One Grain of Sand and Devotional Labor
Galileo co-conspirator and Missional Logistics Team president Remi Owens wrote this paper for their Senior Seminar at TCU, spring 2019. If you’re nerdy like us, you’ll like it a lot.
In Performing Piety, Elaine A. Peña explores the role of embodied practice in creating and maintaining sacred space (4). Devotional labors such as pilgrimage, prayer, worship, and custodial work invest devotional capital into the space (10-12, 43), which then produces returns like institutional recognition of the space. In the eyes of the institution, a space is sacred when the institution says it is. Yet, the actions of believers demonstrate that institutional recognition is the child of sacred space, not the parent (62). Spaces are made sacred by dialectical processes in which persons who believe a space is sacred perform acts of devotional labor, imbuing the space with the sacredness the believer already understands it to have. Additionally, the counter-performance of persons who oppose a sacred space further imbue the space with sacred meaning.
Peña asserts in her conclusion that in order to use “performance as an object and a method of study,” an “embodied engagement” is necessary (151). Thus, in analyzing her work, I think it appropriate to use an example that I embodied myself this past weekend. The soreness of my elevated feet and the sunburned hands with which I am typing this essay serve as testament to my devotional labor, albeit on a much smaller scale than the hundreds of miles walked by the peregrinas with whom Peña traveled. This weekend, my church community and I invested devotional labor in creating sacred space for ourselves among the public and secular space of a parade in Mansfield, Texas. We brought with us sacred objects, sunscreen, and stories of the times we had been kicked out of the space to which we boldly continue to return. In our hearts, Mansfield was already sacred. Thus, we embodied devotional labor in its space, further imbuing it with the sacredness we already understood it to hold.
Mansfield, Texas, a suburb in a southwest corner of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, boasts the world’s only St. Patrick’s Day parade. On March 16, 2019, they held their eighth annual Pickle Palooza and Parade. The ritual was originally produced by Best Maid, whose primary pickle factory is in Mansfield. The event has since become independent of Best Maid, though they remain one of the its twenty-one sponsors. The Pickle Palooza and Parade happens in public, secular space. The civil religion surrounding it is not based on any creed, dogma, or faith. Even the loosely religious heritage of St. Patrick’s Day is diluted down to nothing more than an abundance of the color green, which is of course the color of the pickles—pickle costumes, pickle floats, and pickle queens—found all over the parade and festival. Yet, for Galileo Church, ever since its founding in Mansfield in 2013, participation in the event is a deeply religious ritual.
Galileo Church comes out every year, with a booth in the festival and a float in the parade, to share our gospel with the people of Mansfield. We believe that God’s love is real, and that it is for everyone. We believe it is not only possible but indeed good to be both LGBTQ+ and Christian. We believe that our calling is to seek and shelter spiritual refugees—people who are not welcome in or have been hurt by other churches—and that lots of spiritual refugees, at least in our area, are LGBTQ+. Therefore, every year, we show up with signs that say things like, “What Jesus said about being gay… [blank space, indicating the answer: nothing],” and “God = Love.” We hand out flyers that say, “LGBTQ+ and Christian? Yaaas,” alongside a link to our website, and others that list our missional priorities, the first of which is justice for LGBTQ+ people.
Mansfield is sacred to Galileo. Before we had weekly worship services, we met in a living room in Mansfield. Our first three (or four, depending on who is counting) worship spaces were in Mansfield. Twice, we got evicted in Mansfield. Once, the eviction was preceded by a gross display of graffiti from our landlord who hated us enough to deface his own property with spray-paint simply because we were meeting there. Even after we started renting space for Sunday worship outside of our city of origin, we continued holding weekly Bible studies at a taco bar there. We also held special services for holy days like Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunrise at a family-owned coffee shop in Mansfield, where our pastor also held office hours. Galileo Church originated not just in the city limits of Mansfield, but in Mansfield’s public, secular spaces. The labor we embodied in those spaces imbued everything—from the parking lot off of Debbie Lane where we imposed ashes, to the tiny window of the Farr Best Theatre where we placed our sign every Sunday, to the pavement of Main Street where that sign got thrown out by a bitter landlord—with sacred meaning. Like the shrine in Rogers Park, the spaces where we experienced vandalism and eviction were made even more sacred (119).
In Performing Piety, the women who worship at the shrine in Des Plaines say that a space does not need an apparition myth in order to be sacred. All it takes, they claim, is un grano de arena (one grain of sand). In my estimation, the grano de arena is the spark that begins the dialectic process of sacred-space creation and maintenance. Because of un grano de arena (or the apparition myth, in some cases), peregrinas of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe believe the space is sacred. That belief drives them to embody practices of devotional labor. In the case of Galileo Church, we came to believe the space of Mansfield was sacred when we came to believe that God was calling us to do church in its public spaces. That belief drove us to embody practices of devotional labor, like imposing ashes, singing in worship, and praying together.
This past weekend, Galileo Church returned to Mansfield once again for our sixth annual tradition of marching in the Pickle Parade and holding a booth in the Pickle Palooza festival. Our booth was only a couple of yards from the Farr Best Theatre, from which we had been evicted from almost five years earlier. For our grano de arena, we brought pride flags that normally hang in our worship space, a chalice and paten from which we take communion, signs we made with our own hands, and PVC piping with which we construct a rainbow contraption attached to a trailer, affectionately called “the big gay float.” These sacred objects, together with our origin and eviction stories, sparked the dialectic process of sacred space creation.
I told my pastor, as we hauled PVC piping down from the attic in our rented space, “I’m glad I set aside my studies to come help with this, because I got inspiration for my paper as I was folding up the flags.” I had nicked my finger on the nail from which the flags hung. I wiped the blood off on my Galileo Church t-shirt, which was sweaty from trips up and down the stairs. I had gotten the t-shirt 3 years ago, the first time I marched in the Pickle Parade. I swapped stories and prayers with my friend Missy, who had her own reasons for participating in this ritual. I prayed over the flags as I folded them up, hoping people who saw them would feel included and welcome. Because I believed in the sacredness of the space I was preparing to enter, I prepared for it in a way that imbued it with the sacredness I already understood it to hold.
 In addition to the rainbow flag which symbolizes “gay pride” and serves as a catch-all flag for anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, the queer community recognizes a myriad of different flags that respectively represent genderqueer, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, asexual, and many other sexual orientation and gender identities.