Field Notes

A Band of Brothers Descends Upon an Unsuspecting Liberal Parish

Dec 3
A Band of Brothers Descends Upon an Unsuspecting Liberal Parish
Posted December 3, 2014

It was the last night of our stay in Las Cruces. Eddie Rodriguez was hanging with us until the last cow came home. We were cleaning up the cafeteria-gymnasium-auditorium of the Catholic grade school that earlier in the evening we had transformed into Fr Esposito’s going away party venue. Eddie was smiling and mopping. He was rolling the mop bucket around like a pro, following behind his new found band of brothers who were sweeping and breaking down the tables and chairs in front of him. It was a good time. Nothing beats the joy of men working against the odds for a purpose greater than themselves. Those days in Las Cruces revealed that Eddie Rodriguez was a true brother, firmly laid in the foundation of the Body of Christ.

It was close to midnight when we finished our work. We walked outside together into the starlit summer night. We felt great. We were tired. We finished what we started; the purpose for which Holy Spirit brought us here. We parted company hugging one another as true brothers do as they look back on something that they accomplished that was truly remarkable.

On our first expedition into the Black Range we flew in and out of El Paso, Texas. Dave Esposito of the USFS, a fallen away Catholic, married to a virtuous woman of Scottish descent, was there to pick us up and drive us into the mountains of New Mexico. Who would have known that Dave’s first cousin was a priest in Las Cruces? Dave was a young dude, a tough dude. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand and measured me up. He told me that his favorite sport was boxing. I told him that my favorite boxer was “Hands of Stone” Roberto Duran. He backed off a bit.

Heading into the Black Range to clear the trail that ran from McKnight’s Cabin to Reed’s Peak was a formidable task. I had an eerie feeling about it when I read the other names for the Black Range; the Devil's Mountains or Sierra Diablo. But I was going to be with good men, Holy men and to boot a priest. So I threw caution to the wind.

Dave didn’t really know what we were going to find on the trail. There were no official reports on the trail conditions for several years. The Forest Service had received reliable information that the spring at Reed’s Peak was running strong. We devised a plan of spending our first and last nights at Mimbres Lake, a mountain meadow with no water, 4 miles north of McKnight’s Cabin. On the second day we would hike the 10 miles into Reed’s Peak and then work the trail north to south back to Mimbres Lake. On the hike in we packed 6 cubies of water, tools, gear and food. We cleared 50 or more trees along the way, so by the time we got to Mimbres Lake, the sun was setting and it was time to set up camp, build an Altar and celebrate Mass.  Following Mass some of the men built a fire in the quiet twilight of the high desert. It gets cold early in the evening in the mountains and the smell and crackle of the fire warmed our bodies and spirits as we ate dinner.

We started our nightly reflections with Evening Prayer and continued it with a discussion about Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart”. Our breaths were starting to show as men placed sock hats on their heads to fend off the mountain cold. The Milky Way lit up the moonless black night outside the glow of our campfire.  

Early the next morning, following Morning Prayer and breakfast, we packed up our gear, food and tools and headed towards Reed’s Peak and 10 miles of unknown and uncleared trail. Some of the men carried cross cut saws wrapped around the top of their packs while others had axes and pulaskis strapped to the backside in an X configuration. We looked like some ancient special forces platoon heading out into Middle Earth in search of Orcs.                              


At first, men would peel off, saw, ax and remove fallen trees, but after about 2 hours of this, and an unknown trail and water source ahead, we chose to hike around and over the trees to our new basecamp. At one point on the trail we hiked through a blow down of 105 aspens in a little over 100 yards of trail. At times we had to remove our packs and help one another up, over and through the giant jumble of pick up sticks.        



A few hours later we were finally approaching Reed’s Peak and started earnestly looking for the spring. Several of us were running out of water and we started wondering if we may be in a desperate situation; the nearest water was at Mimbres 10 miles north and 4 hours away. My heart sunk when I stumbled upon a small, murky, foul smelling water hole just off the trail. This could be bad news. “Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners in this hour of need” I prayed to myself. Then I heard Dantu’s voice shout out: “I found it!”

