Tuesday, September 28, 2010
A Day at St. James's Church
Recently I attended a church ceremony where our friend Anata was receiving a special blessing because she was turning 21. She had invited myself and another local friend, Mavis. Mavis and I had drove up and down the rocky backroads roads of Maokeng in search of the church, which she’d simply told us was called St. James’s. Mavis and I didn’t know what type of structure to look for, because “churches” here are often organic communities of believers who meet wherever possible, whether in a home, under a canopy, in a field, or in a church building if they have the resources for one. Thankfully, Mavis’s first language is Sesotho, and she was able to ask around until, after we had been directed to two other “St. James’s” where we didn’t find Anata, a helpful young man directed us toward a tattered blue and white tent. As we approached from far off, we could just make out the figures young men marching with brass instruments next to the tent. Their invigorating melody grew in volume as we drove closer, and I could now see how worn and banged up these horns and trumpets were, presumably from years and years of use in the same church community. The band played up and down the road to rouse the people from their homes to come to church.
Anata had asked us to wear long skirts and head wraps, as was the policy of women in the church. When I arrived, I was so relieved I did, because even my longest skirt showed more of my lower calf than anyone else’s. As the only white person, I was acutely aware of my legs making me even more conspicuous. I soon discovered that Anata’s ceremony coincided with a very special occasion, the annual visit of the provincial bishop of this particular African denomination (called “The Church of Prophesy”) to this particular church.
Mavis and I found a spot on some weathered wooden benches. In our haste to find a seat, we had accidentally sat on what appeared to be the men’s side of the tent, but our embarrassment abated with the smiles we received. I knew this might be in for a mental struggle for the next few hours, as I soon realized that my long-sleeved sweater, another wardrobe request by Anita, would accentuate the already sweltering heat. On the women’s side of the church, I noticed an interesting pattern. After the wives of the bishop and pastors, the elderly women were placed in seats of honor near the front of the tent, and a seating system based on age (which didn’t seem to apply to men at all) continued all the way to the preteen girls in the back of the church. Almost all the members of the women proudly donned the church’s colors of blue and white, and the white was blindingly bright despite the very simple shack dwellings comprising this neighborhood, where most of them presumably live in. Similarly surprising was that many men wore suits, even though for many it was too large or too small, with a white or blue handkerchief. I instantly thought of how frequently I grumbled to my mom as a kid about having to dress in Sunday clothes for Mass.
The three-hour service was entirely in Sesotho and Zulu, two of South Africa’s eleven official languages, so most of the service was beyond my understanding. I could gather that this denomination seemed to incorporate both traditional Basotho religious practices and familiar facets of western Christian worship, such as Biblical readings and preaching. Some of the most notable elements were that the bishop and the local pastors each held their own unique sacred stick, some made of metal, others of lovely carved wood or bamboo, which was used as a pointer during their sermons and as some sort of sacred object for conferring blessings to the people. At one point in the ceremony, the bishop, who had been preaching, walked over to a woman near me on bench. He placed his stick near her, and suddenly she began to convulse and wail, requiring more than 4 people to hold her down. I was certainly startled, but as the wailing and convulsing did not prevent the bishop from continuing with his preaching, I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence. At one point, my friend Anata collapsed in a similar way, when she and a few other people of similar age where brought forward for their initiation blessing. My experiences with charismatic Christian communities in other countries made this a bit less unnerving, though I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same.
Towards the end of the service, Mavis and I were invited to join a line of church members who went to the front of the church where we were handed a small glass of water to drink. We walked back to our seats by passing through a “tunnel” of the elderly women and men of the church. As we passed through, each pastor stopped us, touched his stick to our chest and then to our back, and then motioned for us to continue through the tunnel, until we were through. Then we returned to our seats.
To signal the service’s end, the brass band played several songs and danced around the tent, encouraging church members to dance as well. Mavis and I were a bit too self-conscious so we stayed on our bench. After church, several people came up to shake my hand and inform me that I was the first white person to visit their church. Comments like that come very frequently to my fellow volunteers, Kelly and Katie, and myself. “You are the first white people to come to my house,” is one we receive a lot too. Or recently, a teacher at St. Peter’s invited Katie and I to attend her daughter’s wedding in October, saying “It is very good luck for a couple to have a white person at their wedding.” It’s the kind of thing we’ve just learned to take with a smile and an expression of your own gratitude for their openness to us, though you can imagine our internal discomfort. The church, for example, really seemed thrilled to have an outsider amongst them, and so such comments are meant only as an expression of appreciation for your company.
Anata came to us after the service and told us now it was time to eat. I was invited to eat as the special guest under an umbrella with the bishop and Anata, another slightly embarrassing request that you just have to honor. He asked me about America, my experience in South Africa, and my own religious beliefs when he noticed the tiny gold crucifix around my neck. Interestingly, he had received money to obtain some sort of distance theological degree from a university in the U.S., though he couldn’t remember the name of the institution. As we chatted, he and Anata gracefully ate the delicious feast of potatoes (cooked in 3 different styles), beef, and a rice-banana salad with their hands. As I’m used to meals at St. Peter’s and with some of our Indian friends here, where no utensils are offered, but I was unsurprisingly the least graceful finger-eater under that umbrella, particularly of the moister dishes. In fact, I dropped some banana from my mouth to my skirt as I tried to answer one of the bishop’s questions.
It was a thought-provoking day, to say the least, especially with my interest in the Catholic Church in Africa. It was my first real taste of a Christian church that so heavily incorporated traditional religious rituals into their worship, and I felt grateful that Anata asked me to join them. It also helped me understand the culture of my students a bit more, as several St. Peter's students, I discovered that day, belong to this church or churches like it.
Posted by Sarah Moran at 9:55 AM