests so they wouldn’t get lost until years later.

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