When I returned home from church last Sunday, Daniel and Paige asked, almost in chorus, "How was church today?" I got to reply:
"Entirely in Spanish."
pause for laughter
Yes, entirely in Spanish. Let me explain. When I move to a new area, I try to go to all the neighborhood protestant churches to see where I feel most at home. God has spoken to me in some pretty undeniable ways using this method. So, last weekend, I was finally ready to begin the search.
I cased the neighborhood on Saturday since it was nice and found a Methodist church within eyesight of my apartment and a Missionary Baptist church across the street from the Methodist church. Now, I was only just ready to start exploring, so I chose the familiar mainline protestant service over the probably entirely African-American, possibly long, possibly with lots of jumping around service across the street. Still, though, there was this nagging thought that I could be making the wrong decision because ususally, if I have to chose between two cultures, I will always choose African American over Latino culture. Like preferring pasta and red sauce over sushi, you know? Nothing against the sushi but garlic and butter just have a better chance of resonating. And there was a fairly good chance that there was some Latino culture over at the Methodists house since it's almost an entirely Hispanic neighborhood. But, I threw my lot in with the Methodists because I figured the WASPiness of the denomination would balance any neighborhood influence enough to create a comfort zone for me.
If ever there was a time for the phrase, "Boy, was I wrong," it is now.
I approached the church at exctly 10:30. I don't like to go to new services early because then I have to engage in conversation with strangers. I like to have a sense for the environment before I actually talk to anyone. Also, there's usually a flurry of people approaching, trying not to be late, and that gives me a good sense of which door to use. I should have known something was up when I had to choose the orange door at random. But, my heart was quieted a little when the first person I saw was a large black lady. Too soo, too soon, my heart.
She was the only one for the rest of the morning. So, I sat down towards the back and realized that although the architecture was familiar, with the upside down ark for a ceiling, everyone was greeting me with a "Buenos Dias." And greet me they did. I think every single one of those 40 people said hello to me as they filed in after I arrived. Apparently, after I responded to their Spanish greetings with my very gringo, "Good Morning," the white woman about my age came over to talk to me and introduced herself as the seminary student doing her internship and we chatted for a minute. While we were talking one of the women settling herself into the pew behind the seminary student dropped a large percussion instrument out of her bag and onto the floor, making a loud thump, rattle noise. The feeling that this was not going to be a comfortable protestant service grew. My kind of protestants don't bring their own percussion instruments to church with them. My kind of protestants have to be embarassed into participating at all in the service beyond roles strictly outlined in their morning bulletin. God's frozen people, you know? There was a giant man named Dick Sleckman in the church I grew up in. He had hands like small hams and was the first person that I wanted to greet after Sunday services because he seemed so genuinely excited to see me, and everyone else. He got up in the pulpit one Sunday to give a "Minute for Mission," and tried to get the congregation to cheer, college-style, "Yay God! Yay Jesus! Whooooaaaaa Holy Spirit!" When they got to the third guy in the trinity, he wanted everyone to make a spinning upward motion with their pointer fingers. To Dick's credit, he did get the congregation to join him; to illustrate my point, it took at least four tries.
So, after my heart sunk a little at the sight of maracas and, additionally, claves, the seminary student asked if I spoke Spanish. It was kind of her to ask since it must have been obvious that I didn't. I laughed and said that this would probably interesting since I didn't. She said she would get me a translation and walked away. I expected her to come back with a little pamphlet that translated the order of the service and talked with several other people who stopped at my pew, some who spoke in English with me and others who simply smiled so warmly and greeted me in Spanish. A woman who carried the air of a matriarch brought me some literature about the church with a visitor's questionaire, which was actually in English. She also asked if I needed a translator. Since she used the word "translator" instead of "translation," I got a little confused because the image that word conjured was different from what I assumed the seminary student was still rummaging around in a file drawer for. But, in a minute or so, the matriarch came back with a 12-year-old boy in tow who handed me a set of ear bud headphones and a little radio. Apparently, it was going to be like Church UN and I was going to get simultaneous translation! Soon after this, the service began.
For all my trepidations, the service was actually fairly straightforward. Most of the hymns were projected onto a screen and I hummed along. I did know the English words to one of the songs thanks to being in church choir when the multicultural Presbyterian hymnal was published (it has the words to Amazing Grace in Navajo, no joke) and sang right along. I also had fun trying to figure out what the words on the overhead projector meant. I am fairly certain that "He tomado el sacrificio" means that Jesus cut up tomatoes, which gives the Veggie Tales series a strange new twist.
Most of the service was directed by a matronly woman: everything but the sermon, the intercessory prayer and the communion. At one point, she said that since the sermon would take hours and hours, we would stand for the responsive psalm. Since it was early in the service and I was still concentrating mostly on the translation and not on the rest of the congrgation, I couldn't tell if she was joking or not. Luckily, she was. During the prayers of the people, she stressed heavily that today we were only going to spend time on thanksgivings and that prayer concerns were going to be taken care of later in the service. Again, every church I've ever been to has trouble getting people to give their concerns and thanksgivings out loud. Only illnesses, tragedy, births and visitors are worth opening oneself up as vulnerable for. Not this crowd: fender benders, mom's birthday, the recent children's retreat, and the homeless were worth speaking passionately about. When limited to thanksgivings, 12 people spoke with a microphone in their hands for at least 5 minutes each. The young girl in the balcony who was translating for me would start with a blow-by-blow translation and then sort-of give up and start giving me the gist of things. I think that the quick translation also caused her to choose some non-standard alternatives for some phrases. I definitely heard her say that we would "digest the word of God" and ask, "How many candles did you turn on today?" But the stories that these people told in their thanksgiving fascinated me. I was reminded that my interaction with most Hispanic people is limited because they are having to translate complex thoughts into limited vocabularies and, I guess, sometimes it means I only hear the ideas that seem to be most necessary. But since they did not have to edit according to the worthiness of the effort, I was allowed to be much more intimate with these people than if they came to my church and had to tell the same stories in English. My favorite was a middle-aged woman who spoke of spending her Thanksgiving holiday with her in-laws who are "Arabian people." She talked about being with them all day and only knowing one word of their language, "Yes." So, when they spoke with her, she simply agreed all day with whatever they said, "yes, yes." Finally, she started pretending that every one of them was telling her how pretty she looked. "Yes, yes." My laughter was delayed by the translation but was genuine.
As we got toward the end of the service and began communion, I found that the liturgy is the liturgy across the board. "It is right to give God thanks and praise" is the same in English or Spanish so I could participate fully in this sacrament. Having to think about the words because I was generating them caused me to look at communion freshly. I can't say that I had any great epiphanies, but as I knelt at the communion rail after eating my bread (dipped), I cried as I prayed. I felt that my communication with God was almost raw. Maybe because it was one of the only parts of the service that was in my language. It was powerful. In the end, I can only say, "y proclamente Senor."
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