We were honored guests at a simple Christian wedding in the barrios of Manzanillo. The quiet simplicity stood in dramatic contrast to most Mexican weddings.
Throughout Latin America, extended families put themselves deeply into debt to provide food, decorations, gifts, and clothing. Alcohol and rented karaoke machines dominate many weddings in Mexico.
We have met several unwed couples with a few children who have postponed their wedding because they could not afford the culturally expected wedding party. Many plan to have a wedding, one day, when money is enough. Until then, they live with society’s stigma of being shacked up.
Yet when a community is dedicated to simply reflecting a couple’s public commitment, the result is a refreshing celebration of the gifts of life together. We were honored guests at one of the simplest Christian weddings we have ever attended.
Mona had served us as our costurera, putting together the curtains for our RV. She plays a grandmotherly role to her entire pueblo.
Over the course of our eight months in Manzanillo, we also came to know some of Mona’s married children, most of whom still lived in simple, concrete houses in the same pueblo where they were born.
Reyna, one of Mona’s married daughters, lives in the largest house near the small church building in the center of the barrio. We had some precious conversations in her house. Reyna’s house is made of concrete, with unfinished concrete floors, simple curtains made from sheets, and an array of loveseats and chairs fill the first room where she entertains guests. The next rooms are very simple with a few wood slat bed frames with foam mattresses and hammocks for sleeping. Reyna is unfailingly hospitable and always sends us away with piles of bananas and milk for our children. No amount of protest will stop her generosity.
In order to reach her house, we would drive our RV up a steep road trying unsuccessfully to avoid scraping our frame as we climbed the hill. For extra power, we shut off the A/C as we climbed. All of our children were helping by shouting–
“Watch out for that black cow!” “Don’t hit the baby!”
“Oooooh, there are school girls sitting on the right. Do you see them?”
“Did you miss that dog?!”
–until we made it safely to the top. The neighborhood would gather around helping us to turn the RV until we finally had her parked. Then, since she was parked on such a steep incline, we would find large stones and place them under the tires to keep the RV from rolling.
On one such visit, we were greeted by smiling faces but a quiet chatter. Reyna’s electricity had just been cut. That’s a part of life in Mexico. People deal with it. Food is cooked on fires, candles burn for lights until enough money can be earned to turn the power back on again. However, we sensed that Reyna felt embarrassed.
Since Mona had been helping me make curtains, I quickly suggested we visit in the RV so that she could see the finished curtains hanging. Everyone accepted that invitation giddily. None of them had ever seen the inside of an RV.
Mona, Reyna, several grandchildren and Reyna’s two children all piled inside our mini RV. We all laughed and chatted for hours. I loved the ability to share a simple hospitality in our tiny home.
While we chatted in the RV, Reyna proudly tapped her niece Cassandra., “She is going to be married this Sunday…We want you to come to her wedding.”
All three women nodded excitedly in agreement. Reyna queried,
“You ARE coming to the wedding this Sunday, right?!”
We agreed. With a hand-into-palm gesture she affirmed the service would start at 10 in the morning, sharp. Perhaps she knew our crew’s tendency to run behind–even by Mexican standards!
Running fifteen minutes behind schedule (surprise!) and anticipating a crowd, we parked our camper at street side on the bottom of the hill below the church and its neighborhood. Our crew of eleven, including a wheelchair and stroller quickly mounted the hill. Most of the members and attendees came from the neighborhood.
I was breathless by the time we hiked the hill. I had been urging everyone to climb faster. Hadassah, our seven year-old, loves weddings. I was afraid we would miss seeing the bride.
When we reached the church building, no one was inside. The entire congregation was milling about outside. Reyna, looked confused over my concern for the time.
“We were not going to start without you,” she affirmed.
We continued to mingle while others from the barrio continued to make their way over. Once again, I was watching a culture that chooses relationship over time. Waiting for all of the guests to arrive was the focus.
Like most guests attending a wedding, I had been concerned about what we should wear to the wedding. We did not want to be under-dressed, but we certainly did not want to be overdressed either. We chose simple khaki skirts for Hannah and me and khaki jumpers for the girls. A good choice. Every guest was in Sunday best, but nothing glittery or extravagant.
This was no centuries-old cathedral in the town square. Over the last twelve years, the simple tin roof and concrete structure grew stage-by-stage as the congregation had the funds. The fact that the small building was unfinished had no affect on the life of this church body.
Every lady greeted the girls and I with a hug and a Que Dios te bendiga (God bless you). With warm welcomes exchanged, the the crowd began piling into the church building.
The women wore modest attire with head coverings. Outside the church building, the ladies draped coverings around their necks. As they entered the church house they lifted the veil over their heads, following their understanding of 1 Corinthians 11.
