Russell Capshaw is a successful New York advertising executive who tries to stave off his mid-life crisis with an extended drug binge in the Far East. After treatment in a detox facility in Dublin, Ireland, he pays a visit to his estranged uncle, who has recently experienced a spiritual reversion to Catholicism—a faith that Russell himself left behind in childhood. Caught up in the spell of his uncle’s quiet devotion and the lush Irish landscape, Russell finds himself drawn to a new and very different life.
After joining the priesthood and taking the name Father John, he is sent to serve the parish of the Raramuri tribe in the canyons of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. There he learns that the tribesmen are being kidnapped by the local narcotrafficantes as forced labor for their drug fields.
As the Raramuri leaders carry out raids on the drug camps to rescue their enslaved people, Father John strives to keep from getting involved by focusing on restoring the parish church and ministering to the people. But as the violence escalates, the lines between spiritual and worldly matters are stretched to the breaking point in a final, bloody showdown between the villagers and the narcotrafficantes.
“A perfect blend of fast-paced action and thoughtful introspection. From the very beginning, Leeper’s voice captivated me. This is a tale that spans the cultures of the globe and the intricacies of the human heart. — Val Muller, author, The Scarred Letter
“Jennifer Leeper transports the reader from the failings, temptations, and sin that we all experience, to the joy of new life. Russell is the uncommon man turned priest, one who prays and saves not in the comfortable and secure pews of Ireland, but in the rough-edged, harsh and cruel Sierra Madre canyons where the Raramuri tribe attempts to survive amidst the challenges of an unforgiving environment of history, poverty and violence wedded to criminality and terror. Highly recommended.” — Brother Richard Contino, OSF, CatholicFiction.net
Death stands beside me like an old prison warden I’ve known for years, but we’ve never become friends. At times, I hated this warden, but now there is no hate left in me. Death is no longer a frightening and inevitable destination, but a composite of all the moments that came before this moment, and it completes my life.
All of the faces around me are brown, but mine is not. I am not a Raramuri who lives in the nearly forgotten caves of Northern Mexico. I am a Catholic priest from Ireland… the Philippines… Africa. I have served many places, all leading to here, to now. I wear black, but the women surrounding me wear more colors than all the fields of flowers in the world. Every imaginable hue shimmers in their handmade skirts and shawls.
The men wear white billowy shirts and matching pants with colorful belts of blue, red, and yellow cloth wrapping their waists. The men also wear headbands that match their belts, and the women’s heads are covered by scarves, either tied behind their heads or beneath their chins.
My good friend, Salvador, sits to my right. He doesn’t weep. There is a look of peaceful resignation on his brown face and that gives me comfort. Salvador is not a Raramuri. He is Cuban, but the dark tint of his flesh helps him to blend in with the Raramuri just as my light skin helps me to stand out.
We are sweating, but not because we are fearful or anxious. We wait and our lips move in unison with the more than a hundred other pairs of lips that speak almost inaudibly, Hail Mary, full of grace.
We are wearing our best clothing: thirty minutes ago we were celebrating the Feast Day for St. Rita. But now we wait. And sweat because we are so tightly packed in the church.
The strong features on the faces around me are stoic. Chins, noses, and foreheads are still and prominent, like mountains. They are immovable. But the feet of the Raramuri are rushing waters. And their legs are carried along in this water, like canoes, narrow and swift, and cutting across the earth as they have done for centuries. They wear no shoes. Shoes are easy to buy, but are unnecessary.
But even the swift, strong Raramuri feet could not outrun death now. We all wait for death. We each have a warden standing next to us now; the youngest infant, the oldest man.
I roll the wooden beads of my rosary through my fingers, and make eye contact with my Blessed Mother. She gazes at me from a side-altar to my right. She is draped in blue and white. Her eyes are painted, but they reflect what I want to see, the promise of a peaceful eternity. She is surrounded by white adobe. There is so much white in the small chapel that it glows as if it were lit from behind or within.
