15 July 2013

Searching for Jesus in Bunia. Perhaps I should check the couch cushions

Much to my amazement, I have found myself working for a faith-based NGO.  It’s not that my faith isn’t important to me.  It is.  I am reasonably devout, by some standards (though others might – and have – accused me of liturgical flippancy or even of harboring occult tendencies, but that’s a discussion for another day).  It’s just that I never thought I was one of those Christians.  I don’t listen to Christian music. My ability to cite Bible verses is limited at best.  I will not tell you, even if asked, how I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior.  I am about as likely to read the Koran as the Bible, and more likely to be reading the Baghavad Gita than either. 

I readily admit that I applied to a Christian organisation as a sort of affirmative action.  For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting much traction with any secular groups, and if I had to reach back to my college youth group for my Pastoral Reference?  Well, it seemed worth it to do the sort of work I really wanted to (or, as I said in my interview, the work I felt called to do).  The ends justified the means, if I may repurpose Machiavelli’s ruthless consequentialism to describe joining a decidedly deontological group.   

To be totally honest, I wasn’t so sure myself and actually had a lot of trepidation about the whole faith-based thing.  I was worried about exhortations to take up evangelization or how hard-liners might impact the work, especially when it came to family planning.  It turns out that my fears were unfounded.  Faith is important to the staff, certainly, but it is largely expressed through the work that they do.  Essentially, the ethos seems to boil down to the more people we serve and the better our programmes, the more we live our faith and show our love for God.  I can work with this.  Our field work was actually complimented to me by none other than the provincial director of MSF (Doctors Without Borders).  She was surprised that we were faith-based, saying that our work was too good (a strange compliment, to be sure, but one I will take). 
The Pack-and-Ship next door is called The Foot of Satan
 Even so, Christianity plays an important, if not overwhelming, role in our team life and does distinguish us from the secular NGOs.  For example, we hold morning devotionals with the national staff and weekly fellowship among the expats (which we normally describe to the non-religious as ‘team stuff’.  Want to grab a beer tonight?  No, sorry – I have some team stuff).  If the fellowship can grow a bit tedious at times (listening to a 75 minute long sermon is not exactly what I had in mind for my Wednesday night), the devotionals are quite lovely.  On any given day, they are largely comprised of a half an hour of singing that happily doubles as daily pronunciation lesson, assuming of course that they are not in Kiswahili, Lingala, or, on very rare occasion, Dutch.  Regardless of the language, they are consistently organic and lively – people throw in random solos and interjections and everyone is clapping a different tempo, though it all seems to work (though Yesu azali awa has been stuck in my head for weeks).  Devotionals are a really nice excuse to get out of the living compound, where I also have my office and spend far more time than I would like. 

So much time do I spend here that I have memorized the house plan, which distinguishes the rooms with virtuous titles like Goodness, Grace, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Self-Control (not coincidentally, the kitchen), and Long Suffering (even less coincidentally, the office).  I think at some point we should swap rooms based on the most fitting superlatives.  Perhaps someone is going through a difficult personal time and should be in Steadfast.  Or someone else, I don’t know…baked some cookies for the orphanage and so gets to live in Goodness.  Chastity could go to the team member who most needs the reminder of their spouse a continent away.  And, as Love is the largest room, we would all either be a lot nicer to one another, or a lot more scandalous.  Either way, it could be fun!

As things stand now, the woman with the room next to mine (the coveted Love) spends an inordinate amount of time listening to – and singing – Christian pop, but that’s why God invented headphones.  That, and so your flatmate can have sex (which is much less of a concern for me here than in either Afghanistan or the US).  Incidentally, I have figured out why I don’t listen to Christian pop.  I think I might well be talked into it, if only it weren’t quite so bad.  Most of the songs I have been subject to thus far can be characterized by their clunky rhymes, weird phrasing, and poorly fitted bridges.  It’s just not well constructed music and actually frustrates me.  Come on, people!  You’re praising God!  This was the same motivation that resulted in the Hallelujah Chorus!  You should at least be able to write a better hook than the Biebs armed with biblical Madlibs.

I am careful to keep my musical critiques to myself, though, lest I ruffle team feathers.  We have, I think, a fairly standard allotment of inter-personal tensions, considering we not only work but live together.  No amount of talk about our Christian brotherhood can overcome human nature it seems, though someone did warn me that office tensions and spats are the Enemy trying to reach us.  I also assume it was the enemy that made me reflect that she was bananas. 

