Going to Church in Congo

Adam Graber wrote the following about Going to church in the Congo:

Leonard arranged for us a taxi to take us to his church. Leonard is an old man here in Congo, although I doubt he is more than 60. The median age in Congo is 16. Children flocked like sheep wherever we went. So here, a man like Leonard, has lived a long, hard life. He saw Congo when it was still under the Belgian hand. He remembers the days before revolt and civil war. He is among the few who remembers a Congo that was not so forlorn.

Despite witnessing the decades of decline and decay, Leonard has the smile of a comfortable couch, looks upon you with a long gaze and sparkling dark eyes, and holds your hand long after you’re done shaking his. Like other elder men I met in Congo, Leonard carried in his arms a tattered, hardcover notebook as though it were a small child. Inside it, he made notes, kept appointments, and wrote addresses that he would review later.

We bounced down a dirt street lined with painted, cinderblock walls. Doorways broke up their contiguity. In front of the walls, ran concrete gutters. The taxi dropped us off in front of a wall that read “Centre Evangelique Nebo.” I crossed the trash-dammed gutter on a bridge made from a car door. Through the opening in the wall, we found ourselves at the corner of the church sanctuary. The far wall, along the right side of the room, was also cinder block. It was the only complete wall. Along the left side hung something like large bed sheets. They were mismatched. One was colorful red, yellow, and blue. On it, was a print pattern with the words “Qui est Jesus?” and “Who is Jesus?” along with other phrases and languages. The words faced the dirt alley that ran between the church and the house next door. I imagined this was a sort of evangelism.

Inside, there were wood benches mostly, but we were sat in the second and third rows, in mismatched plastic, patio chairs. The pastor and other church leaders greeted us with handshakes. As they shook our hands they touched their forearms with their opposite hands, a gesture of respect. I took my seat in a baby blue armchair. The floor was dirt. I studied the ants climbing up and down the wall near a beam supporting the tin roof overhead. The sunlight slipped between the top of the wall and the roof.

I thought about the sanctuary of my church back home. It is a new building, and I had heard it once described as a “fully controlled sound and light environment.” Here, muffler-less cars grumbled past in the street behind us. Drums and cymbals carried across the street from what I presumed to be another church. The bed sheets looked like sails as the air pressure vacillated in and out of this space.

We were a little early—on time by U.S. standards. The singers were just arriving. A few women sat across the aisle with the children. There were maybe 10 adults in this sanctuary when we arrived. One pastor stood in the pulpit. He rested his elbows on the high pulput, almost at shoulder height for the man. He placed his hands on his head, half covering his face. His face was expressionless which I mistook for exhaustion.

A young man, about 20, milled about behind a keyboard situated on the concrete stage at the front of the sanctuary. Then, his voice rang out low and clear with a descending melody: “A Yahweh, A Yahweh Kumumba.” Like bagpipes begun with a drone, then followed by a flood of sound, the rest of the congregation—the 10 adults there—joined in. The young man strolled over to a standing wooden drum, and he began a rhythm. The rest was a capella. Their volume rivaled the sound system at my church.

Much of the music was a call and response. The congregation sang a chorus while one leader or another would sing out a solo over it.

I joined in with this chorus, clueless as to what I was singing. I struggled as I sang, though, to bend my spirit into a posture of worship. I needed to engage with it meaningfully before it could become real worship. I needed to understand what I was saying before my heart, or my head, or my mouth­­—something—could affirm it all. Yet, how often I sing words I know and still hardly mean. I sing those words because I know how to say them. But that “something” inside me doesn’t make the connection with them before they slip past my lips. I am not worshipping then any more than I am mimicking this African language. With all the tongues of men and of angels, I am but a clanging cymbal.

I glanced down the row to Leonard, sitting next to my dad. He was flipping pages through his notebook, studying old notes and scribbling new ones. As the worship wore on, more people trickled in, including many teens and some young adults sitting in the back, until there were 40-50 people in the sanctuary. A man in his 40s slipped into the row in front of us with his Bible and a notebook of his own. His tie was humorously short, falling to the middle of his chest.

The format was quite similar to a church service in the U.S.: worship, announcements, prayer, preaching, worship. Everything was in the local language of Lingala or in French, so I followed very little. The pastor had been standing in the pulpit with his hands covering his face this whole time. He said a few things and then paused, and I heard the chatter of many voices behind me. I bowed my head. It sounded like the voices of the entire congregation, praying aloud. From behind me, my uncle, who knows a bit more of the language than I, grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “I think they’re praying for us.” I was glad that God was not limited by language like I was. I listened to the chatter until it died out, the last voice took a few moments to finish. Then silence.

The man with the short tie stood up and took the pulpit. His chosen texts for the day were Numbers 27:1-9, John 9:1-3, and Hebrews 4:16. They were read from a Bible translated in the local language. I listened but did not understand. I read the passages from my English Bible and tried to grasp their connection.

I wonder how the spread of the Gospel would have been different were it not for the Tower of Babel. Latin would not have been the language of high liturgy, meaningless for the commoner. The arguments about translation would have had a whole different face. Even with one language, it may have evolved over time like Old, Middle, and modern English. Yet the Bible has been inherently translatable from nearly the beginning. Even most of the words of Jesus were not recorded in the language he spoke. It was written in Greek, but he spoke Aramaic. Already in the recording of those red letters, his words were translated, and interpreted de facto.

When the service ended, the chairs and benches were stacked. The sparse musical equipment was packed and hauled away. I was talking with a young man about my age, Jeremie, when I was handed a bottle of Coke. And as I held it, my server popped the lid off. We, each of us guests, were treated to this luxury, and I felt guilty being treated with a Congo pleasure that is not so rare in the U.S.