To my left is her son, and his eyes see everything. They see all the moments in my life and all the moments of every other life that was ever thought into existence by the Supreme Creator. The Son is wrapped in ivory, red, and gold cloth. His arms extend outward and upward, exposing the sacred wounds that bleed for every age and every man. They bleed for me. They bleed for Salvador. They bleed for every person present in the sanctuary at this moment.
In between the Son and His Blessed Mother sits the main altar, made from adobe and arranged in the old style, against the back wall. The altar, painted white, is dressed in gold and white fabric. A crucifix hangs above the adobe altar. On this cross, the Son of Heaven is offered up as an antidote to the world of mortal men.
I don’t look behind me, but I visualize the doors to the chapel. They are native yellow pinewood and painted red. The Raramuri chose the red paint when they built the church; they said it reminds them of el Sacrificio each time they walk through the doorway. They cut the wood and shaped it to fit inside the entryway. They asked me to paint the wood because I am Padre, and only Padre can paint the door, they told me.
These doors are closed now, but they won’t be for long. We wait for five—maybe ten, maybe twenty—men, but I am not thinking of these men right now.
I’m thinking of ten years ago.
# # #
My eyes are open, but I must still be dreaming. I see nothing around me that indicates I’m awake. I see nothing familiar. The ceiling over my head is constructed of roughly-cut wood beams and what appears to be dried earth packed between the beams. My skin feels damp, and there is a musty odor, intensified by the moist air. I sense another human presence. I move my neck, which feels stiff and heavy, so I can see this other presence.
An old man, with dark, black, Oriental eyes that see everything, sits and watches me from the end of the bed where I lay. He has a smooth, shaved bald head, a short, white beard and is wrapped in a colorfully embroidered jacket. He is a very slight and, being stooped over by age, appears even slighter. Despite this diminutiveness, there is a natural authority in this man. He nods slightly at me as I try to lift myself up, as if to encourage my decision. My body aches like I have the flu, and there is a heaviness in all my limbs.
I decide to speak. “Where am I?” My voice is raspy, and I wonder if it’s even audible.
The old man doesn’t respond right away, but nods again and communicates “one moment, please” with his right index finger. His small figure moves slowly through the strange, humid air toward a long wooden table nearby. The table is covered in clay pots in a variety of sizes and several wooden pipes, also varied in size. He returns to the edge of my bed with one of the pipes and asks with his eyes whether I recognize the pipe. I nod. In Chinese, it’s known as a “smoking pistol.” The vaporizer bowl sits on the stem of the opium pipe, and I can hear its distinctive gurgling. I wonder how long I’ve slept and how much opium I’ve smoked. So, I’m not dreaming after all. This artifact of my recent history is evidence. The old man pushes the pipe toward me, asking me with his eyes whether I want to smoke more.
I shake my head no. My host returns the pipe to its table and sits down again on a wooden stool at the edge of my bed. Without the opium pipe passing between us, there is little to say and the old man’s eyes are quiet. Despite the weakness, I maneuver my body into an upright position, but as the blood in my body adjusts, I feel dizzy. My host gets up and shuffles to another wooden table covered in more opium pipes and ceramic bowls, and he returns with a metal cup full of a translucent, white liquid. His eyes ask me to drink it. I don’t know what’s in the cup, but I have a feeling it will either prevent withdrawal symptoms or at least mitigate them. I take the handle of the cup and nod with gratitude. The drink is bitter and has the taste of sour vegetation, but I drink all of it, hoping it will prove to be the natural medicine I suspect it is.
I came here from Tokyo. My colleagues and I were well-positioned to take over the international advertising and marketing efforts for a high-profile Japanese technology firm. It came off beautifully. We four Alchemy Advertising executives from New York City congratulated ourselves with a celebratory dinner of caterpillar rolls and sake. I should have felt victorious. I should have reveled in the fruits of my toil. The other three certainly did. They ate, drank, sang bad karaoke, and returned to our hotel in Tokyo. I ate, drank, and never returned to my hotel room. Instead, I wandered around Tokyo and quickly found a way to feed my heroin habit.
My bosses knew I had a habit and they didn’t care. I could drink, shoot up, bully my co-workers, or act like a dog in heat as long as I brought in clients.