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1767 A.D. - Franciscan Junipero Serra and Company Build California Missions

    Today, at the moment I write this, economies around the world are in great upset.  This makes it hard to determine just which of the world's economies are the largest, the richest, the most impacting, etc.  But it was not long ago that California, one of the 50 US states, was also reported to be the world's 6th largest economy.  So it was producing not only more business than any other US state, but also more business than all but 5 of the world's nations.  So, it is without question impacting today's world in an important way in many ways.  

   Therefore, how California treats and portrays the Lord is important not only because of these reasons, but additionally because it is a major exporter of thought and impression to the minds of the world, via Hollywood.  If what is produced in Hollywood reaffirms to the world those things which are good in God's eyes, then it can be a force for God and Jesus, and a blessing to Californians, America, and the world.  And if it's net affect is to lead others to sin increasingly, then it is obviously not a blessing but more like a curse to all these same.  Which brings up a question:  where are Californians spiritually? 

   When you look at this, the truth seems to be what you would expect.  There are the rich people, and the regular people.  And among the rich, there is always great spiritual temptation to do wrong with the power and influence given by money.  Where ever there is much money, Satan presses hard to try to control those who posess it.  But among the regular people of California, there is actually a great heritage of Christianity.  There is a strata of society there which loves Jesus, and seeks Jesus.  It has been tossed about some, but has not left it's roots.  And maybe that has something to do with the fact that California was spreading the word of God before America was even an independent nation.  And one of the early bearers of the word to America was Father Junipero Serra.

  He was born into the world in Majorca, an island near Spain, and part of the Spanish Kingdom, in 1713.  He became a serious young man, and studious.  Exceptionally serious, and very studious.  His temperment was never about levity or enjoyment, according to those who knew him.  He became a Franciscan monk at about 16 years of age.  He quickly received his Doctorate of Theology in Palma's Lullian University.  Even in his early years it was considered that he was an exceptional preacher.  He travelled in Majorica, lecturing and preaching, even while young, before finishing college.  He became fast friends with another Majorcan named Palou, also a Franciscan monk, and this man became his life long companion, even to the day of Serra's death.  Much of what is known of Father Serra was written down by Palou, and provides a useful history.

  When Serra was 36 he began his new world missionary work, crossing the ocean in 1749 in the company of other intended missionaries.  He was pleased to find himself the only one who did not succumb to sea sickness on the voyage.  After spending a fairly short amount of time at a missionary college that was established in Mexico City, which helped bring missionaries up to speed about Indians and the new world in general, he was sent, along with some others, to the region of Sierra Madre in San Luis Potosi.  San Luis Potasi is in North/Central Mexico, and peopled mostly by two groups of Indians (the Pame and the Huastec) who spoke different languages.  They were also among the tallest tribes of Indians in Mexico.

The Pame were very poor, and treated in a marginal way by their neighbors.  This had allowed them to survive struggles in Pre-Columbian times as well as making them too poor to bother with much when the Spanish came.  Sometimes poor can have it's advantages.  Many of their neighboring tribes had more to steal and resisted more, and the Spanish wiped them out.  But the Pame lived in the hills, and survived. 

The Huastec had a more storied past, having once been been builders of cities and pyramids, and holding a reputation among the Mexican area indiginous tribes as great musicians.  Strangely, though, they had never embraced the wearing of clothing, which made them unusual among the more civilized tribes.  The Huastec had been defeated by the Aztec Empire before the arrival of the Spanish, but had then been left alone then to a fairly great degree, having only to pay tribute, etc.  Their language was a Proto-Mayan off shoot.  Some linguists believe their  language difference from the Mayan appeared about 2000 B.C.  This wouldn't have been but a few centuries after the Great Flood, if true, and near the time of the Tower of Babel.

Father Serra took great pains to learn the Pame language so that he could speak of Christ with them.  He spent 9 years in their region.  And there were signs that God wished these people's to be reached.  One sign that the people themselves came to believe was that, when Serra and his brother missionaries came to one of the first villages where they ever preached in this area, most of the people did not come when they were invited, to hear of Jesus.  Some came, but most stayed home.  It was a poor turnout.

But when the missionaries finished and continued on their travels, an unusual plague broke out in the village that they had just left.  It was unusual because it only struck the wrong people.  At first, the people thought it was yet another case of contracting a contagion from the European visitors.  They were well familiar with that problem in Mexico.  But as more and more died, they talked among themselves and realized that none of those who had gone to hear of this Jesus had gotten sick.  Only the ones who ignored the invitation to hear.  About 60 people in the village died of this sickness - it was severe.

News of this strange plague quickly made it's way throughout the region, and in consequence, the missionaries were pleasantly surprised to find that not only the people at the villages they went to, but also people from nearby villages were making it a point to be there, on time, with the whole family, and stay until the missionaries were done talking of this powerful God Jesus.  Was it a sign from God?  They thought so.

