Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Like A Prayer

The comments on this blog have been entirely too few, so to remedy that, I’m going to post on one of the taboo topics for polite company: religion. [Editor’s note: I’m only kidding. I just couldn’t think of a better way to introduce religion.] I don’t expect this to be particularly controversial, but I still thought I’d give fair warning in case religious discussions give you the heebie-jeebies. Still here? Good, let’s get into the discussion.

At the end of my first week here, our manager, Abenaa, invited all of us GSK volunteers (Dorella, Nela, Steffi and me) and Liz (the MCI NYC project manager for my project) to join her at her church that Sunday. She attends St. George’s, a non-denominational Christian church in the center of town. She was particularly interested in us attending on that particular Sunday as it was the end of their Women’s Week Celebration. The theme for the week, “Prepare to Meet Your God”, reminded me of what heroes say when vanquishing their foes (“prepare to meet your maker”), lending a surreal experience to the whole proceedings.

Africa is a harsh continent on which life often seems to hang on by a fragile thread. Even in Ghana, one of the most developed countries, births are not registered until the child has been alive for two weeks—because many children do not make it that long. To me, religion seems more meaningful and more powerful in such an environment. Sitting in the church that morning, I found tears welling up in my eyes as I realized that the churchgoers truly feel that, in the midst of all the chaos and poverty and strife of their world, they are still blessed. I was not alone in being moved by the service, as many of the regular members also had their tissues out. I find that tears are running down my face even now as I type these words.

Having been raised in the Catholic faith, the St. George’s service was nothing like any service I had ever attended. I was completely enthralled for the first two hours of the service. Seriously, the service took over three hours, and it was only in the last hour, when there was an overly long and complicated sermon, that I began to lose interest. Early in the service, the songs were in the local Twi language, which allowed me to get away from analyzing the words (like I tend to do with English-language religious songs) and get carried away by the passion that the churchgoers share with their songs. In addition to the church choir, there was a fantastic singing group called the Still Waters that sang these songs. If you’d like a taste of what the service was like, I’ve posted photos and a video here.

While the church service had elements in common with the Catholic service, like turning to your neighbor to shake hands and wish them well, it was done in a wholly different (and African) way. Everyone left the pews to walk throughout the church and shake hands with as many people as possible. As the only obrunis at the service, we were in high demand for this part of the service. The contrast with Catholicism was also striking in how the collection was handled. Instead of passing around a collection plate, the churchgoers walked to the front of the church while the Still Waters kept singing. As part of the Women’s Week service, there was a new lectern given to the church by the women’s group. The pastor had his camera out to take pictures of the lectern. He seemed to really enjoy the proceedings of the entire service, joining in on the dancing at various points during the service.

One might wonder how children can handle such a long church service. The answer is that they are allowed to be children, to run and play at the sides and back of the church. Given the general ebullient nature of the service, it only seemed right.

Towards the end of the service, the pastor asked for those new to the church to introduce themselves, at which point Abenaa took the opportunity to introduce all of us. Abenaa is such a wonderful public speaker that I am proud for her to be the one to introduce me and to make public my association with GlaxoSmithKline and the Millennium Cities Initiative here in Ghana.

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