It had a good flow of clear looking water for the Sierra Diablo. Years before someone had actually hauled bags of cement on mules and made a spring box and cover for it. But though the water looked clean enough, it actually had a lot of microscopic debris that rendered our filter pumps useless within a few gallons.

We didn’t come well enough prepared and didn’t have other water purification gear with us. But we had several cooking stoves and plenty of fuel. Early every morning men got up at 4 am carried water up out of the spring and boiled it for the 1½ gallons per man- per day that was needed. We shared that spring, or should I say, God’s wild creatures shared it with us; the bear, coyote and mountain lion.

Our time at Reed’s Peak was gloriously ascetic one. Surrounded by the rugged beauty and solitude of the high Gila Desert wilderness, we immersed ourselves into the reasons we came. Days began, ended and were divided by the Liturgy of the Hours. We formed our brotherhood and sharpened our leadership skills in the crucible of hard work and problem solving, clearing the trail of hundreds of aspen and Ponderosa pines.  We brought our unfinished manhood to the Altar of our Lord’s sacrifice for transformation at the source and summit of our faith.

Our Altar was constructed of a base of aspen logs with a large red, flat, granite rock for the mensa. Tired from a hard day of work and hiking, we entered the celebration of the Mass with 30 minutes of solitude and silence on a rock pinnacle or the base of an ancient tree. One by one the men would appear from different parts of the deep forest and take his place in the sanctuary. The Holy Spirit spoke to us through the readings, psalms, Gospel and the events of the day, forged together in Father’s homily. One by one we met our Lord face to face and received His Body and Blood. One by one we knelt in reverent silence in the mystery and miracle of the God of the universe coming to save our manhood.  The sun set and the wind rushed up the mountain from the desert 4,000 feet below rustling the aspen leaf ceiling of our unhewn chapel. We heard the beating of a hawk’s wings passing overhead and the wild call of a Pileated Wood Pecker piercing the dark forest. We kneeled there suspended in time, resting, roughhewn sons of God, nourished in his wilderness and glory. And then Father said “Let us pray.” 

On the way back out of the mountains we were dirty, tired and ready for a shower. Dave was there to pick us up. “I talked with my cousin Fr. Esposito. He said that his parish would host you guys for a couple days.” “That’s great” I said. On the way down off the mountain I passed in and out of sleepless consciousness. Dave may have been a boxer, but he didn’t know what he was in for. The young men that I had just spent 7 days with in the wilderness were evangelizers. They poked him, they prodded him; he tried hiding behind his cynicism, it didn’t work. Dave was impressed. He liked these men and it worried him.

In a couple hours we rolled into Las Cruces and the unsuspecting liberal parish. We hadn’t celebrated Mass yet and though we were dirty and needed a shower, it was the first thing we wanted to do. Fr Esposito introduced himself to all the men and when he reached out to greet Fr Hahn, Fr asked him if they had a small chapel where we could celebrate the Mass.

As Fr Esposito led us into the main entrance of the church and as we walked by the Sanctuary we started looking for the Tabernacle and couldn’t find it. We felt lost. On the way back to the small chapel we finally passed it. The glass enclosed closet, far from the center of the Sanctuary, where those contaminated by the misinterpretation of Vatican II, hide Jesus.

Some of the folks who were hosting us had already arrived and wanted to join us for Mass. One of the older ladies whose name was Simone walked beside Fr Hahn and asked him a rhetorical question; “Won’t it be nice when we allow women to be ordained in the Church? Then we won’t have a vocations crisis anymore.” Fr smiled, was polite and saved his answer for his homily.

It had been awhile, maybe never, that the host families had experienced the faithful kneeling during the Mass, let alone one celebrated ad orientem. There were no kneelers in the chapel or the main church. There was no need for them since the parish dropped most of the appropriate rubrics when they built the new Church. Kneelers or not, it didn’t prevent these tired and dirty wilderness men from kneeling on the hard floor during the appropriate times of the Mass as the parishioners looked on uncomfortably.


