I’ve never been to church in Africa before, until now. It’s both foreign and familiar; I’ve read and heard stories, but all the experiences are new. I’m struck by how beautifully simple things are.
I can look at this place with fresh eyes without comparing it to any other place. It’s like no place I’ve ever been before. Spain, Bolivia, Canary Islands, V&A waterfront in Capetown, Madagascar… None of them give me a frame of reference for Winterton and the Zulu tribe that lives here.
My first Sunday here, we drove past brown fields and scattered huts until we came upon the man waiting for us in the grass lining the road. His name was Ngiyabonga, which means “thank you” in Zulu. He directed us to his church.
A small one-room building with 4 rows of wooden benches and a table up front. A lace tablecloth covering the table and silk flowers attached sporadically. A vase with silk flowers on top was the extent of decor. The floor painted red, the walls painted orange and dusty, gaudy curtains that clung to the windows.
Maybe 10 members were present and 10 of us joined.
No instruments; voices filled the space. No preaching. Rather the pastor asked us to present words from the Lord to the congregation.
The time came for offering, and they unstacked a pile of blue plastic bowls. A song ushered us down front and we tipped in our change. As we continued the song, the pastor counted the money in front of the whole congregation. They opened a black notebook to record the amount and announced it to us.
R110, which is about $10 USD, was collected.
I had a hard time accepting their kindness after we left. There is so much I don’t understand, and it makes it hard to relate. The singing and the service were so different. I worried about them catering to us and straying from their normal routine.
Routine: that’s how most of us do church. Routine often rules. Regardless of how the service goes, the people that attend expect certain elements. Churches switch up the service drastically for select holidays. We pick a church that fits into our personal Sunday routine.
Our second Sunday we had the option to go to a nearby church leaving enough time in the afternoon for hiking. Rather than all go to small churches in small groups (we are 30) which would take hours, we could go in a large group to this one church close by.
However, that would prevent us from engaging. In small churches we are able to give words of encouragement to the congregation. As a large group going to one church, we limit ourselves to spectating. We also decrease the possibility that we can converse with the church members because there are too many of us without a translator.
We ended up going to the smaller churches in groups of 3 or 4. We got involved in the service without being a spectacle.
We attended church based on where we could serve best, rather than what fit our lifestyle best. We attended to engage, not to spectate.
That brings clarity to the first church experience with the red and orange colored walls.
When we showed up, they chose to engage with us by switching around what they usually do to allow us to share and partake. They didn’t carry on with business as normal and hope the foreigners enjoyed.
What a different viewpoint on church! Yes, we do things differently in the West. More than that, the things we do represent the things we value. We value spiritual growth, but we also value efficiency and personal service. Our choice in church might reflect those values.
I am critical of other cultures when I just can’t understand the way they do life. I’m critical of myself when I realize how self-serving I can be. It wasn’t until I looked back that I could see them as just people. It wasn’t until I was presented with a new purpose for church attendance that I realized why I had never gone to a local church in Madagascar:
If the Malagasy churches didn’t speak English or preach a message I could understand, what was the point?
There is no point if you go to get fed.
There is a huge point if you go to serve.
I’m looking forward to attending church in Madagascar in a few weeks when we arrive. As we prepare to leave Winterton, I’m grateful for the differences in people here that have taught me another way. What was uncomfortable at first, now fills me with hope that I can get more out of life and my life abroad.