Perhaps the most popular way of building fellowship, outside of the Wednesday night session, is to invite team members to invite one another to their church services. It seems to the faith-based equivalent of going to happy hour together.  Upon further reflection, however, it might also be a subtle attempt to convert me, as my Catholicism seems puts me in the out-group almost as much as my yoga practice.  Chanting OM  and engaging in Contemplative Prayer incur much the same level of suspicion among a certain subset of my coworkers (as you might imagine, there is some overlap between that group and those who are the most earnestly evangelical).  I have so far attended every service to which I’ve been invited, as it seems churlish to say no.  Based on my sample-size of two, though, I might have to learn how. 

I previously wrote about the spectacular lecture regarding threats against the Christian family and the moral fabric of society, but to recap, they were, in descending order of severity, homosexuality, women’s rights, polygamy, the rights of the child, and Western decadence.  All of this was a bit hard to take, especially coming from a man attired in a suit whose pattern is what might have been had Andy Warhol painted Louboutins instead of Marilyn Monroe. 

I honestly can’t decide if that was worse than the sermon I had the week before about Islam.  That day, the (bitty) Muslim population of Bunia had staged a demonstration in the town square during which they denounced Jesus as a false God.  Might that have been inflammatory?  Certainly.  Is it the correct response for the pastor of one of the larger churches in town to give an hour-plus-long lesson on how Muslims are cultists?  My gut (and brain and heart probably spleen) says no.  His rant was truly astounding.  I can’t begin to capture it in all of its atrocious glory (snickering at the need to pray toward Mecca!  Belittling ablutions!  Sneering that Koran is supposedly the verbatim word of God!  The nerve!), but the highlight might have been when he concluded that Mohammed wasn’t a prophet, but a terrorist.  All of this he did, while speaking of ‘our Muslim brothers’. The level of vitriol and ridicule and hypocrisy was flabbergasting.  It made all of the humanitarians in the congregation visibly squirmy, as did the affirmation he received from the congregation.  Their mocking laughter and full-throated encouragement of the pastor might have actually made it more awful to me that the homophobic one, which was delivered to a sea of blank faces.  This was also the only service I’ve been to in English, so I was able to very clearly understand every painful moment.
St. Etienne
After that, the services as the local Catholic church seemed like sweet relief.  The church in question happily naught but a five minute walk from the compound and is called St. Etienne Lumumba.  I have tried, and failed, to find such a saint in the cannon.  Near as I can figure, it is a reference to Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, who was deposed in a coup and executed in 1961.  Perhaps the holy title is aspirational and they’re petitioning Francis to fast-track him. 

It took me a while to figure things out with St. Etienne, not the least of which was what time Mass actually starts.  Misunderstanding the chalkboard posted in front of the church to be listing Mass times, rather than suggested daily readings, I first tried 9 am and barely arrived in time for Communion.  I then came at 8am, smack in the middle of the homily.   Next I tried 7:30 but was still late for the service that got out TWO HOURS LATER.  I had a brief, hysterical moment when I actually considered searching for Catholic churches on-line.  At any rate, the standard service actually starts at 7am and is upwards of 2.5 hours long.  It’s like they replaced the homily with a revival service of the same stripe you see at non-Catholic churches here.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  In the sense of a mash-up of religious traditions, that is, not the opulence.  The collection basket at St. Etienne Lumumba is a pillow case tied to a stick.  A clean pillow case, with a floral pattern.  And it’s tied to a trimmed, carefully manicured stick, but still.

The astounding length of the services (seriously, Father, ten minutes and done and the amens will be even louder, I promise) might not be so bad were it not for the cramped conditions.  I actually haven’t sat inside once but am always in the nosebleeds outside the front door.  There are usually anywhere between 50 and 75 people who sit outside.  They bring chairs from home, lean on the handles of the nearest motorbike, and commandeer benches from the next-door Palais du Justice (did I not mention that St. Etienne is next to a prison?). 
15 minutes before services start, and people are already standing outside
Despite my reservations about St. Etienne, I think I’ll keep going.  The congregation is terribly welcoming (even if an usher did take away my purse when I went for Communion and someone nearly pilfered my Bible) and, after having been almost half a dozen times now, I haven’t once been lectured on the evils of homosexuality or Islam!  But just to be safe, I think I’ll only go once every two weeks.  The services are long enough to count as a double dose of the Jesus, right?  Amen.  (I had intended to take more photos, but Sunday seems to be trash burning day and it is noxious, so I ran back inside.)