A tone-deaf drive to canonize Serra
On my walk home from work, I pass three storefront evangelical churches. They’re often the only institutions of well repute on those blocks, and their congregants have the pride of people who treasure respectability and order, because there’s so little of those things in their surroundings. The women wear long skirts, the men wear boxy suits, the children have clean collars.
Some of them were born here, and some of them are immigrants from Mexico or El Salvador or Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America, but the crucial point is that they are all from traditionally Catholic cultures, and they’ve all chosen a different church. It’s a distinct choice that can be appreciated even on the most secular level — they’re choosing to spend their time at small storefronts with ugly overhead lighting and bad carpets, instead of in San Francisco’s beautiful Catholic churches. They’re doing this because the faith of their ancestors didn’t hold enough for them.
I thought about these storefront churches when I heard that Pope Francis is planning to canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra, the priest who “brought” Christianity to California in the late 1700s.
Or perhaps I should say that I thought about why, despite a wildly popular Latin American pope, the church is struggling to hold onto believers even where it’s strongest. The Serra choice is as fine an example of the church’s tone deafness as I can imagine.
There are at least two Junipero Serras. There’s the Serra of California’s roadways and statues, the Serra whom California schoolchildren learn about in the fourth grade.
This is the Serra who was the pious, humble Franciscan. He was a man of immense personal bravery, giving up a comfortable life as a theologian in Spain to bring the Gospel to the Americas. He brought the Gospel to California — at the time one of the most remote and threatened regions of the Spanish empire — along with the famous mission system that became the first permanent European presence on the West Coast.
Then there’s the Serra whom children don’t learn about in school. This Serra is the figure of serious academic historians and a despised figure in the American Indian community. He was a brutal colonist who exploited the local indigenous communities for their labor and for their souls — Indian recruits were forced to convert, sometimes at gunpoint, and rounded up by soldiers if they tried to escape.
The local populations extent that even some of Serra’s colleagues felt bad about it: The Indians “live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life ... they fatten, sicken, and die,” wrote a friar at the time.
The likeliest truth is that Serra was both of these figures: the brave pioneer and the pitiless colonist. He’s the type of person who deserves a lot of academic study but nothing, absolutely nothing, resembling sainthood.
The puzzle here is that the church doesn’t realize this, especially with the demographic it’s finally being forced to serve. I say finally because it’s taken the church such a long time to recognize that its only hope of survival lies in the global south, especially Latin America.
Europe has left the Catholic Church, and the United States was never really in the fold. Now that the church is finally being forced to look at the Latin Americans who are left, it wants to canonize a man whose career included brutalizing indigenous people — people who look like, well, current Latin Americans.
This is far from the only reason why the Catholic Church is in big trouble. The child sex-abuse cases, the rigidity of the Curia, secularism — pick your problem. Not all of them are of the church’s making, but they all count.
A choice like Serra, on the other hand, is a choice of the church’s making. And that tells us something else. It tells us that the church realizes it’s going to alienate the very communities that it needs for the 21st century. Since it could just as easily choose to leave Serra alone, the church is also saying that it doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, I peek inside those three evangelical churches every night on my way home. Though their pews may be humble — folding chairs, not wooden benches — they’re always full.
Caille Millner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: cmillner@ sfchronicle.com Twitter: @caillemillner