April 16, 2008

Church

Going to church has always be a regular Sunday morning event for me and I can’t remember a time – aside from vacation – when, as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, I didn’t feel some internal guilt trip building that I’d better get out of bed and get myself in a pew. There have always been other reasons to go to church, of course; aside from the obvious religious/spiritual/devotional ones, I’ve always enjoyed the social event of a Sunday morning and chit-chatting with new and old friends.

But in Mthatha, church occupies a much different – and more difficult – role in my life and coming to grips with that role has been an ongoing challenge for me.

First, there aren’t a lot of English-language church services in Mthatha, not surprising, given the dearth of English-language speakers here. There’s the prosperity Gospel mega-church (no thanks), the Presbyterians (maybe), and one Catholic church (but would I get communion?). The Anglican cathedral has an English service at 7:30 but yikes! is that early. I’ve been once. I spent quite a few Sundays at the Catholic church when I first arrived and it was fine but I ultimately decided to stop going because, well, I’m not Catholic.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to go to a Xhosa-language church service. This resolution was based as much in my desire to eat up my Sunday morning as it was to immerse myself more fully in the language and culture of the people here. I bought a Xhosa-language prayer book and for a few Sundays in January and February I went to the Anglican cathedral at 9:30. This was fine and I would have kept going but I got an invitation to the Anglican church in the township from my co-worker Mkuseli.

I first went with him mid-way through Lent and immediately liked it more than anything else I’d been to. The congregation was the biggest I’d been a part of and I immediately stood out as not only the tallest person there but also the whitest, in fact, the only white person in the fluctuating congregation of between 200 and 400. As a result, as I noted in a recent monthly e-mail, I was immediately re-seated in the second row of the church with all the well-dressed wardens and vestry members; clearly if I’m white and in this church, I must be important! (This is an interesting reversal of the Rosa Parks situation – I would be quite happy to sit towards the back of the church but I am literally not allowed. When I try to sit there, I am almost immediately moved, despite my fervent protestations to the contrary.)

Not a single word of the service, not even the announcements, is in English. (In fact, I missed the opportunity to go to any Holy Week services because when they were announced, they were announced in Xhosa and I missed the times. When I asked later, I couldn’t make myself understood and never got my questions answered.) I’ve been to about six Sundays at this church and I enjoy them and even find a little bit of spiritual fulfillment amid all the new vocabulary I am learning. I’m pretty well over the fact that there are hundreds of people behind me staring at the back of my head and wondering, “Just what is he doing here?” (So I imagine they are thinking. In reality, they are likely too busy singing or praying to pay me any mind.) All in all, my church situation is the best it’s been since I’ve arrived. Things are looking up, right?

Well, not quite. Despite my increasing comfort level in this township church, it still remains the fact that every Sunday morning I lay in bed when my alarm goes off and start rationalizing with myself why this Sunday I should stay home. Every Sunday (so far) the go-to-church voice wins out but sometimes it’s close. While I may feel welcome, it is indescribably difficult to walk into a church where you are the only person of your skin colour, walk all the way down the centre aisle, and take your seat in the second row. (It certainly gives new meaning to the thought that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning when you’re the minority.) When the service is over, it’s even harder to leave. Everyone is walking down that now-crowded centre aisle and gabbing away in a language you barely understand. Then you get outside and realize for all the hundreds of people inside, there’s only a few dozen cars outside, yours prominent among them. So you get inside and drive away while everyone looks at you (or so you imagine) and wonders, “How come he’s not giving anyone a ride in all those empty seats he’s got?” (When Mkuseli is around, he, his wife, and their daughter take up those seats. I’m trying to get in the habit of giving some of the older gentlemen I sit with rides to fill up those seats on other Sundays.) Sometimes I park a distance away from the church so I don’t have to drive past the entire congregation when I leave.

There are two reasons that ultimately get me out of bed on Sunday. First, I reason, I’m already awake, I’m not falling back asleep, and what else am I going to do all day? (The service starts at 8:30, which means I have to set my alarm earlier than I do on a weekday. I object to this on principle.) Second, and more importantly, every time I’ve been to church in Xhosa, I’ve always come away feeling like I was meant to be there, that some encounter I’d had or something I’ve witnessed was an important part of my developing understanding of Xhosa people, Xhosa culture, and the African church. I can’t point to an instance for every Sunday but here are a few:

  • Last Sunday, while driving to church, I spotted a man I sit near waiting for a taxi and stopped to give him a ride. I hadn’t previously spoken with him but on the short ride remaining, he said some very nice things about how welcome I should feel there and how happy they were I was coming.
  • One Sunday, I marveled at all the acolytes this church was able to round up. During Lent, there were at least two dozen per Sunday. I’m not making that up. Twenty-four young people all moving and bowing and processing with almost perfect order and timing. It puts to the shame the yawning, bored-looking, and tired young people I remember in church (I was one of them), who may or may not show up on Sunday. It occurred to me one Sunday that perhaps a good cross-cultural exchange might be a synchronized acolyting competition between the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. The acolytes I’ve seen would smoke anyone I’ve ever seen in the U.S.
  • I’ve reflected (during the sermon I can’t understand) about the use of “smells and bells.” Every African church I’ve been to so far just adores incense and bell-ringing and I’ve realized it truly does augment the meaning of the liturgy, or, in my case, give it any kind of meaning at all.
  • I’ve really enjoyed the music at all the services I’ve been to. It’s a stereotype, of course, of the African church that the music is wonderful and lots of it is. But it’s been nice to pick out people who sing a little off-key or hymns that are sung without a lot of enthusiasm and realize while the stereotype might be true a lot of the time, people are people here just like anywhere else. I’ve also enjoyed learning the music myself and trying to translate the lyrics as we go along.
  • I’ve had lots of aha! moments with Xhosa. Following along with the liturgy in the prayer book is tremendously helpful as it allows me to see words and bits of grammar in print I may have only heard in conversation before. One problem is it is awfully hard to goof off during the sermon (and, say, practice your vocabulary with the prayer book) when you’re sitting ten feet away from the preacher.

I’ve moved several times in the last several years and each time one of my foremost goals has been to find a “home church” as soon as possible. I think the support community provided by a congregation is invaluable when settling in some place new. Usually, I’ve been able to do this within a couple of Sundays. Here, it has taken much, much longer and I wouldn’t even really describe my township church as my home church…yet.

(Some of you have asked about my experience with the current divisions in the Anglican Communion. That is another post altogether but my preliminary comment is that it’s my gathering impression that it is a battle being played out at the highest levels of the church and hasn’t really filtered down to individual congregations. But then again, I can’t understand the sermons. They could be condemning same-sex unions, female priests, and gay bishops every single Sunday. But I don’t think so.)