Behold the San Lazaro mobile! A trip to the church isn’t necessary in order to visit a statue of Saint Lazarus. Instead, he’s the one traveling to the masses, thanks to a refurbished van that doubles as a mobile sanctuary.
When the Day of Saint Lazarus comes on Tuesday, thousands of parishioners will stream inside the Rincon de San Lazaro church in Hialeah, a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of one of the most popular figures in Cuban religious culture.
But at other times, a trip to the church isn’t necessary to come face to face with San Lazaro. Instead, he’s the one traveling to the masses, thanks to a refurbished used van that doubles as a mobile sanctuary.
“People are in awe when they see [the van] because I really don’t think there are any other churches that do this,” said Frank Perez, the Rincon de San Lazaro administrator. “They have an emotional, religious experience seeing San Lazaro in a van.”
The San Lazaro mobile — which church staff refer to as “the carriage” — debuted five years ago, when church leadership bought and fixed up an old Florida Power & Light van.
On the outside, the van is now a striking purple — San Lazaro’s color of choice. On the inside, toward the back, stands a depiction of the saint, nearly reaching to the roof, featuring all of Lazaro’s identifying tributes: wounds, a cane, and a couple of accompanying canines.
“San Lazaro was a leper,” Perez explained. “The reason he has dogs around is because they would come and lick his wounds.”
People kneel on the ground in front of the figure to pray. Many leave behind an offering of flowers by the van’s back wheels. In the vehicle’s midsection — between the saint in the back and the driver in the front — is a space used to sell rosaries, necklaces and saint figurines.
“[We] had an idea one day of why not take San Lazaro out to the public instead of people coming to the church?” Perez said. “There’s a lot of elderly people and a lot of people that live far away that don’t have a way to get to us, so we put him in this van so we could go to them.”
”The “carriage” mostly hits the road in the summertime, when it’s a fixture at events in places including Hialeah Park Race Track, Markham Park, shopping centers, and Calle Ocho.
Cherished for his healing ability, San Lazaro combines the biblical figure of Saint Lazarus with a Yoruba healer deity called Babalú-Ayé — a nod to the important role African influences play in the Cuban religious tradition. On Tuesday, another church is opening in the Redland dedicated to the worship of the saint.
GETTING BEHIND THE WHEEL
The San Lazaro mobile’s official driver is Gerardo Guerra, a gregarious Cuban man in his early 60s.
“It’s a blessing being able to take the image of San Lazaro to the people,” he said. “When I drive, I’m protected by him, I’m blessed by him. And it makes people happy to see him in places far away from the church.”
While taking the van out for a spin around the block near the church, Guerra arrived second at a four-way stop. The driver in the car that had already gotten there, and had the right away, motioned at Guerra to cross first.
“See how people give priority to San Lazaro’s car?” Guerra asked. “No matter where I go, people stop to let me pass. Others speed up to drive next me and take photos of the van. … It’s like a public attraction.”