From my African journal: Every evening, I hear music coming from an obscure location in the middle of my village town, Masaka, Uganda. It is joyful music with heavy rhythms and multiple voices in song. Between choruses, there are great shouts, and bursts of speech in Luganda. I have trouble making out all the words, but I know that the sounds are coming from a church, and that the congregation is being exhorted into praise and repentance.
Tonight, a friend and I decide to go for a visit.
Based on my experiences in other Ugandan churches, I know that the color of my skin will create a distraction, and I will immediately be assigned an interpreter who will sit next to me, and shout simultaneous translation into my ear. I am always blessed by the thoughtfulness, but also saddened that I cannot have just an average, anonymous worship experience.
But one must not dwell on what one cannot change.
We go into town, towards the music, but we have trouble finding the church. Soon, we determine that it is on an upper floor of one of the two buildings now in front of us, both of them are still under construction. (This is a common reality in emerging nations, that buildings are occupied before completion. The mild weather here means that windows and doors aren’t really necessary, and the funds needed to complete a structure often take years to collect.)
The street is very dark.
There are people everywhere.
We ask for directions to the church. Someone kindly shows us the way. We step over rubble at the entrance, and then navigate up a very dark, winding ramp until we reach the third floor where we emerge into a space lighted by two naked light bulbs.
They seem so bright compared to the darkness.
White plastic chairs are arranged in uneven rows. There are some wooden, backless benches as well. The worshipers are all standing or dancing.
I realize that I am in the middle of a metaphor for the way many of us see our spiritual journey. We start in a place of darkness and confusion, longing to understand the beauty and joy we sense in another place. With guidance, we make a journey, over obstacles, upward, forward, ever beckoned by a promise of light and delight.
We quickly find a spot in the back corner, on one of the benches, hoping to savor a moment before our anonymity is lost. We get only a moment.
A smiley, warm-spirited young man shakes my hand with both of his, welcomes me, tells me his name is John, and begins to shout the translation into my ear.
And just like that, the music stops. We are invited to sit down. The pastor immediately launches into his sermon.
I hope that I am not the cause for this abrupt switch.
I assume that I am.
I wrote the above for a class exercise, and then answered this question: Did the event serve the spiritual needs of those in attendance, including myself?
A: Partially, yes. As my narrative and metaphor above describe, this is a space of light and joy in the midst of darkness and suffering. I can understand why one would be drawn here, even as I was; people of faith communing together and expressing joy, exhorting one another to righteousness and goodness.
Personally, I struggled with the fact that I was not afforded cognitive space to really make meaning of all that I was seeing and hearing. The physical space was much too loud and too boisterous for the personal contemplation and deep self-analysis I find important to my spiritual journey.
I wonder if the same was true for my fellow worshipers.
I also worry that the emphasis on noise creates a sort of high, something that alters one’s understandings of reality, and that creates an addiction rather than a commitment. I can’t be certain of this, but it is something that I have worried about for many years.
In the end, I am grateful for those who guided us up the steps, for John who sacrificed his own experience to give me mine, and for this idea that there is a God who was there, too.