I’ve driven by the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, for twenty years now, inevitably struck by its quaint prettiness: if they had a little church on top of wedding cakes, this would be the one. Built in the 1880s, it is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and deserves to be. It's chapel-scale, pure white in and out, with an exquisite rose window and arches traced in dark wood and pews with little entry doors that make it feel vaguely Anglican.
I’ve avoided this church for as long as I have driven past it, though. If you look it up, what you’ll find is that the pastor is the brother of a former CEO of Intel, and that the graduates of its grammar school eventually go on to attend prestigious colleges. The Sunday bulletin invites you to join the Infant Jesus of Prague Prayer Society and the weekly prayer hour for priestly vocations, and offers Confession with an Opus Dei priest. For me, a social worker from a progressive, questioning family full of Jesuits, such a church was suspect. And I was wary of the local Opus Dei households, said to turn up at 8 a.m. Mass. Wary, but curious, I made my way there one Sunday morning in June.’ve driven by the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, for twenty years now, inevitably struck by its quaint prettiness: if they had a little church on top of wedding cakes, this would be the one. Built in the 1880s, it is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and deserves to be. Its chapel—pure white in and out, with an exquisite rose window and arches traced in dark wood and pews with little entry doors—makes it feel vaguely Anglican.
The church was half-full of mostly gray-haired, dignified, well-dressed white people, along with one Asian, one Latino, and a sprinkling of children. It made me wonder where the rest of our Catholic family was. The priest was a man, of course, but so was the altar server, the cantor, the lector: no women on that side of the altar, where the table was set high above the congregation. The music was low-key, a cantor and a pianist leading the congregation in traditional hymns and Mass parts in Latin, but they all sang in full voice, particularly an enthusiastic guy in the pew behind me who broke with Catholic timidity—or is it decorum?—belting out the songs and prayers.
The readings were delivered without expression, although some were fiery: Jeremiah on persecution; the Psalmist on insult and shame. Thereafter came passages on original sin, and on fear, which the priest (wisely, considering the even grimmer alternatives) chose to speak about. I was grateful at first: that day, as on so many recent days, I have felt fear—not immediate fear for myself, but for my grandchildren, for our mother earth and our riven country, for the insufficiently documented people in East Palo Alto who are living in terror of ICE raids.
The priest began his homily with a hurried, mumbled anecdote about people who had confided in him that they were afraid of a certain group in East Palo Alto, and how they really shouldn’t be, and then quickly went on to speak of fear in our personal lives, in our families, and the way it can constrict us and prevent us from living full lives. He was kindly, colloquial, quoting Franklin Roosevelt and the National Catholic Register and Fr. Flanagan. It was comforting as far as it went, but its focus was entirely domestic, and left unaddressed the wider sense of dread so many carry at this time. I wondered if the lovely people around me did not feel such dread—what would that lack of anxiety be like? They looked untroubled, at home in their skins, at home in the world. Who wouldn’t be, living in Menlo Park?
I have often wondered what the people around me in church were thinking, feeling, praying for, especially when I have been at Mass in a foreign land. Looking around at the pretty church and the handsome people at Nativity put me in mind of the many times I have attended Mass in far-off places: the gray bombed-out church in West Berlin full of hunched old women; the entrancing ancient mosaics and reverent pilgrims of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome; the schoolhouse-Mass in Ireland with sheep grazing in the cemetery outside; the jam-packed cathedral in Nairobi pulsing with song.