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Ecumenical service adds Mexican Day of the Dead

For its annual fall ecumenical worship on Nov, 2 with Luther Memorial Lutheran and St. Dunstan’s Episcopal churches, its neighbor churches, Broadview UCC in North Seattle, incorporated a celebration of Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead.

A Mexican cross with lighted candles is set on a Mexican rug on a table in the aisle. Photos courtesy of Kay Groves

The fall holidays of Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are in some ways also about death, said the Rev. Gary Southerton, Broadview’s pastor, as he offered an overview of other cultural celebrations about death.

“The beliefs around the Day of the Dead are based on the complicated blended cultures of the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism,” he said. 

When Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico 500 years ago, they saw natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death, a 3,000-year-old ritual.  The Spanish tried unsuccessfully to end it.  The church did make the joyous celebration into a tragic image of death.

“All Saints and All Souls Day evolved into celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles, joy and a ritual from the Day of the Dead,” he said.

Broadview decorated its altar with decorative skulls to represent the vitality of life of beloved people who have died, bright colored paper and fabrics to represent the fragility of life, marigolds to draw their spirits into this space, memorabilia from Mexico and food.

“We offer these things on our altar, recognizing that ceremony has long been a means of spiritual survival for people amidst colonialism and violence,” Gary said.  “We offer them with a prayer that our world and our community might be transformed by honoring and learning from these ancient ceremonies.”

Day of the Dead altar setting.

For 20 years, Broadview member, Kay Groves, has set up displays of the variety of Mexican memorabilia she has collected since her first trip 25 years ago to Mexico with her daughter during a Dia do los Muertes celebration.  This year she was not at Broadview for the celebration but in Tuscon for a Day of the Dead celebration there with family.

When her husband died 40 years ago, she realized his death was not as frightening as she had expected.  She experienced the Day of the Dead as a celebration of the completion of life.  At the plaza outside the cathedral, there were marigold designs.  People went to the cemetery and had picnics.  Mariachi bands played.

She has visited Mexico other times and added to the memorabilia.

“We light candles on a cross to remember family members who have passed during the year,” said Kay, who was born in Montana but has lived in Seattle for more than 50 years. 

When she was 30, she and her husband joined Broadview and brought up their children, a daughter, 56, and son, 50, in the church.

“It’s been a gift I have shared with the church, rotating in different items, said Kay, who has 50 papier maché figures, several skulls, gourds, tequila, Mexican coke, candy bars, ceramic clay figurines, paper marigolds and Mexican striped blankets on the altar.

Day of the Dead memorabilia Kay Groves has collected over many years.

Kay has also connected with other cultures.  For 45 years, she has hosted in her home Japanese students who come to learn about American business. She hosted an Ethiopian boy when her children were in high school.  She has traveled three times to Europe and once to South America.  She also volunteers at a community food bank, with a clothing collection and at Mary’s Place.

Gary, who has been at Broadview for three years, said the three churches worship together several times a year to show “we are connected to the same church.”

The other services are for Solstice, Epiphany and Good Friday.

About 50 to 100 usually attend the joint services,” he said.

The traditional All Saints or All Souls services are somber,” Gary said, “but the Day of the Dead is celebrative.”

Broadview does not have Latino members, but the church knows Latinos are increasing in the U.S. population.

The members of the Lutheran, Episcopal and UCC churches incorporated names of family members who had died during the previous year into a litany that Claire Smith, Broadview’s music director set to music.

Claire, who has completed a master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington, regularly seeks to build cultural sensitivity into the congregation. 

She asked members of the churches to send her names of loved ones and she put them to the tune of “For the Healing of the Nations,” which has been used to honor different countries.  The choir sang it.

Gary previously served eight years as executive director of Plymouth Healing Communities.  He previously served 15 years as a Catholic priest.

When he moved back to Seattle, he lives nine blocks from where he grew up.

Gary earned a master’s degree in 1982 in international affairs from Columbia University in New York City and studied theology at Catholic university in Washington, D.C., where he graduated and was ordained in 1988.

His undergraduate degrees in 1980 was from the University of Washington in economics and German. He served as associate priest in Bremerton and as pastor in Linden and in Puyallup at a new church, Holy Disciple, that grew to more than 1000 families.

“I blew my ecclesiastical career to live authentically, working four years for a nonprofit AIDS organization raising funds for people living with AIDS before I was hired by Plymouth Healing Community and transferred his Catholic ordination to UCC,” Gary said.

At Broadview, the church’s goal now is to partner with other churches and nonprofits to extend its influence and reach into the community, he said.

From reading UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer’s book, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World, Broadview, a church with about 35 attending on a Sunday, understands its mission is to build bridges in the North Seattle Community.

“North Helpline runs two food banks and provides rent and utilities to help people stay in their homes,” Gary said.

“The church once rang bells and people came to worship, the church now and into the future is about creating community and partnering with the community to serve,” Gary said.

“Instead of looking inward, we are looking outward to see how we can have an impact in the community where there is so much need,” he said.

At a recent North Seattle summit, residents identified three needs: affordable housing, treatment for mental health and treatment for addiction.  North Seattle population exploded quickly and the cost of housing has had an adverse impact on many people, Gary said.

“Some in our congregation are struggling with those needs,” he said.

The Broadview building already hosts recovery groups every day but Sunday—Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.

For information, call 206-363-8060 or email


Pacific Northwest United Church News - Copyright © November-December 2018


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