There is a rough circle of people standing in front of the church, holding a banner. One man is chanting, a staff with a bird’s claw at the end gripped in his hand. Another man is holding burning sage, releasing fragrant smoke as he moves within the circle. The rest of the people are somber and silent.
Cars crawl along the street, slowing so drivers can gawk.
On the banner is the name of a man who founded a system under which a hundred thousand people died for the sake of the church – not this physical place, but the timeless, placeless entity that binds this world to an unseen one in worship of a murdered god. Five thousand ancestors, the people are told, who were taken from their homes forever and brought here to work for the glory of the church, lie uneasily under the street where they stand. Now an unending line of cars crawls over their bones.
Suffering that has never been redressed is being redoubled as the bells toll for the new sainthood of this man of the church. The women and men who speak, or pray, or sing, speak of suffering. Suffering that happened three hundred years ago or more imbues their present lives. For “the past is never over, it isn’t even past,” another man once said, speaking of all people and their suffering.
What is a ghost but the remnant of unacknowledged, unredressed suffering? So not only this street but all the streets of the city are filled with ghosts. The city builds and builds, in a frenzy, desperate to escape the past, but the past follows, like a bell on a running dog’s tail.
Both the suffering people and the church claim to speak in the name of their religion. One religion preached unending gratitude for this world and its life-giving bounty, the other preached that it was a vile skin to be sloughed off, a kingdom of death. One believed that place was all – the place the people lived was instilled with the deep time from which they had emerged and into which they would return one day. The other believed that place was nothing – the whole world must be conquered and utterly transformed, to avenge and vindicate the murdered god.
The knot of people will disperse, having witnessed their suffering. The church will stand, the canonization will stand, the cars will rush along into the future. The hatred for the unbuilt world that has created the city will go on building it higher and higher.
But the place, the time-space in which the suffering occurred will not disappear. The people who recognize it will recognize one another and persist. Whether they whisper or shout, “Junipero Serra is no saint,” they will not relent.
Ghosts have lost time and place, but the people are alive because the time-space gives them life. And they acknowledge it, and are grateful. Though the built world teems with ghosts, they have shown what it is to be alive.