Saturday, March 27, 2010

Church Services in Zambia

I have been attending the Mindolo United Church of Zambia, or "Mindolo UCZ" (but here, "z" is pronounced "zed" so it is UCZed.) This would be considered a mainline Protestant church, serving MEF and the surrounding community. The English language service is 8:30-10:15, followed by the service in Bemba from 10:30-noon. Both services are full to overflowing, and the sanctuary holds at least 400 people.

If I had to choose two words to describe worship, they would be spirited and organized. The singing shakes the building. Zambians, who are so soft-spoken in everyday conversation that you have to listen hard to capture what they are saying, sing with Ethel Merman gusto! The amazing part is that they all seem to sing harmony and they know the hymns by heart. (That is fortunate, since there are only a few "Africa Sings" songbooks--with words only--scattered through the pews.) Most of the time we are singing a capella. I recognize many of the hymns as ones my grandmother used to sing--Blessed Assurance, How Great Thou Art, and the like. Songs like "Siya Hamba" (We are Marching to the Light of God) or "I, the Lord of earth and sky..." are too modern for the edition of the songbook they have, although they do sing some lovely praise chants.

We sit on wooden benches with one plank behind our backs, women mostly in traditional African dress or at least skirts or chatangas (the colorful pieces of cloth from which you make a wrapped skirt, ankle length), the men in shirts and ties, or the African man's top decorated with embroidery. When the pastors and deacons come in, everyone rises until they are seated at the front, facing the congregation. Some wear robes, most do not. The choirs don't have robes, either.

After singing and an opening prayer, we have announcements. This is very important, for it is the source of communication about the life of the church. There are no bulletins for the service, no church newsletter--these would require resources and technology not available here. Instead, we learn about events and upcoming activities, births, deaths, and responsibilities through a period of announcements that can take 15 minutes. We learn which church group is scheduled to clean the church the following Saturday. People are thanked for help they have given, and newcomers are welcomed. At first, I couldn't figure out why, periodically, we clapped three times after some announcement or comment. Then I listened for the pattern, and discovered that it happens after the person adds the phrase "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," we welcome you or thank you or send our condolences or whatever. So anouncements are punctuated by three claps every so often. No one ever falls asleep in the service!

More singing follows, and then the offering. There is a sort of table with wooden compartments at the front, and row by row, the entire congregation comes forward to deposit their gifts. The geographic area the church draws from is divided into 16 districts, and one's offering is placed in the bin corresponding to their district. Each church member has a personal blue laminated offering envelope which they probably pick up as they are coming into the church, or maybe they get it back after the service. There is a special bin labeled "Visitors" where non-members place their gifts. The choir sings while the offering is brought forward in this orderly procession, and then the choir sings and dances their way to the table to place their envelopes in the proper compartments. One Sunday, when a lot of people, mostly students, had come into the service right after the offering time, the pastor created a second offering time for the latecomers.

More singing, praying, and then the sermon. Since there is a theology school here at MEF, sometimes the sermon is given by a student. Always it is Biblically based, and everyone brings a Bible to the service and follows along with the scripture reading. The style of the sermons is more like an African American church than a white church, but perhaps not quite so emotional in this congregation. There are some "amens" from the congregation from time to time. And when the choir sings, sometimes a congregant will unselfconsciously stand and sing with them, or raise her arms or sway and dance with the music.

Sometimes the choir is accompanied by a keyboard, sometimes they sing a capella. There seem to be two choirs, one a youth group, and the music is always lively and rhythmic, frequently with patterned clapping and finger snapping. Sometimes they sing in Bemba, the local language.

The church building is a simple oblong structure with a copper corrigated roof. There are lace curtains at the windows, lace covers on the altar and lectern, and a blue curtain behind the altar. When we had communion, the curtain was opened to reveal a painting of the Last Supper.

When the service closes with more singing and a benediction, we all stand as the pastors and deacons walk back down the aisle, and then we are guided to leave pew by pew, in an orderly procession. People greet each other outside, especially if we didn't "pass the peace" during the service. Streams of people then walk home, some of them a couple of miles or more. I would say that there are no more than 5 to 7 cars driven to the service. Everyone else came on foot.

I plan to visit a few different churches while I am here. One of my students has invited me to her Pentecostal church, and tomorrow--at 7:30 am!--I am going with a neighboring family to the Bread of Life church (not sure what denomination it is.) Like my experience in Uganda, church is an important institution here and the congregation has a better balance of men and women than you see in most U.S. churches. I find that I miss inclusive language, that change hasn't reached here yet, but I love the strong, vibrant spirit in the worship and the radiant joy of the singing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Moses and Violet

Moses appeared at my back door two weeks ago, a tool called a slasher in his hand. He asked if he could work for me, cutting the grass and tending my yard. He was thin and looked hungry. We sat and talked. He hasn't been able to send his youngest child to school yet, because he can't afford the fees. He has 3 children, and the youngest is 6. We looked at my yard, which is quite large. He said he could plant a vegetable garden, and put flowers near the front and back doors. I hired him. All Zambians receive training in agriculture if they go to school at all, and he knew just what he wanted to do to create a beautiful yard.
He has come every day for at least part of the day to work. He asked if I would pay him the first week's pay at the end of the week so he could use it to make an installment payment and enroll his child in the government school. After that, however, he wanted to be paid only at the end of the month, so he could be saving money. His mother is a widow living in a little village, and her only support comes from her two surviving children. Her house is falling apart, and he and his brother want to repair it before the next rainy season. Every time he comes, he shows me what he has done and tells me his plans. He has not asked for anything other than his salary, but when I learned that his children were having problems with mosquito bites, I bought mosquito nets for their beds. Such a little thing, but he showed such gratitude.

