Driving up the rocky, dusty, partially-eroded tire trail outside of town, we know we are in for a unique experience. The little church sits at the top of a quiet hill, and we may have missed it if it weren’t for the concrete foundation that sets it apart from the other mud-and-bamboo, thatched-roof houses around. Most of the churchgoers live in these houses – each with its own small machamba to feed the family and perhaps bring in a few extra meticais at market. We have driven, it seems, right into the middle of these neighbors’ world – giggly children breaking from their play to watch the odd-looking strangers pass by, some carrying infant siblings in their three-year-old arms; mothers with sleepy babies tied to their backs, busily pulling weeds from among the corn stalks in their machambas; youths passing by intermittently on their way to or from market. Like its own little village out here, way on the outskirts of Nampula, past the reach of city water systems but, as of recently, within range of a single thin, precariously low electric line. Think “Africa,” and pictures like this one come to mind.
It is not quite nine in the morning, yet the sun is already beating down hard on this hilltop community. Come afternoon, everyone will be seeking shade under the front eaves of their huts, or under one of the few trees tall enough to provide cover. Many are already doing so. But the folks we’ve come to visit are seeking rest under a different kind of shade: the life-preserving shelter of the Word of God. I count three small Sunday School classes, and ours meets on the dirt-floor porch of the house next door. We arrive after class has already started: God’s quorum of two or three gathered in Jesus’ name, poring over their Bibles on old creaky wood chairs. They stand up to offer us their seats as they step inside to fetch more. We listen to the teacher – a well-dressed young man with his Almeida Bible (the Portuguese equivalent of the King James) – make logical deductions from the opening chapters of Genesis that we, in our Western mindset, had never thought of before.
Shortly, class ends, and we wander over toward the sanctuary, where the Swedish missionary couple who brought us introduces us to Pastor Alberto. All smiles, he shakes my hand and asks first if I speak Portuguese, next if I’d like to preach. Though I’m not totally unprepared for this, I politely ask if we can save that “for the next time” and am relieved to hear that the answer is yes. I had been warned that this could happen, but still am thrown on my heels by the shock of the request. The next time that I preach will be my first. But maybe I have to experience the emotion of being put on the spot before scraping up the motivation to spend Saturday afternoon preparing a sermon outline “just in case.”
The four of us are ushered inside to the front-row bench – a place of honor, we surmise, probably reserved for missionaries or other guests. Pastor Alberto, an ostentatiously pleasant man, stands up to remind his flock to rejoice because Jesus is coming back. There are those, he says, who think we’re crazy for believing in Jesus, but one day they’ll see. The church prays together – everyone in unison, each praying his own thoughts to God. It is beautiful, and yet I find it distracting to my soul, accustomed as it is to Western-style quietness and contemplation.
Then Pastor Alberto announces our presence and the whole church stands and says in unison: “We greet you, our brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus. Be welcomed here.” After which, he invites us forward with our other missionary friends to share a brief testimonial. I shouldn’t be surprised, since the same thing had happened last week at a different church. But still, I stumble over my words as I try to explain who we are and why we have come here.
They say that the first cardinal rule of public speaking is knowing your audience, and I’m finding out just to what extent I don’t. The way I process my Christian experience is so different from how people do that here, what can I even share that will make sense? So I spit out a few disjointed thoughts about how I grew up in a Christian home and came here because I had heard there were people who still don’t have the Bible translated in their language, and I wanted to help with that. Bible translation, I wonder…is that even a concept to most folks here? Thanks to some courageous Catholic fathers, the Bible has a 34-year history in the local Makua language. Still, most people aren’t aware that there’s a mission headquarters just down the dusty main road dedicated to the translation of Scripture in the other línguas maternas. At least I know I am communicating something when I hear the pastor’s reinforcing “amens” behind my back and when I manage a few modest chuckles with a joke about our Brazilian accents.
We sit back down, and the singing begins. One song with everyone together. Then, one by one, just about every conceivable demographic segment dances up to the front to share a special number or three. The children. The youth. The women. Three sisters (plus some friends). Several other combinations of people where the unifying factor isn’t quite clear to me. The music is beautiful. Rhythmic, harmonious, acapella. Accompanied only by a bongo drum. Mostly in Makua, with a few Portuguese hymns mixed in. We don’t know what they are saying, but it is obvious that besides praising our Lord, everyone is just having fun. I imagine how up on this hill, away from schedules and smartphones and social media, worship must become a sort of recreational activity. People look forward to Sunday morning because the singing and dancing give them something to enjoy together. And enjoy it they do, making joyful noises to the Lord with little thought for the hour. I suppose even the non-believing neighbors must look forward to this event.
The time comes to collect the offering, and I reach preparedly for the coins in my pocket. Generosity is one of the highest values in Africa and tithes an important part of the worship here, so we decided our first week in this country that we would always try to bring something to give. Even if it’s just a token amount. Once everything is collected – an amount that couldn’t have exceeded a few dollars – Pastor Alberto looks at me and asks if I will pray to bless the offering. This too is not standard practice in my culture, but since I saw it done every Sunday last year in Brazil, I have at least some idea of what to say.
Maybe it was good that I didn’t preach today, because standing in my place is a gray-bearded visitor who has been sitting quietly next to the pastor combing his well-worn Almeida Bible. He is a simple man, and missing half his teeth, but his dignified appearance alone spells wisdom. Hearing him preach is something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. He is 95 years old, and the fact itself is proof why you should follow Jesus, he says. Even a much more conservative estimate would have him a survivor of Portuguese colonial rule, the Marxist revolution, and the Mozambican civil war. A walking history book – if only I had the chance to sit down with him over tea.
“Faith has no color,” the old man announces in a weathered, raspy voice, as he points to the missionary foursome and reminds all that, black or white, American or African, we are united by our belief in Jesus the Son of God. The elder’s words – all of them – are translated into Makua, an auditory reminder that there are more dividing walls in this room than meet the eye. He goes on to urge the church from Matthew 10:41 to receive us white folks as fellow believers in Christ. From there, we travel all over the New Testament, making several stops along the way but finally coming to rest on the theme of Jesus as the Son of God. “Other leaders — all they know how to do is kill,” he tells us. “Only Jesus raises the dead. Hallelujah!”
“Amen!” we respond, and back comes Pastor Alberto to conclude the service with an altar call. Three girls come forward to pray with the evangelist – a young, energetic man with a large gap in his front teeth. It is all in Makua, but the content is something like the “sinner’s prayer” we grew up with. Next, the pastor invites anyone to come forward for prayer for healing or general life needs. At his request, we each lay hands on and pray for one of the dozen or so parishioners who have come forward, while he and the deacons take the rest. The service is now over. In no time, we shake hands with everybody on our way out of the building.
On the bumpy drive home, I ponder that church is not something I can or ever should think of as a passive experience. Gone are the days when I can show up and simply consume. Maybe that’s not the point anyway. Because like it or not, here in an African church, everyone participates – from the pastor to the nervous green missionary to the two-year-old girl in her Sunday best imitating the singers as they dance down the aisle. It is exhilarating and nerve-racking and delightful. It enlarges your heart, and it keeps you on your toes.
Next week we’ll be visiting a different Mozambican church, in a different region of the country. But I plan to go prepared with a sermon outline. Just in case.