Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas in Congo, Liturgy is Beautiful!

The Christmas Day Service would begin earlier than the normal services on Sunday mornings.  That meant we had to be at Pastor Mukendi’s before 9am on Saturday morning.  Taking his advice about travelling by car instead of by bus and by foot due to the possibility of rain, we climbed in the Landcruiser and headed up to Dikongayi Parish, in the commune of Lukonga in the city of Kananga (where we live).  A few minutes after 9am, we gathered with Pastor Mukendi, some of the elders, the women’s choir, and the children’s choir.  Pastor Mukendi said a prayer, and the choir began a chorus as our long line-up processed together into the church building.  We began early because it would be a long service.  There were six choirs and each would sing 3 songs.  We went through two “tours” of all the choirs before moving into the next part of the service. 

P1080643 Children’s Choir sing in animated fashion!


P1080645the “Three Old Men” Choir


P1080655 Ba Mamu (Women’s) Choir


In the U.S., church-goers and family and friends generally go to church on Christmas Eve, and save all of Christmas Day for family and fun activities (gift exchange, nice meals, etc.).  In Congo, people worship on Christmas Day and have a large meal with family and friends afterwards.  At Dikongayi Parish, we learned that the youth also had a special worship service on Christmas Eve with a drama of the Christmas story.  A refreshing part of being in Congo is that this season has been devoid of all the commercial glitz and glamour which often distract and sometimes disturb.  In the days leading up to Christmas we have noticed a peacefulness and relaxed mood in the air – almost a whimsicality.  In a land of scarcity, privation and hardship, it is almost as if God has placed a special blanket of grace over the land for this holy time of year.  People have been walking around leisurely in groups, talking and laughing, singing and calling out to one another.  On the big day, families “kill the fattened calf” (usually a chicken, goat or pig) and celebrate!


After the first two ‘tours’ of songs from the choirs, we sang a congregational song and then Kristi prayed for the children, for peace in families, for peace in the country, for the sick, and she gave thanks to God for sending Jesus Christ.  Kristi and I both read scripture, and then Pastor Mukendi preached.  After the message, we gave our offering.  During the offering time, the joy in the air was palpable.  Old women swayed their hips and the young people displayed their awesome dancing prowess – twisting, turning, jumping, shaking a leg one direction and then the other, smiling throughout.  Unadulterated, pure joy filled God’s temple of worship (I wish you could have been there!). 

P1080663 young boy plays the large African drum (almost as big as he is!)


P1080665 Pastor Mukendi preaches Christmas Message…


One thing that stands out in my mind from our time of worship on Saturday is that so many were involved.  As a seminary graduate, I have been given the gift and the luxury of thinking about and discussing with colleagues and professors the reasons why we worship and also the ways in which we worship.  Trained in the Reformed tradition and now ordained into the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have learned the value of the Word of God read and preached during worship.  In my experience of “church” the last fifteen years as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have noticed that evangelical Christians often place central importance upon the sermon in worship.  A good or bad sermon often determines whether or not one’s worship experience was meaningful and helpful or not.  To some evangelical Christians (perhaps many), the word or concept of “liturgy” is not understood or almost considered a dirty word.  ‘Liturgy’ is often understood as rote, as something which constricts and confines the freedom and spontaneity of worship.  Yet, as I learned in seminary, liturgy actually means “the work of the people.”  For worship to be meaningful for God’s people, the congregation needs to be involved (not simply watching others or just listening to a pastor’s exposition of scripture).

P1080647 A young boy reads part of the Christ Story


On December 25th at the Dikongayi Parish in Kananga, the people were involved!  The ‘work of the people’ was evident.  Our liturgy was beautiful!  Each choir probably spent hours preparing for the big day.  All the different songs sung by all the different choirs were met with spontaneous cries of excitement, jubilation, and praise.  Sprinkled between songs, different children and youth would stand and read significant portions of the Christ story.  Each song told more and more of this amazing story, this story which had gathered us together.  The preachers and teachers were the men, women, and children who were singing the Christ story.  At one point in the service, I felt in the depths my being the beauty of how this Christ story had become the defining story for my gathered African brothers and sisters.  Like me, they had been swept up into this larger-than-life meta-narrative which continues to transform individuals, communities, nations, and destinies.  This story has become their story too, and we were all involved in one way or another in telling it (singing, reading, giving, preaching, dancing, drumming). 


