The first church I ever attended, the church where I was baptized, had some members who were as opposed to the Catholic Church as I think it is possible to be. Devout Protestants, they had been discriminated against for their religious beliefs under General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Two of them had been imprisoned briefly while serving in the military because they had refused to participate in a Mass at which a bust of Franco was set on the altar. Consequent to these experiences of theirs, I was inducted into Christianity being taught that Catholicism is a deeply flawed and ultimately unacceptable expression of the Christian faith. By unacceptable, I don’t mean that Catholics aren’t Christians or that Catholicism should be suppressed in any way, simply that it didn’t meet the theological standards of these members of my church. Now, seven years later, I find myself attending Mass weekly and praying with Catholics often. How times change…
Sunday Mass here begins at 7:30. My house is about fifty feet from the church so I hang out and get ready to leave until I hear the voices outside get louder, meaning a crowd has assembled, meaning the Mass will soon start.
Preserving a rather old-fashioned custom, different demographic groups sit in different areas of the church. There is an area for children, old men, old women, young people, mamas with children too young to sit on their own, and so on.
I keep trying but somehow I seem to sit every week in the wrong section. Sometimes I sit with the kids, sticking out even more than usual a head (of attention catching blonde hair) taller than any of them. What’s more, they turn around to look at me and whisper about me to their neighbors which causes the ushers to come and scold them, creating even more of a disturbance. Sometimes I accidentally sit on the fringes of the men’s section but at least then their bigger frames and floppy brimmed hats conceal me a little. Sometimes, as happened two weeks ago, I sit near the mamas. The mama nearest me blew her nose into a handkerchief and then gave it to her daughter to play with. Later, the little girl urinated on the floor. Unperturbed, the mother just turned in her seat, placed her feet on the outside of the puddle to form a barrier and let her daughter continue playing.
The service is long, about two hours. Because of the language barrier and doctrinal differences, there are long stretches of the service that I can’t participate in so I allow my mind to wander.
Usually I just think about this or that, or try to catch snippets of what’s being said, or make faces at kids in the row in front of me. There are two times during the service, though, — the offering and communion – when people walk down the aisle and then back up again so I’m distracted by watching them. When I watch them there are four different games that I play:
1) Igitenge Parade
Igitenge is a bright printed fabric. It forms the basis of a Rwandan woman’s wardrobe; she can wear it as a shirt, skirt, dress, headwrap, scarf and so on. They’re often beautiful and sometimes printed with whimsical designs like hearts and questions marks, currency symbols for the pound, dollar and yen, envelopes, and so on. As they proceed past me, I pretend there’s actually a parade or a fashion show going on. I asses each igitenge as well as the way each wearer has arranged it and I try to pick out the one I would want to buy if I could.
2) American T-Shirt Bingo
You know that road trip car game where you play bingo with license plates? You know, how you try to find license plates from as many different states as possible? I do that during church with all of the promotional t-shirts that have made their way into the markets here and, thence, onto people’s backs. “Galt Junior Bowling League,” check off California, “Great Lakes Soroptimist Association,” check off Michigan, etc.
3) Shirts Are Real
I also play a similar game which I just call “Shirts Are Real.” In this game I pretend that people didn’t just randomly choose their clothing from a pile at the market but actually participated in whatever activity the shirt advertises or belongs to the group it was made by. In this game, the guy sitting next to me did attend a 2009 insurance sales conference in El Paso and the lady serving as usher really is a proud parent of a student at McCarrick Middle School. Then, I imagine the conversations I could have with a mama breastfeeding her little baby about the Chen Family Reunion she attended in Vancouver, BC last year. “How’s the rest of the Chen family?” I might ask. Or, perhaps, I would inquire about similarities and differences she sees between Chinese and Rwandan culture. It must be hard to be the only Chen in Rwanda, I think. Or, I think about what the old man in front of me could tell me about the Alpha Delta Kappa hell week he got a t-shirt for participating in in 2007. “I’ll bet it was pretty rough, right? What do you think about some universities that are banning Greek initiation rituals now? How did the other girls feel about a 40 year-old Rwandan guy joining their sorority?” Oh, the conversations we could have.
4) Find the Giantess
This last game is very straightforward: I try to find the tallest woman in church that particular week and then marvel over how tall she is. It’s a simple but rewarding game. And, really, there are some tremendously tall women in this country. They tower over all the other women and most of the men, too. For some of them, my shoulders just barely rise above their waist. So, I really do find them fascinating to contemplate.
Besides playing games I really do listen to the sermon and read along with the Scripture Lessons. I’ve also learned the Lord’s Prayer (Dawe Uri Mu Ijuru) in Kinyarwanda. I love chanting it along with the congregation during the Eucharistic liturgy.
Unfortunately, my church experience here is nowhere as edifying and spiritually nurturing as it was in the US but I’m very grateful to have some church community here. Considering that I could have been sent to a Muslim country, I’m glad to be able to go to church at all! God is good.