This past Sunday we attended church at Central United Methodist in Malanje, Angola. It is located on the grounds of the conference office and was an impressive site. Services lasted 2 1/2 hours with lots of singing and, quite frankly, announcements. We were asked to introduce ourselves by the local Bishop and all in all I can say hospitality is alive and well here.
The most striking thing about the service though was the noise. It is summer in Angola so the windows are all open and the apartment building to the west was in full swing. Children attending Sunday school were singing and the chickens that live on the property were adding their own voices as well. Children came and went. At one point the son of the person sitting next to me, like knee touching next to me, came up and sat on his father’s lap, who in turn promptly gave him a juice box. It was just honestly I nice moment.
Noise from the street and children about did not distract from the experience but add to it! And don’t understand that the Angolan church is somehow riding the wave of newer casual worship. Though it was summer most men were dressed better than I do on your average Sunday. Which, admittedly, is a low bar. One lady also had the job of waking those that dared catch a couple winks during the service, or even slouch a bit too much.
No, respect is an ever present thing. Respect for the person speaking, respect for the pastor, respect for the choir. The difference is that the noise is simply not considered disrespectful. Kids will play and run around. People will listen to music loudly. Life goes on outside even while we are inside worshiping. This has this marvelous effect of bridging the worship experience with real life on a basic, almost primitive, level.
Needless to say I loved it and I cannot not wait to be out in the rural church this Sunday. Thank you to all that made this trip possible!
When we worshiped at Central United Methodist in Malanje this past Sunday the team went up, as part of the service, to receive a blessing from the pastor. Really, what we did is stand by the alter and be part of a group prayer and receive a handshake with words from the pastor. There was also, of course, singing. During the singing a basket was passed that we all dutifully dropped money in. While understated, it was a nice moment in the service.
Not to long after we were told by out host that it was almost time for the offering. What was that before? I asked. He explained that what would come is the regular offering, what we had participated in before was roughly translated as the ‘Action Grace’. Action grace? I chewed those words in my mind like fresh bubblegum for the next several minutes. Almost missing, by the way, the regular offering. Which, of course, I dutifully contributed too.
Action grace. The term just clicked cogs together in by sometimes rust internal gears. As a United Methodist we talk about God in terms of motion and activity. The gospel we proclaim is not one of a God who sits around waiting for the right magic words to be spoken. Our God is not indifferent to those who do not yet know about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Instead, our deep Wesleyan tradition grants us a doctrine that says God is very active, very alive, and very interested in you. We call this prevenient grace. The grace that flows from God and is around every person no matter how far they feel they may have strayed.
Action Grace from an Action God.
So I love this phrase. Even if I misheard him, which is possible, I don’t honestly care. Action Grace calls us to be Action Children of our Action God. We do not sit motionless or contented because our God is neither of those things. Instead, we join in the kingdom activities that God calls us to. Different for each one of us and unique as the stars above.
This trip was to mean two Sundays away from normal pastoral duties. Not that we aren’t working hard. It could easily be argued that we haven’t really taken a day off since we started over 10 days ago. But, it was supposed to mean no preaching, teaching, etc. Turns out that is not the case.
Yesterday, we traveled about a million miles up an incredibly poor road made worse by a great deal of recent rain. Almost straight north of Malanje, we were heading to Kimbamba. A small community of maybe a couple dozen homes/huts just a few miles short of where the road stops. This small farming community is home to many families and a United Methodist Church that was first dedicated in 1968. Thirty years later the war would take the chapel roof and pepper it would bullet holes. Today, it stands empty and is utilized mostly by the local kids as a place to play.
Our caravan of three cars arrived carrying our team of three, three different district superintendents, about eighteen ladies who came to sing, and a couple district officials. Our presence more than doubled the local congregation, excepting maybe the large number of children.
An old railroad tie and large machine bolt made a eerily accurate stand in for a church bell. Struck twice in a rhythmic pattern it rang out for a full 20 minutes right up till the beginning of the service. Though this is a small, poor, farming community the men were dressed in classic Sunday best and the women in the same, though of a more indigenous variety. The children were, of course, a mix, though I marveled at there willingness to sit clumped together on a six by six mat for the bulk of the service.
As has been a theme of my experience of church in Africa it was a mix of familiar and foreign. They went through the motions of what we would call classical western style worship, but somehow with an energy and flavor all their own. Like the western style suits the men all wore, they at first seem somewhat out of place, but they wear them with such confidence and pride it quickly makes a bizarre sort of sense.
The singing was superb and the older man who gave the communal prayer could be given a meddle for piety above and beyond the call of duty. All the guests were introduced and welcomed, including us. The district superintendent gave a nice pep talk to the crowd saying of all the rural churches we could have visited he and the Bishop himself wanted it to be Kimbamba. Making sure they knew they were special and held in high esteem. In many ways, district superintendents are the same everywhere.
At the near conclusion of the service came the moment that my stomach had been feeling all morning. Our team had been invited to preach, and, in fairness to Mark, I invited the opportunity. I’m glad I did, though I would not say I went into it we absolute confidence. I’m not sure what I had to say to this group. My strength in preaching, I feel anyway, it making things relatable. How do I do that in a place I absolutely do not understand?
In the end two things worked in my favor well. First, our experience has been that sermons last only about 8 minutes here. And second, because all our regular translators were otherwise engaged, Kristen translated the message into spanish, with some portuguese artifacts, which we hoped would be understood. That all meant I really only needed a few short minutes of material to do my part.
All said and done I find it doesn’t matter much, to me anyway, what I said. It was a lot about Christ, and about our call as disciples to be his witnesses in word and action. More important for me though was the opportunity to stand in front of a group of subsistence farmers, in a school come chapel, next to the remains of a once proud space, and in front of an always proud group of people, and realize that even here there is good news. For someone who spends a great deal of energy debunking the myth that happiness and self respect can be predicted based on bank account size this was exactly the experience I came to Africa needing.
None of this undermines our need to be in mission and ministry in this place. It cannot be said that everything here is okay and we should leave well enough alone. However, we should also not fall into the trap of believing that people are simply standing still waiting for us to move. Far form it. Instead, if we want to be blessed in seeing God at work in the world than we must be here, being Christ’s hands and feet. Working in partnership. This is how the kingdom is built!