The women and girls were seated on one side, while the men and boys sat on the other side. The practice has its roots in the fourth century Christians and is still practiced in various church cultures. Our older children well remember that style of seating from our conservative Mennonite days.
The girls and I were just about to take a back row seat (which I would have preferred) when Reyna insisted, by waiving, that we move up front. She cleared out the second row where members of the bride’s family were sitting. Of course, I felt badly about that and protested, but it was to no avail. All of ladies were motioning and insisting.
“You are our honored guest,” someone said. While ignoring my protest, the family of the bride moved back an aisle while we took the choice seating.
Brent and the boys sat across from us on the men’s side.
A cloth-draped card table served as the rostrum for the service moderator. The podium, from which two sermons would be delivered, was front and center with two verses adorning the walls behind. Fans dispersed warm air throughout the plastic chairs. A single acoustic guitar accompanied as the congregation sang from palm-sized hymnals that drew songs from several denominations. The congregation knelt and prayed out loud, extemporaneously, voices of men and women rising and falling throughout.
We were about an hour into the service when I finally realized that Cassandra, the bride, was seated directly in front of me. The groom was seated across from her on the men’s side.
The pastor gave a message on the return of Christ and the importance of being ready and alert for it. That was followed by special singing. It was curious to me that the single ladies who sang turned sideways, intentionally not facing the congregation and avoiding eye contact. I never heard directly, but I presume this was in an effort to literally practice “pro)priety” (translated “shamefacedeness” in the King James Version).
The older ladies then came forward to sing. This was followed by another short devotional. After about two hours, Jeremiah scurried over from the boy’s side and whispered, “This is the most boring day of my entire life.”
Poor boy, I could barely blame him, but I was really glad that our children had the inner strength to sit still for the entire experience. That fierce self control enables them to take in life-changing cultural opportunities. They know us well enough, that a long day of self control will be surely be followed up with wild adventures.
A visiting pastor-bishop finally began the message more specific to the bride and groom, referring to verses encouraging the couple to love and remain true to one another.
Then, without music or fanfare, the bishop called the couple forward, spoke to them briefly and asked them if they vowed themselves to one another for life. Hesitantly, I snapped a picture. When Reyna saw that I had a camera, she pulled me up front and commanded me to take photos. I gladly obliged.
In the next moment, he joined their hands and pronounced them man and wife. He called the congregation to pray for them. All did so, kneeling and praying out loud. Although the entire congregation was audibly praying, it was orderly. There was no loud show of emotion, just a room full of sincere believers asking God to bless their marriage and keep them faithful to God and to one another.
The pastor drew the service to a close, raising his hands in a fervent benediction.
As church attendees and members shook hands with each other, they began filing out to the dining hall. Actually, it was a packed dirt floor beside the sanctuary. It was covered with a sturdy tin roof, no walls, with a cooking area and newly concreted bathrooms behind a divider.
The divider was adorned with a white drape and a red banner announcing the new couple “Cassandra y Carlos”. Two rows of joined tables, draped with white tablecloths, transformed the simple gathering into a hall fit for a wedding.
Once again, we were made to feel like guests of honor. Mona’s relatives quickly escorted our family to the front table, closest to the bride and groom. Eager teenage girls were ready to help with the baby. With few cameras among the church members, I was quickly appointed to photograph the proceedings. A few smilingly remarked that the invitada is now an official photographer.
Servers shuttled from behind the divider, bearing styrofoam trays of hot birria (a hot soup prepared on a wood fire containing finely chopped beef, lamb and goat) with a side of refried beans.
Every piping hot savory plate was hand carried from the kitchen to the guests. Guests unwrapped the paper packs of hot tortillas and passed the garnishings of lemons and chopped onions. Every bit of beef and broth was sopped up with the steaming, corn tortillas. Two liter bottles of Coke and Lift (a favorite Mexican apple soda) were placed at each table.
We have been all over Mexico. We have eaten in homes, at parties and top restaurants. No where had we ever tasted anything quite as delicious as this simple wedding meal.
As guests finished their meals, servers collected plates and began passing out the cake. At the head table were three round, white-icing mango cakes, each adorned with a white rose that Reyna hand-made. The moist cake seemed to sooth Jeremiah’s disappointment in the length of the service and wedding.
After a few more photos, we thanked everyone individually and made our way down the hill. That afternoon, I printed out a couple dozen photos, placed one in a nice frame and delivered them back to the grateful newlyweds. Carlos and Cassandria are off to a great start.
As the late-coming, reluctant guests of honor and improvised “official” photographer, we were so thankful to have been part of such a beautiful wedding.
More than ever, we know there is beauty in simplicity.
Click here to watch this short and fun video taken during the wedding.