The Gospel for the day was Mathew 5: 1-20 and ends with following the words of Christ: “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Fr Hahn is a great homilist. He uses the technique of “stealth evangelization”. He warmed them up with his humble demeanor and polite manor and then launched into real message of his homily. “We live in a culture of relativism. It has invaded our schools, our families and the very catacombs of our Church. But God’s universe and his Church are not relativistic. Reality is not relativistic. God has created a universe that operates in accordance with a defined set of laws, hierarchical laws. This universe was created through His Son, or Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ in His wisdom created a Church that mirrors those same laws. Jesus is telling us in this Gospel that those laws are not only intact but will remain so and be fulfilled. Among other things, this is why the Church in her wisdom has recognized that only men may be priest, in persona Christi” 

Later that evening as Fr Hahn and I enjoyed dinner at Eddie and Glenda’s home, Glenda’s mother exclaimed “I loved the way we celebrated Mass today. I loved the reverence that was shown. You all kneeled. Why don’t we do it like this anymore? What happened?”

We spent two days and two nights with the people of the parish, listening and evangelizing with word and deed. Fr Esposito was being re-assigned to another parish and on our last night in Las Cruces his flock was holding a large going away party for him. We were invited to come and jumped at the opportunity to be useful, help out and do the Lord’s work.

When we arrived at the Parish people were setting up tables and chairs in the elementary school’s large playground. A stage was erected where a Mariachi band was tuning up. They had run several, hundred feet of long, orange extension cords, Christmas treed off of a single weather proof outlet on the outside of the school; it looked like a fire inspectors worst nightmare. Women wearing bright clothing carried platters of proudly made homemade food, and looked suspiciously on one another’s offerings. Children chased one another around getting into mischief while the few other men who were there stood at a safe distance telling worn out stories and watching.  All told there were three hundred or more men women and children. Standing in the midst of this was our band of sunbaked wilderness warriors, feeling somewhat out of place and fidgety. We were anxious to be of use and get to work. One of our men asked a lady who seemed to know what was going on if there was anything we could do to help. She pointed to a woman planted firmly in the middle of the bottleneck of the evening activities; it was Marta, the parish secretary. I felt strangely intimidated as we approached her. She was the center of attention of this controlled chaos and barked out orders one at time to a dozen or so waiting lieutenants.

When we she finally made eye contact, she flashed a smile with a glare in her eyes looking like the mountain lion at the spring that had just cornered her prey. “And just what do you want?” she asked us. “Is there anything we can do to help?” “Well not much” she said, “the women have already taken care of just about everything.”

Marta had been at the parish when we first arrived. She had gone to Mass with us in the little chapel and had heard Father Hahn’s homily. She knew we were the outsiders who kneeled like the old timers they had sidelined long ago. She knew she had us. She waited for a long few moments until she sensed that we knew that she was in control. “All right” she said ‘the rest of the chairs are in the parish hall and they need to be brought out and set up.”  

The ten of us headed for the parish hall and when we got there we saw a pallet of about 50 chairs or so. At 4 chairs a piece per carry we had this small task completed in about 10 minutes; hardly the sink your teeth into type of work we were hoping for. After all we had just spent 7 days in the backcountry working and praying every waking moment of the day; our lives had depended upon it.

And then God gave us a gift.

As some of our men continued helping families retrieve food and drinks from their cars, four of us were studying the western horizon. It looked dark. Over the top of the desert mountains we saw a bolt of lightning and what appeared to be a fierce thunderstorm heading in our direction. I looked at Andrew, Dan and Chris and said “Let’s go talk to Marta.”

When we got her attention she gave us a triumphant glance and said “Yes, and what more can I do for you?” “What’s the back-up plan if we get a thunderstorm?” I asked her. “Oh don’t worry about that.” She said. “It never rains in Las Cruces in June.” I persisted: “Well just for the sake of argument, really, what would we do?” She looked at me. I looked from her to the western horizon and nodded. It was coming; a big one and it was only 30 minutes away. Marta turned and saw it. The look on her face turned from self-assured confidence to despair. “Well” she hesitated, “I’m not sure. I never thought about that. I guess we would have to move into the elementary school’s gymnasium cafeteria.” “Is it open?” we asked “No. Here are the keys. Please hurry and see what we need to do.”

