At the newspapers I used to work on, I was responsible for coming up with a splashy feature each year for Easter day. At one point, I used this opportunity to hit up my employers for business trips, such as a trip to New Mexico in 1998 for the country’s largest pilgrimage at Chimayo, just north of Santa Fe. But it never occurred to me to not have a story, as the big religious holidays were my chance to get above the fold on A1.
So this year, I surveyed a bunch of California newspapers to see which ones had made any effort to provide decent Easter coverage. The Orange County Register covered a cowboy service and a sunrise service; in other words, the minimum.
The San Bernardino Sun covered how the local Catholic bishop did not preach on the previous week’s shootings that left a student and teacher dead and a student wounded. A story about the Easter Bunny got better play. The Sacramento Bee had an opinion column on the difficulties of explaining the Easter Bunny to foreigners. Chances are those foreigners, like the Chaldeans, knew more about Christ and the Resurrection than the Easter rabbit.
The San Francisco Chronicle barely gave lip service to two sunrise services while devoting much of its Easter wrap-up to a Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence event featuring a contest for the best Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary.
I could find nothing in the Los Angeles Times other than a San Diego Union Tribune story that I’ll get to in a minute. The Ventura County Star had nothing. But the Redding Record-Searchlight had several over the weekend: An account of Easter at two local churches and the recreation of Christ’s walk to the cross by several Hispanic churches. Redding is the site of the enormous Bethel Church so religion is important to much of the local populace.
Back to the Tribune’s story on the local Chaldeans, 60,000 of whom live in their circulation area. Yet, the region has only two churches seating 700 each. The reporter managed to fuse recent international events with anecdotes about how fortunate recent Iraqi Chaldean arrivals felt at being out of the war zone.
Although a devout Christian, Eva Aboona missed the Palm Sunday church services that launched Holy Week last Sunday.
But she tried
At St. Michael’s, one of El Cajon’s two Chaldean Catholic churches, Aboona encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic, a jam-packed parking lot and an overflow crowd of worshippers.
“I couldn’t get in,” she said.
Her husband tried to take the children to Mass at the other Chaldean church, St. Peter’s. No luck.
“There was no room to park,” said Raied Aqrawi, 51, through an interpreter. “We had to drive around and go home.”
Lesson learned. For Sunday’s Easter Mass at St. Peter’s, these Iraqi immigrants plan to arrive hours early.
We then learn the family has only been here since Jan. 10. After the Detroit area, San Diego is the second-largest U.S. settlement for these Christian Iraqis.
The Chaldeans have their own flag, bordered by two blue stripes signifying the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The other symbols harken back to ancient Babylon such as an eightfold star representing the sun and two internal circles representing Babylonians'/Chaldeans' contributions to human history in the areas of math and astronomy.
Four years ago, they celebrated Palm Sunday in their Iraqi village, Alqosh, under threat from nearby ISIS forces. The family fled to Turkey, where their faith was targeted by local officials and neighbors. Last year’s Easter Mass was halted by a bomb.
So while they face struggles in their new home, they cherish the freedom of worship they enjoy here, due to the efforts of local Christians and Jews.
“Here we feel there is law, there is security, there is protection,” Aqrawi said. “Here we don’t have the fear that someone will come to convert us to another religion.”
I visited Alqosh 12 years ago during my two-week sojourn in northern Iraq. The village was a clean place with dry, sandy mountains just to the north and in town, a combination monastery/orphanage circling a spacious atrium and gardens. The biblical prophet Nahum is buried there.
This is a rapidly growing group. There are now 60,000-plus local Chaldeans, double what this population was in 2010. Yet there are only two Chaldean churches, each with room for 700 worshippers.
“The churches are always full, always full,” said Besma Coda, chief operation officer at Chaldean & Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon. “We need a new church in El Cajon. There are seven different Masses a day and they are all full.”
The article includes some harrowing descriptions of what it’s like to worship as a Christian church in Turkey, where there are plenty of people willing to bomb your meeting place. The family profiled in the piece endured three Easters like that.
Newspapers have got to get beyond the send-a-reporter-to-a-typical-Easter-service and invest time thinking up meaty stories several weeks or months before the Easter/Passover season begins. The Union Tribune's story came with a video and seemed well thought-out. It doesn't take that long to strategize and plan for decent Easter coverage. Would that the other newspapers I listed had taken the trouble to do that.