A Village Church

San Juan Chamula, México
November 2016

Picture, if you will, a village church. From the outside, a white edifice with an arched doorway adorned by colorful tiles depicting flowers. As 12 o’clock strikes, three men in the bell tower ring the bells by hand. The count has little to do with the hour — they go well past 12 rings, punctuated by the sound of firecrackers going off nearby commemorating a local festival. After a few minutes, though, the bells and explosions fall silent.

All this extraversion belies what awaits inside. Crossing the threshold, the interior is dark and crowded. Only candles illuminate the room. There is pine straw strewn across the white tile floor that gives off the scent of a forest.

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Everywhere, the faithful kneel and pray before blazing candles that drip hot wax on the tiles. Placed among the candles are glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Fanta Orange, said to be good for burping out evil spirits. In some places the candle flames threaten to get out of control, while men go around occasionally to scrape up the wax from the tiles lest it sets the pine straw ablaze.

The faithful go on praying. Most seem tremendously pained. Before one of the makeshift shrines, a woman and man hold hands while the woman chants and an old woman prays along behind them.

The smoke is overwhelming, as thick as the most incense-laden ashram.Along the walls are figures of the saints surrounded by mirrors. At the head of the altar, Saint John the Baptist is revered even above Christ.

The smoke is overwhelming, as thick as the most incense-laden ashram. Turning back, it begins to penetrate the eyes, the nostrils, the lungs. The candle flames flicker ever brighter and chaotically. Smoke and fires of the true believers, clutching faith from a thick, gray haze.

Cover photo: Church of San Juan, San Juan Chamula

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