Violet came to my back door to ask if I needed someone to do my laundry and clean house. Everything must be washed by hand, no washing machines, and also must be ironed to kill bugs that lay eggs in the seams of the clothes as they dry outside. She has completed the teacher training program to be able to teach at the primary level and is awaiting the results of the national exam. Assuming that she passes, she will begin to receive a small monthly stipend from the government and within a year or so they will assign her to a school in a rural area.
Violet's story is all too common. Orphaned, she was passed among the homes of various family members. She was physically abused and maltreated. She stayed in school, but at age 16 married to get out on her own. Everything was all right for a few years, until her husband began to beat her and to go with other women. She decided she would be better off without him, so she took her two boys and left. That was when she came to work for Adrian, the chaplain at MEF. He saw that she was a hard worker and smart, so he asked about her aspirations. When she said she had always hoped to be a teacher, he sponsored her at the MEF teacher training program. She passed her first year exam with merit, quite an accomplishment for a single mother studying, tending her home, working as a maid, and going to classes all at once. She completed the second year, including practice teaching, and now is awaiting her future career. Meanwhile, she cleans for Adrian and me. Her boys are 6 and 9, I believe. She always has a beautiful smile as she greets me on Mondays and Wednesdays.

More people have come to ask if they could work for me. There is such a need for work, and a willingness to work, among people here. I wish I had a better way to respond than to tell them that I'm sorry, I have all the help I can use with Violet and Moses.

Keep us all in your prayers.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

International Women's Day in Zambia

International women's Day, which is sponsored by the United Nations and is observed worldwide, is one of a small number of national holidays in Zambia. It happened Monday, March 8. No school, all public offices and a lot of businesses closed. There was a parade and celebration in Kitwe, with many participants--the YWCA, Girls Brigade, women's service clubs and church groups, women's student groups, professional women's organizations, all with banners and some with uniforms or coordinated colors. A band played, and it was festive and inspiring. Speakers identified areas of concern, including violence against women, HIV/AIDS, lack of representation in the political arena, need for more educational opportunities for girls. They also spoke of women's leadership in community improvement and social services. On the radio, BBC featured many stories about issues affecting women and about women's projects in Africa. (There is a special British Broadcasting Company FM station with an emphasis on news and stories of interest to Africa. It broadcasts 24 hours a day and is my radio station of choice here.)

At MEF, the chaplain asked if the women faculty, staff and students would plan a special observance to commemorate International Women's Day at chapel time scheduled for Tuesday, the day after. When we started thinking about it, I mentioned that there was a Bible story that might be a good one to share in the service, a story about courage and hope that features five sisters (Numbers 27:1-8). As Moses was leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, on their way to the promised land, a long and arduous journey, many people began to grumble and complain. Some of them rebelled. Among the people was a family with five daughters and no sons. The father died. By custom and law, daughters had no inheritance rights. These brave sisters, one of whom was named Noa (my granddaughter's name), went to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the Assembly and asked for their father's portion, the property he was due among his clan when they settled in the new land. Moses took their case to God, and God instructed Moses to give the sisters property as an inheritance, and to do so for other families where the father dies without a son but with a daughter.
We all agreed that this story certainly fit with the theme of International Women's Day, which was "Women's rights, women's opportunity, progress for all." The students decided to have someone read the scripure and then to enact it in a skit (which they called a sketch). Different students volunteered to play the parts, and they went off to decide how to portray the story. I was asked to offer the reflection, and the choir of girls called "Joyful Noise" said they would choose a couple of songs that went with the theme.
The skit was wonderful, and definitely the highlight of the service. It was an African portrayal that captured the essence of the story dramatically. The sisters wore long traditional African dresses, with shawls to cover their heads signifying mourning. They came in carrying water and burdens on their heads, and swept the floor and talked about the loss of their father. Then they worried about their fate, since they would be left dependent upon uncles or other male relatives. They decided to go before Moses, in a humble way, but with a clear request. Moses was a tall, thin woman student who had used white cream to create the appearance of a beard, had a stick as a staff and walked slightly bent over. Everyone clapped at her creative portrayal. The sisters knelt down before Moses when they made their request (traditional African gesture of respect for great authority). Then Moses knelt before the altar, behind which another student was crouching to be the voice of God. Moses raised his arms and told God what he had been asked to do, and the voice of God pronounced the ruling. Moses went back to the sisters and the assembly, and all cheered and clapped. It really made the story come alive! Then we had the music and the short reflection and more music and that was our final commemoration of the holiday. I taught a class on community social work right afterwards, and we drew on the story to illustrate women's empowerment and how support of numbers working together helps in a change effort.

Someone was taking pictures at the chapel service, at the top of this entry there's a good one of Moses and another one of the five sisters.