Attending church in other countries is always an experience. You are an observer and an observed, but you are also an equal participant and become a part of the local life, if only for a couple of hours.
Goz Beida is in a Muslim region of Chad, but Chadians come here from Christian regions looking for work or with the government or army, often related to disaster relief. A church has sprung up here to serve these workers. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched the congregation grow from a small handful to more than 200. The original collapsing, melting mud and thatch building has been gradually replaced by a solid tin-roofed structure 3 times as big and with a cement floor. It is all very clean and tidy now.
On Sunday we squeeze butt-to-butt on simple wooden benches. Men on the left side of the room and women on the right. The choir, in blue and white robes, sits up from with their drums and such. Everyone has cleaned up and dressed up for the occasion, especially the women. The women wear an assortment of bright dresses and some unbelievably complicated head-dresses. All the women wear something on their heads while all the men go bare-headed.
We start off with about an hour of singing while the sanctuary gradually fills. Some songs are in French, some in local languages. The choir thumps away on gourds and drums. Some people clap and dance. A few women really get into it. Finally, we all settle down onto the benches. The sermon is in French and translated into local Arabic. Most of the elementary-age children are elsewhere. Little ones wander in and out at will. Babies nurse unabated. At a signal, a young man with a bucket of drinking water will bring you some water in the communal cup. important in such a hot, dry place.
After the sermon is the collection – a big deal. The treasurer places out two large bowls and lines them with a white cloth. Ushers indicate rows of people in turn to come forward and place their offering in the bowls. Singing accompanies the ceremony. And then, sometimes for some reason, a second round. More singing and dancing.
Finally, the announcements and introductions/travels. A Congolese man who’d gone home for a visit had run into a man from this church and carries his greetings. Another is in the military and has recently arrived. Others may also be part of disaster relief. And so it goes…
With the final hymn, people file out very orderly through a side door, each stopping in a line to shake hands with those that follow. So if you are half-way through the crowd going out, you shake the hands of those ahead of you in a sort of reception line, then take your place at the end of the lin to shake the hands of those who follow. Everyone ends up shaking everyone else’s hand.
Some people scatter quickly, but a surprising number clump into groups, standing in theshad of a tree to chat, as if to stretch out the precious weekly ceremony. Gradually, people wander off in colorful clumps, down hot sandy lanes in the glaring, baking sun as Muslim children stand and gawk, wondering what it is all about.