Greg estrada walks up the steps of Saint Michael's, a Catholic church in Silver Spring. He's about to cross the threshold when he says, "I'm probably going to burst into flames."
Greg, 41, is here with his girlfriend, Lia, and her 8-year-old son, Jackson. They've come to watch the daughter of a friend of Lia's celebrate her First Holy Communion. In some ways, Greg, an agnostic, is out of his element. He hasn't been to a church service in years, and this ceremony will be in Spanish.
Although he's Mexican American, he doesn't understand the language well. But he does "know quite a bit about the Catholic religion because I did attend Mass" as a kid, he says.
Though he wasn't raised religiously, Greg started attending a Catholic parochial school in seventh grade. He says he was the only non-Catholic in his class and sat at the back of the church during services. He remembers meeting weekly with a priest who would "talk to me about how I should become Catholic." Afterward, Greg says, the priest would place an Oreo, Communion-like, in his mouth.
Greg, Lia and Jackson settle into a pew near the front of the church.
Lia says that she and Jackson are nonpracticing Episcopalians, so religious differences have not arisen in her relationship with Greg. There is, however, another difference: Lia speaks fluent Spanish. She learned the language while living near the U.S.-Mexican border and working with Central American refugees in the late 1980s.
Now, in Spanish, she introduces "Gregorio" to an acquaintance sitting in the next pew.
"Mucho gusto," says the woman, extending her hand.
"Nice to meet you," Greg says.
Soon a priest is standing in front of the altar, gripping a microphone and addressing about 60 children who are going to receive Communion for the first time. He talks to them in Spanish about the importance of attending church regularly, even though that may not always seem like fun. "There is no PlayStation in church," he says.
The adult parishioners laugh, and Greg perks up. He doesn't know exactly what has been said, but he understands that a joke was cracked. He sees the priest in a new light. "This guy should do stand-up comedy," he whispers to a neighbor.
After the ceremony, Greg and Lia walk out of the church holding hands. He says to Lia that maybe it's time they start "shopping for a religion." He turns to her and asks, with a smile, "What's that religion without any rules?"
-- Tyler Currie