Serra's fiery and impassioned sermons to the peoples he spoke to often included striking his breast violently with stones held in his hands, and pulling down his monks robe enough to whip himself fiercely on his shoulders and back as he spoke of his sin, and all men's sin, before the purity of God and Jesus.  He wasn't the first to do it, but it was unusual.  He was also a man who was said to avoid all luxury and pampering.  He saw a bad leg that plagued him all of his life as a gift of sorts, though the pain was severe.  Yet he pointedly often walked when he could ride. 

(This sort of corporal discipline is something I don't do, and feel unsure about in most ways, but Serra engaged in it with zeal, and was quite known for it.  It had a deep impact on his listeners as well.  In one extreme case that was recorded, an Indian that was listening to Father Serra took the whip-like object into his own hand, and declaring that he was grossly sinful compared to the much better Father Serra, he beat himself so violently and with such frenzy that he fell dying before he was stopped.  The death rights were administered to him, and he accepted Jesus, then died.  This was not a thing Serra meant to encourage, but it supposedly did happen, and provides an instance of how affecting his preaching apparently was).

After 9 years in this region, Father Serra returned to Mexico City for a time, and entered the convent of San Fernando.  He spent the next 7 years working there.

In 1767, when he was becoming a pretty old missionary of 54 years of age, he was appointed to travel to upper California, 'Alta California', and establish missions among the Indians there, and to provide for the religious observances of Spanish expeditionary forces going to that region.  He travelled there, and this is where he spent almost all of the last 17 years of his life, before dying at age 71.  But before he died, he did a lot of work!  And God may have provided some interesting signs to gain the attention of local tribes that Serra and other's like him came to with the Gospel. 

One account I came across was that a particular group of Californian Indians seemed quite interested to hear of the God named Jesus that the missionaries came to speak about, but strangely, they seemed to fear the crosses that the missionaries carried.  When they had established some trust with this group, and had learned to speak with them, they learned that when these Indians had seen their first missionaries approaching from the distance, wearing the crosses that it was their habit to wear, the crosses had appeared huge - far too large for a man to carry.  And they had gleamed brightly.  But as they watched the group of missionaries approach, the crosses had shrunk and shrunk until they were merely a normal sized thing worn on the chest of the missionaries by the time they were close upon them.  This caused them to be very curious about the cross and what it meant.

Serra and his group worked the region along the coast of 'Alta California' (as opposed to 'Baha California') reaching and speaking along hundreds of miles of coastline to the tribes there.  They found tribes that were, in their view, not too ambitious, and not too civilized, each group spread out and hard to locate, often on the move and hard to relocate the next time.  They were very poor, and would often bring seeds and shellfish or sometimes nuts as gifts when they visited.  But the land then was rich with game, such as elk, and the grizzly the state would become famous for, but which today are gone.  It was common during this mission era for vaqueros (cowboys) to rope grizzly for sport when they found them.  The Spanish ranchers even put on events sometimes where the grizzlies were pitted in an arena against the imported fighting bulls of Spain.  But it was a shortlived experiment, as the bears heavy handed swats were said to down the bulls quickly, and almost every time.  Grizzlies have extremely dense, heavy bones in their front paws.  

But back to the subject, the Indian's lifestyle made them hard to reach.  The Spaniard missionaries believed that the answer to this problem was to give these peoples a central place to live, and to give them work to do, so that they would stay at a given and known location to work, learn, and prosper.  They therefore built community type missions.  These became the 'California Missions', which became the cornerstone locations for the Christianization of the California coastal peoples.  Before their era was over in the mid 1830's there came to be 21 of these missions.  Serra, was also considered a most excellent administrator, and was key in founding many of the 21 missions; he founded modern San Francisco's Mission Dolores (also called San Francisco de Asis) in Oct  1776 (which was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed!).  Before that, there were already three or four missions founded in the 1760's,  such as San Diego de Alcala.  Father Serra also worked to found San Juan Capistrano, San Carlos, San Antonio, Santa Clara, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, and as an old man Serra was present at the founding of the presidio at Santa Barbara. 

I'll mention here that Father Serra had another interesting experience in his career which is still reported.  He and a group of other missionaries were walking along a well used trail between villages on a long trip they were making on foot, and night caught them out in the open and wishing they had shelter.  They walked a little further and were delighted to find a small house beside the trail, so they knocked to see if they could stay there overnight.  The man and woman, and their child, had a small but extremely clean house, and they were very warm and welcoming.  They seemed delighted to have the three missionaries as their guests, and hosted them in their humble little house with great joy.  They treated the tired missionaries in such a loving and friendly manner that the men's spirits were revived and lifted in the most gratifying way.