Our Christmas Celebration in Congo was simple and special.  I was reminded of the beauty of liturgy, and how important it is for the whole gathered Christian community to be part of the telling of the Christ story.  Pastors and preachers are needed, but so also are the children, the mothers and the fathers, the youth and the aged.  The heralds of the first Christmas were simple shepherds and three foreigners from a distant land.  God can use any voice, and He wants to use all our voices (and our gifts) to bring Him glory. 


Hallelujah and Amen!  Immanuel – God is with us!                                                          


Feasting afterwards with Pastor Mukendi and Mamu Helen, Elder Kanku and Tatu Raphael

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


In the Kasai region there is a strong tradition of naming a child after a parent, relative, or respected friend of the family. A person who has been named after feels a special relationship with his/her namesake, and often gives gifts or special services as the child grows up. There is a special term given to someone who shares your name: “Shakena”. For example, a woman named Marie would refer to a child who has been named after her not as Marie, but as “Shakena”.

This has been a somewhat confusing and amusing culture to discover, because people often adopt the persona of a person’s “shakena” (namesake) when they are referring to someone. We have several times been confused when an adult refers to a small child as ‘uncle’, only to discover that the child is the namesake of the uncle, and therefore they refer to the child as they would they uncle, rather than using their own identity as ‘nephew’, etc. A case of this occurred when we were visiting Pastor Tshiwala with Simon Mbuyi, a member of his church. Simon has 2 daughters – one named Tshiwala, after the pastor, and the other named Margaret, after Pastor Tshiwala’s wife. Simon was describing his children to Pastor Tshiwala, saying “you don’t like your mother anymore – you are more fond of me. Margaret, on the other hand, will only be content with her mother.” After asking a few questions to clarify our confusion, we discovered that Simon was projecting the persona of his children onto Pastor Tshiwala and his wife – thus referring to them as his children. And we thought learning Tshiluba was hard enough without these twists thrown in!

Another amusing example of this linguistic culture happened the other day. I was visiting Pastor Tshibabua’s family, and had just finished eating a banana. I was about to toss the banana peel outside, when Tarsis Bob (Bob’s Shakena because of their shared name) stopped me. “Just leave it on the table, and I’ll give it to Shakena. He will be so happy to see what his wife left for him!” I was not sure if I had heard correctly, but I started laughing – why in the world would he save a banana peel to give to Bob? Tarsis Bob then picked up the banana peel and walked outside to the pig-pen near the house. “Look, Shakena! See what treat your wife has left for you?” Of course! They have a pig named Bob, who thus takes on the persona of my husband Bob, whom he was named after!! :) 

The Bobs pose with their Shakena pig

From the left, Bob the pig,
Seraphin, Bob, and Tarsis Bob

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Worshipping with God’s people, Congo style…

I want to try to describe our experience of going to church this week, a world away from going to church in the U.S., and yet with the same purpose and function of gathering as God’s people for corporate worship.

Our day started with a knock on the door at 6:20am. Bob was in the shower, so I pulled on some clothes and went, reluctantly and bleary-eyed, to answer the door. Our night-guard informed me that his daughter-in-law had come to fetch water for us, since we were in dire need of additional water. “Right now? Today?" I asked, clearly not recognizing this as a priority for 6:30 on Sunday morning. “Yes!” he said with a smile, “So that we can have drinking water.” So, I brought her inside, cleaned out our ‘water-fetching basin’, found some money, and she was able to bring 5 basins by the time we left for church!

