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.

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