As a mission volunteer, I have learned to expect—and enjoy—a variety of new experiences. Sometimes we are asked to bring greetings or provide remarks at meetings and events. We might be the “honored guest” at a fundraiser. That usually involves making a contribution, giving a talk, and joining in the dancing and singing. We are given opportunities to judge debates, share brief reflections in chapel, pray publicly, and sit among the VIPs on occasion.
Recently I was invited to offer a “message of encouragement” to members of my Zambian congregation’s Girls’ Brigade group on their annual enrollment Sunday. This would take place during the church service. I attended the English language service at 8:30, then joined the Bemba service at 10:30. Every pew was filled to overflowing, and the church holds at least 400 people.
The Girls’ Brigade was formed in 1964 as an international movement. It united three Christian girls’ organizations that had been founded in Scotland, England and Wales in the late 19th century. It encourages physical, educational, and spiritual development and service. According to their web site, Zambia has the fourth largest membership in Africa. The uniform has a royal blue skirt, white top, and blue cap. Sometimes they have a red sash. Older girls also wear a tie.
As the service began, the Boys’ Brigade brass band played lively music, and the girls entered in a line, moving rhythmically in steps that appeared to be something between a march and a dance. My best guess is that there were between 60 and 70 girls. After the older members took their places on the front benches, the new enrollees came in, each with a lit candle. They sang a song with a refrain “Carry your candle into the darkness, carry your candle to light the world.” Their faces were solemn and I felt the sacredness of the moment.
The service included various prayers and songs, awarding badges and armbands to members of the Boys’ Brigade, recognizing the leadership of the Girls’ Brigade, and finally enrolling the new girls. They recited their motto in unison. Deborah Blood, an American UCC pastor who was here for a month, and I got to help put on ties and caps and congratulate the boys and girls. Since the entire service was in Bemba, I had an interpreter translate my remarks. In between, there was some dancing, a choral offering from the Women’s Christian Fellowship choir and another from the Jerusalem choir, and more music from the brass band. Every now and then someone would break into ululation to express their joy and pride in the children.
It was 2 pm when I made my remarks. Some of the girls danced up the aisle with cakes to thank those of us who had helped in the service, and we wished we could enjoy them on the spot—but the service was not over yet. We still had the offering, Scripture reading, sermon, and benediction to go! As we recessed and headed for home after 3 pm, I heard the Boys Brigade band playing and saw the Girls’ Brigade dancing out in the church yard.
Zambians certainly know how to celebrate and to include the whole community in the event. And despite having spent nearly five hours in a service whose language I don’t understand, I was neither bored nor tired (only hungry). The spirit and the meaning of the day impressed me deeply.