We walked to the bus stop a few blocks from our house, hoping that we would be able to find one with a few places on it. Not as many mini-buses run on Sundays, but we were counting on the African spirit of “there is always room for one more person, if we just squeeze a little more.” We sat in the back of the mini-bus, a vehicle about the size of a mini-van in the US. In the back, where we were sitting, the benches make a U around the edge, so that goods can fit in the middle, or people can squat in the middle if the benches are full. We were packed in and I thought the bus was ‘full’ when I saw 5 young kids walk up to the bus. “Let the kids on; they’re angels on their way to church” encouraged one passenger, and they helped to sit the kids on laps or make room for them. I counted 32 people in the bus at that point—perhaps a new record for me. We were all grateful though, to be arriving at our destination in much less time than if we had to walk!

Bob was invited to help serve communion at the Lungandu parish, where we were visiting that day. That meant that he sat on the podium with  Pastor Kabasele, and I happily got to sit on a ‘normal bench’ with the rest of the congregation. I happened to sit on the children’s bench, and it was cute watching them peak in the door at first, unsure whether it was OK to sit next to me. It didn’t take long before they were piling on to the bench, sitting on each other’s laps, each one convinced that one more could somehow fit on the bench! Many of the kids had to sit on the floor at the front or in the aisle. Aside from a few minor skirmishes, they sat remarkably quiet through the service with very little intervention from the adults.

The service started with songs from the choirs (4 choirs is the standard here in most churches). So many Congolese seem to be gifted in singing accapella and creating rhythm that is really fun to listen to. The rich voices of the young men’s choir echoed through the cement church building as they belt out a song about Job, who insisted that he would continue to honor God, despite advice of his wife and friends.

Basonga choir Lungandu

I was sitting next to an older woman, who could not stand or walk easily, but who looked very intent on being there for worship. She looked rather frail, but would let out a ‘whoop, whoop’ tune in time with the song of the women’s choir when the song got really good. On a particularly rhythmic song, she reached under the bench and got her shaker to add to the beat. She had a well-worn Bible and song-book, which she had to hold very close to read, but her passion and faithfulness were truly inspiring!

Woman at Lungandu

Pastor Kabasele preached about the covenant that God made with Israel, and the covenant that Jesus also made with people, which we celebrate when we take communion. We learned a new Tshiluba phrase during the message, “kutua ndondo”, referring to a ‘sealed covenant’, or one that can bring death if it is broken. Eating the bread and drinking the wine of communion demonstrate our participation in that type of covenant, and when we explored this with our Tshiluba teacher, we understood the sense of seriousness and reverence of the congregation on this day. Pastor Kabasele explained the significance of the bread and prayed over it, and then Bob did the same over the drink (juice, in this case). While the congregation sang, people filed forward to receive the elements from the Elders at the front of the church. It was a very meaningful and serious time of remembering Jesus’ death for us, and several people bowed slightly or genuflexed when they reached the place to take the elements. I appreciated the resourcefulness of the church – there were not enough ‘communion cups’, so medicine cups were used, which of course serve the same purpose!

Bob and pastor Kabasele serve communion

The service ended about 1pm—only about 3 hours, which did not feel too long, given all the elements they pack into it! After the service, Pastor Kabasele invited Bob to accompany him via moto to serve communion to several members who were unable to come to church. One woman they saw had a serious shoulder injury; another was too weak to make the walk to church. At one house there were 10 family members who were all grateful to be able to have communion. This was Bob’s first time serving communion, and doing it in a new language is not an easy task! When they returned and served it to the women of the house where I was waiting for them, I was impressed that Bob was able to explain and pray as if he had done this a hundred times!

DSCN4515 After a delicious lunch, we headed home, tired but happy for a great worship experience to start off the week. It was about 4pm by the time we reached home…Sundays tend to be a long day and we are ready for a nap when we get home. But inside, we felt alive, reminded of our salvation through Jesus’ death and God’s covenant with us.