Returning to their trail in the morning they were not far when they met some men with pack mules coming their direction.  These were men who used the trail and the mules to haul items for people - the truckers of their day, I guess.  They had a friendly conversation, and the mule drivers asked them where they had spent the night.  The told the drivers about the couple who had been so kind to them.  The drivers were puzzled, and told them that they used the trail regularly, and knew of no such place nearby.  And it turned out that this was the case.  It turned out that there was not a house like that, the account informs us.  They had spent a night in a house that did not exist, yet they all remembered it quite well, and all had felt the unusual loving kindness of the family.  It was afterwards their belief that God had provided them that unusually tidy house and the kind people in it. 

But back to the missions they built.  These missions were like small religious cities for the Indians, with the rules made by and most things run by the Spaniards.  In some, certain natives were chosen to act as policemen among their people at the missions.  And when they needed replaced, the native people were able to select their favorite from among the replacement policemen candidates that the Spanish found suitable.  There were at least certain elements of autonomy there, it looks like.  But the Missions were basically run as the Spanish determined. 

The single women of the tribes typically occupied the rooms on one side of the compound, with the single men on the other.  Christian marriage was encouraged, and when people were married they moved into small houses built outside the mission walls.  And their work assignments kept them seperated as well. There was weaving and clothing manufacture, which the women did most of.  And there was building, farming, and herd keeping most often for the men.  And most importantly, religious instruction for all.

Courtship was apparently conducted, when living at the mission, by standing outside the windows of the women's living quarters and doing all you could to gain the attention of the woman your heart desired, for a little talk and eye contact.  If the woman found you suitable, she would take her request for marriage to the priests, who would schedule and conduct the ceremony if the match was allowed.  Then when you were married, a house was built for you, and you moved in and began your married life.  It had it's plusses and minuses for the tribes, but considering the way that the winds were blowing politically and socially, it was not too bad.  And it gave their culture it's chance to become reacquainted with their heavenly Father and to meet His son.

These missions did bring a prosperity and a stability to California which was hardly equalled at that time anywhere else on the continent.  One source said that by 1834 when the mission based socciety was dealt a political deathblow by the Mexican administration then seated in Mexico City, who legislated secularization of the area, that the success of the missions culture had built up to the point that there were over 400,000 cattle between them all, and over 30,000 Native American tribesmen had made their pledge to Jesus.  All this progress was swiftly looted and destroyed by those who no longer had to legally respect the authority of the missions in overseeing this system, and protecting it's members.  It became a 'land grab' of sorts.  And so the mission culture died.  But it had a quite extensive affect in it's day, there in California.  And it helped to define the type of people that would people that state as the decades passed.

Father Serra died at the San Carlos Barromeo mission in Carmel, California, in 1784, at age 71.

And I would also like to mention another missionary of these California missions, in these years, who was named Father Majin Catala.  I ran across some references to him that were interesting, but scanty.  He was widely held to hold the gift of prophesy, and was listened to very attentively when he spoke, because he sometimes asked the listeners to pray for various persons, whom they knew, that were, he would say, soon about to die.  These persons were not always even sick or aware of any problem that they did have medically.  But it was said that they did reliably die soon after he asked for prayer for their soul.  Naturally a person with that gift is going to draw some attention! 

An event which occurred to him that became well known was this:  He once did some unknown thing (I didn't find out specifically what he had done) which resulted in a chief of one of the native tribes becoming very angry with him.  And the chief determined to have Father Catala murdered. 

So, men from the tribe came in the middle of the night to his house to lure him out and murder him, on the chief's instructions.  They knocked, and said they had come to bring him to see a woman who desperately needed to be prayed for.  She had become very sick, they said, and would soon die.  And he dutifully got up and made ready to leave his house and accompany them to the woman.  But, his door was wedged tightly shut.  He tried hard to open it, but it was stuck.  Even the help of his visitors couldn't open it.  So he made ready to kick it down, but he was suddenly seized in his spirit with the certainty that there was no woman, and they had come to murder him.  So he told them that he forgave them, and that they must go away.  These men realized that Father Catala had been saved by God, so they did leave.  They later even confessed their intentions to him, and obtained his forgiveness once again.  

God did, and does, still work among men.  Where knowledge of His Son Jesus is preached, God accompanies it with the signs He promised.  That is the report you hear, anyway, over and over again, from missionaries.  And I have long ago come to believe it's true.  There are just too many Christian people that fear God (who says that He hates all lies) who yet will swear that they have seen these sorts of miraculous deeds with their own eyes.  And I have gotten to see at least one thing in my own life that will forever convince me that it is likely that these deeds, so commonly reported, are true.

But as Jesus told the Apostle Thomas, it is more blessed to believe without seeing.  That is faith - the firm belief in things not yet seen, right?        




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