We ran over to the school with a sense of urgency, opened the doors and ran down the hallway and into the gymnasium. And there it was; a large empty room that doubled as a basketball court and cafeteria with a stage on one side and bleachers on the opposite side, completely empty with clean and shiny vinyl tile floors; just like the one I grew up with. Dan opened a door on the wall behind the bleachers that led to another large storage room filled with folding tables and chairs. Andrew shouted ‘We’ll start setting these up. Send some more men into help.”  

By the time I got outside the wind was blowing paper cups and plates across the playground, thunder rolled down the mountainside into the valley and lightening lit up the dark desert sky. I saw Brett, Justin and Nick and directed them over to the gymnasium to help set up tables and chairs. Father grabbed Clayton and the rest of the men and helped screaming women and children carry potluck into the new party location. Eddie, who had been talking with the other men on the sidelines rallied them and helped the band break down and set up inside on the stage.  It was grand. It was like clockwork it was like we planned it that way. There were no casualties. All the food and people made it to safety. The band started to play, the rain poured down, the wind blew and thunder shook the building. I overheard a woman proclaim “Thanks be to God for these men! Where did they come from?”



John Bradford

Notes from the Gila I Band of Brothers

  • Justin: Men,
    It was epic wasn't it. I totally agree with you about Fr. Hahn's homilies, Erin and I were blessed to have him as the homilist for our wedding.
    Looking back at those years and the time we spent in the wildnerness are some of my most cherished memories from college. Yes I was blessed to go to school and blessed to be a part of SPO and live in the Fort, but there is something about going into the wildnerness that just inspires and encourages me. There hasn't been a trip where I haven't had to die to myself and I thank you men for being running with me, pushing and challenging me to be a better man.
    The expeditions have all been great and each time I have to die to myself and my comfort zone to get the courage to go on the trip, but I always tell myself that it won't be anything like the Gila. I at least will have more than two meal choices (peanut butter, or freeze dried taco meal), I will have water easy to access and I wont have to pack in all the tools we will need or have to move base camp three times. But I always then think back about how great that made the trip, the sweat, the grind, the unknown, the fight, the band of brothers and the victory. Being one of the toughest WO trips, made it one of the best and one in which I will forever be grateful for the forging experience we had the brothers I have gained.
    Yours in Christ,
  • Andrew: Wow. GREAT great memories! 
    Dave....what a guy. His stories were amazing. Would you rather meet a bear or a cat out there in the forest, Dave? A bear every time. Cats go for the neck and when they do, no mas.... His story about his old girlfriend that was a forest fire fighter.... Conversations and questions about faith in the truck...He was so epic...
    That parish during the festival when the storm came in and slammed us. John - "we are about to get hit. we've got a code red!" I really think you actually said that, John!
    Dan and I staying with the family with pretty much a country club set up - we allowed ourselves to be spoiled rotten!
    Me rolling my eyes during the first days work at how easy it all was, soon to be met with hiking our water in, crossing a 1/4 mile stretch of steep hillside with 100+ fallen trees with full gear on, running out of water....and Clayton's return with the unfiltered water and Fr. Hahn minutes behind him with literally no skin left on his feet...and then that food...of it was soooo bad!
    On a more serious note, this trip was not just a total blast spending time together and spiritually renewing through work and prayer in the wilderness, but it was also a time of miraculous healing for me. For the last 2-3 years I was having terrible migraine headaches about every 3 weeks that would completely knock me out for about 24 hours. Since being out there in the wilderness with God, brothers and hard work, I have not had one since! It is truly amazing. I don't know what happened, but I think that God used that 'retreat' for space away from everything to re-program my body and mind. So grateful for one of the best weeks of my life out there!
    P.S. John - I love the look of the website and really love the logo! Do you have stickers with that logo on them? I would totally put that on my nalgene to sport around campus! 
    Andrew Kebe, Senior Mission Director
    Saint Paul's Outreach Ohio
    • Clayton:   Andrew, I had no idea! That is a powerful story. Thanks for sharing! You had the country club life and Danny, Chris and I stayed with an 80 year old hippie couple( john and Sylvia) it was a powerful time! Thank you john, it was so good to remember that story. It was sure a good adventure. I would like to be back with you men!
      An to see Danny vomiting in the moonlight from a powerful cigar!