A Sacred Pilgrimage or a Walk of Shame?

As my wife tugged my shoulder, she urged me on impatiently.

“Come on, come on just a little bit further!!” she said. “My uncle was at this bar last night, and he said there were a bunch of fights, so I want to see what it’s like today.”

I quickened my pace but not my expectations.  I’ve been to enough festivals and block parties to know I’m probably not entering a battle zone, but then again it’s not every day there is this much excitement in San Ramon.

We sped up the sidewalk toward the bar. There was music blaring in the parking lot and a DJ reminding patrons they could only consume alcohol if they were under the tent surrounded by police officers.  We figured we might see some blood on the wall or teeth on the floor and even though it was a Sunday morning, maybe another throw down.

However this wasn’t like a heavy metal concert, or even the beer tent at my local hometown days festival back in the US.  This was part of the annual Lady of Los Angeles pilgrimage, a Catholic tradition that involves people walking to the basilica from all over Costa Rica to pray to the Lady of Los Angeles and ask for help and guidance.

The street party was completely unaffiliated with the tradition, of course, but it was obviously taking advantage of it. And it wasn’t unusual.  The condensed version of the Lady of Los Angeles story goes like this: A young girl found a small statue of the Lady of Los Angeles in the forest and took it home with her but couldn’t find it the next day. She returned to where she had found it and it was there again. That happened over and over.  As a result, the town decided to build a basilica at the site, and every year people make the pilgrimage from all parts of Costa Rica to ask her for forgiveness and help with their lives. They walk for days, some barefoot, and some even on their hands and knees.

In theory, this should be a beautiful, sacred event. They close the main street for miles leading up to the basilica, and even if you are not religious, you are welcome to walk along with the crowd. Many people choose to go with friends as a fun way to spend the day.  Some use it as an excuse to get in some exercise, and others, well, use it as an excuse to get drunk and fight.

I was really baffled seeing people walking around with plastic cups with what I thought had to have been ginger ale. It was a hot day, so soft drinks would make sense. But it began to dawn on me that there was a little more going than casual ginger ale drinking.

You didn’t have to look far from the basilica to see signs advertising beer. There are only two bars in the small town and it seemed like they needed to make all their sales for the year on this weekend.  Panning down to the street, I started to notice people pulling up in the back of pick up trucks in cowboy boots and hats as if there were a parade. Here there were people who have walked miles, maybe for days and others were acting like it was a tailgate party.  Nowhere would I have imagined a scene of this kind.

The Catholic church has events year round in San Ramon, and they are always family-friendly. They have a parade of saints where they march each of the surrounding town’s saints around the downtown area. They have Holy week processions. They even have a big two-week “hometown days” type event where they have concerts and carnival games.

At none of those events have I seen consumption of alcohol. So I was puzzled and beleaguered at the amount of alcohol at this event.  I can see people walking along with friends just for fun, but the amount of alcohol was overwhelming. I saw groups of teenagers walking down the street with bottles of liquor in paper bags. There was a first-aid station set up for the pilgrims but if I had to guess they probably attended more drunk than sober people.

Maybe this was too big of a culture shock for me. This was my first time participating, and despite everything that was going on the pilgrims didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe the ones who feel disgusted just don’t even go anymore. We visited some friends who lived down the street from the basilica, and they didn’t even seem to notice the event was going on.

I didn’t come across any evidence of violence and didn’t stay long enough to see if the fighting resumed, but I saw enough to know that a fair number of “participants” are hurting the image of this  sacred pilgrimage.  I know God works in mysterious ways but even He should have been upset. I was half expecting He would send a lighting bolt to fry the DJ’s sound system.  That would have sent a message.