Where I go to church, we refer to ourselves simply as “Church of God”. We love life here. There’s lots of laughter and jubilation and a certain obsession with other people’s lives which some will argue is simply good old concern. Above all though, we have absolutely no regard for time-keeping. Our services are characterized with lots of shouting (in jubilation), screaming (involving being screamed at by the preachers and the screams from those possessed by the Holy Spirit) and a general merry making. On a typical Sunday, the main service begins sometime after 11:00 am, though the appropriate time should be 10:00. The pulpit always comprises of the priest, his/her assistant, someone who will lead in the spontaneous songs that pepper our services, the person who will lead all prayers, the head of youth and any senior pastors within the church’s vicinity. On the side, in an area designated for them, sit our very jubilant choir. Right next to them sit our elite and very busy secretary and treasurer. We the congregation gather two steps below.
My first interaction with church was back in the day when going for Sunday School was a rule cast in stone and adhered to by everyone. My mom ruled with an iron fist when it came to Sunday school. There were simply no compromises. She always whisked us out of the house bright and early every Sunday morning. The Sunday School teacher who put the fear of the Lord in us, literally, was popularly known as “Teacher Danger” (I still do not know her actual name). And dangerous she was when it came to ensuring you attended all classes, memorized the Bible verses that were mandatory every other Sunday and ensuring you participated in the numerous inter-church competitions that occurred every so often. So strict was she on attendance that she would visit the homes of absentee students. Her colourful verbal delivery of reports and efficiency in convincing parents that the child was going to burn in hell always inspired enough zeal to attend her sessions.
The other day I tagged along to a friend’s church located in one of the leafy suburbs in Nairobi (and one of the reasons I am writing this today). The stark differences stood out from the get go. For starters, the priest started the sermon at the strike of the hour; never mind at the time we were less than a quarter of would be congregation. People slowly trooped in as the service progressed. Then there was the affluence and basic wealth which oozed off people’s skin. Everyone was polite to a fault and apologies were offered for virtually no reason at all. Hundreds of cars jammed the parking lot; a major difference from my church where there rarely ever even is a need to reserve space for cars. Then there was the offering. People here offered cheques. This offering was quickly transported to safety even before the service ended. Even the sermon had a different ring to it. While priests back home focused on encouraging us all to persevere in the little we have been blessed with and for wives to not let jealousy or quarrelsome habits break their marriages, the priest on this side for the most part focused on delivery of the sermon. The few times he veered off topic he spoke about therapy and mental health and taxes. At the end of the service as I walked out, I had spoken to exactly two people the entire time; my friend and the usher who pointed me to seats. In my church, conversations start at the entrance as the usher points you to your seats and just to be sure, we all line outside the church and shake hands with everyone at the end of the service.
Churches are sacred and as varied as can be. Wikipedia tells me they date back to as far as the first century. Some practices still astonish me at my church though. Such as reserving separate rows for males and females. Or the vehemence and, in my opinion, unnecessary wrath with which preachers deliver their sermons. Or the imploration and demand that manifests whenever it is time to give offerings. So surprising as well is the fact that so many families started within our reasonably small the church. Within the youth group, so many people were paired up, as I soon learnt. I will reserve judgement on many other things though because I really know very little when it comes to churches and religious practices.
Above all though, the relationships people have with their Creator are personal, so intimate and as varied as can be imagined. From outside looking in one can hardly understand or know what actually goes on.