Today I was at church in Nairobi. It was definitely the biggest church I’ve been to here and in the middle of the singing the power went out — and nobody stopped singing. People kept on in the dark and when we finished that song, the woman leading started us out in a call and response song in Swahili and just sung out over the sanctuary. The power came back later and again, it didn’t interrupt anyone’s worshipping.
I laughed to think how folks would have responded in some of the churches I go to/have been to in the US. I also acknowledge that we aren’t as accustomed to the power going out — we assume that our technology and lights will be there. We also design/inherit some church spaces that would get really dark if the lights went out. But still — what a joy that nobody stopped singing, nobody laughed awkwardly or apologized, we just kept singing.
My first Sunday in Kenya I worshipped in a chapel at a university. It was Pentecost and I learned, and was reminded, that while the Holy Spirit is moving the whole world over — that same Holy Spirit cannot convince anyone to sit in the very front of church. In some ways we are not that different. This was good to remember as it was my first (but certainly not my last) Sunday as the only white person in that church. It is very hard to blend in and I couldn’t not stand up when they tell visitors to stand because God knows I stood out.
One week I went to a friend’s church. She was a classmate and is an Anglican priest. It was great because the two public health students who were with me were asked to read and to read really long sections of Scripture. I was proud of them for handling it well and laughed at how first time visitors had suddenly become liturgists. This is also the only church I’ve found that sings slower than me — which is impressive. Once, as a child I was wandering around singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and my mom wanted to know if he had died and we were sending him off for a Viking burial at sea. I sing that slow. But this church sang “Marching to Zion” the same way — we were not marching quickly. Their singing was fast and upbeat in Swahili though, which made me wonder about how we worship when we ask people to do it “our way.” I much preferred the Swahili songs, and they seemed to as well. It was even more enjoyable to struggle to sing along with joy than to sing words in English with such a lack on energy.
If some of the singing lacked energy, the greeting process at the end made up for it in spades. Imagine an ever growing receiving line like at a wedding, except for after you shake everyone in line’s hand, then you join the end of the line and the next person through joins next to you. You can then successfully shake everyone in church’s hand.
I had the opportunity to go to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church with a friend of mine one week. As a kinesthetic learner it is really helpful for me to move as part of worship. To stand and then to bow prostrate with my face to the ground. It is not a position I am accustomed to, but one I feel I should spend more time in. To cover my head and take off my shoes and acknowledge the holiness of God, not just with my words, but with my actions.
I watched the little children running around the church, and they were parented by the church as a whole. If they got too loud, a grandmother would shush them or another mom would send them back toward their parent. People watched out for each other’s children, and it did not seem out of place to pick up and comfort or reprimand someone else’s child. They truly acted like a big family.
My favorite church service by far was a church we went to in the informal settlement of Kibera. This was point two of our friend’s three point charge, and we never would have found it without her in the world’s largest informal settlement. The church had about thirty members who all welcomed us. There was a tiny little fellow who was sitting in his mom’s lap next to me. He had not yet learned to point at white people and yell “mzungu!” but he had learned that he was supposed to ask “How are you?” incessantly. I’m pretty sure he thought we were “how-are-yous” so he pointed and yelled happily the whole church service. If we didn’t answer because we were, you know, singing or something, he would just shout more loudly. He even spent part of the service in my lap.
Because the service was in Kibera and it had been raining, we all went in our sneakers and skirts. It was definitely a new look. For communion I’m pretty sure we drank either rubbing alcohol or whisky. I am sure that my insides are very clean now. This whole service was in Swahili, but for some reason, I had no trouble worshipping. The Holy Spirit moves when I understand everything and when I do not. I think sometimes I have become too accustomed to being comfortable. I know what is going on and what is going to happen when I go to church. But the Holy Spirit moves despite language or understanding.
My favorite part of being in Kenya has been going to church different places. I love the singing in Swahili. It is joyful and part dancing, and I love the slightly discordant harmony that has a beauty all its own. I love that we can worship and not fully understand and that I don’t even have to entirely agree with everything that is said. Worship is bigger than that. It can overcome power outages and shouting children. We can move or be still. We can speak English or Swahili. We can drink grape juice or the equivalent of hand sanitizer. Sometimes as a church we get caught up in the tiny differences between us and forget this. But it is good to stop every once in a while and remember that there are people singing praises in different languages all over the world, seeking to glorify God wherever they find themselves, and they don’t stop singing.