The crystalline Sunday morning brought out a beauty that I thought not possible; all throughout our trip, I found myself agape to Kenya’s breathtaking vistas, but the lush splendor of this new day was something extra special. The breeze encouraged us as we hiked up the steep cut-throughs to the Presbyterian church.
Beatrice, my Kenyan bestie and sister from another mister, was a deacon at the church and would be welcoming our group at their weekly service. The night before she explained that her place of worship was unlike anything we were used to. With pride and bemusement, Beatrice told us her church was in the process of building a new church, and this new church was built directly over the old church, as she chuckled, her words were lost on me, I simply imagined an old church being razed for a newer, roomier facility. Before I could give much more thought to it, she gingerly added that our group would be “expected to address the congregation,” Beatrice’s sly smile gave me a cause for concern.
“Address the group as in read scripture or give a speech?”
“Just a way to introduce yourself, maybe sing a song,” she nonchalantly suggested.
Now, on this all-out gorgeous Sunday, a growing drumbeat and song began to usher us closer, the music brought out an indescribable anticipation, something wonderful was waiting for us. The impressive white building was grand, yet within it held a humble treasure. Starting in 2010, over 6 years ago, the “new church” began construction, knowing that the progress would be incremental and take some time, they built the New Church around the old church.
Within the yet to be completed masterpiece, was the metal and wooden building, that begat the success to build a concrete and glass temple. Inside the”old church” people greeted us with smiles. Our group of 16 began filling in spaces and taking up rows. In front was a modest altar flanked with wooden benches where the children’s choir sat, and a simple wooden Presbyterian cross.
The rousing song they played was in Swahili, yet, it felt so familiar. The speed, excitement, and joy they conveyed in the performance was absolutely infectious. Lover Fo’ Life and I took our seats on a wooden bench made from the trees cleared for the original church. The mystery composure enveloped my heart and mind with pure bliss, while the language was foreign the love and reverence was palpable. “OH-EHM-GEE!,” I shouted to L4L, this is “How Great Thou Art!”
Virtually indescribable by mood, language, and interpretation, the staple of Christian solemn hymns had escaped me for the first verse, but the chorus, though in Swahili was definite. Completely floored by the upbeat drums and joy that infused this version, I began to sing along in English.
Less than one minute into visiting Beatrice’s church, and I not only felt at home, I was more “into it,” than any church service I’ve ever attended. Old and young, the congregation was varied, but all were bursting with joy. The tin walls of the “old/current church” began to hum along with the symphony of pure revelry. The crowd of faithful and grateful were so happy to be there to thank the Lord for all he had blessed them with. 30 minutes of drum thumping praise and Several Swahili worship hymns later, the church leadership made their way to the altar in a dignified processional, Beatrice our faithful friend was front and center, today she would be delivering the sermon. But first? Like many churches, there would be announcements and a few stragglers finding what little seating was still available. I surveyed the crowd of villagers, beautifully dressed women mingled with respectable men, though it should be noted, men can wear whatever they please.
The pastor greeted everyone and immediately introduced the children’s choir, who began to sing and perform for the church, more specifically, it was a welcome for our group. Serenely swaying to their sweet serenade, I thought nothing of it when the choir performance was followed by a delightful trio of young girls who recited a welcome poem complete with a cool moves. It was when the various church committees and groups started singing and reciting scriptures to welcome us that Beatrice’s words came back to mind, “Just a way to introduce yourself, maybe sing a song.”
Oh. No. We’re going to have to present for our hosts, just as each and every group has graciously done for us.
Because God always does you a solid when you’re in a panic, as I came to this realization, the Maestro turned around and began quietly explaining to the group that we needed to come up with something, and fast. Always one to blow it in a clutch situation, I blurted out, “What about the Johnny Appleseed prayer song? Y’all know that right?”
For the 95% of the world who literally has no idea what I’m referring to, “Johnny Appleseed Grace,” is a staple at camp mess halls, and was sung at my Summer Camp growing up. The song originated in a Disney short about you guessed it, Mr. Appleseed. It’s quick, easy to sing, yet probably the most random and unhelpful song suggestion in the history of hurried mid-church panic song suggestions.
L4L looked at me like I was a blobfish in a tuxedo, “What? No. Why would you even suggest that?”
Ms. Kathy kindly allowed my suggestion to die the quiet shame all knee-jerk brain farts deserve, then followed with a great idea: “Well, I was thinking Amazing Grace, something we all know.”
“THAT’S PERFECT!” I quietly cheered. Sure, we would still have to get in front of the congregation and sing un-rehearsed, but at least it was an easy hymn that everyone in our group knew. Ms. Kathy’s quick thinking saved the day.
Only it didn’t.
Due to the fact that our group of 16 was scattered over the better part of 5 rows, the front part of our team decided to do the song that the kids learned in bible school the week before, “New Creation.” There’s only one problem, Ms. Lisa, the woman who graciously taught and led over 300 children in song and movement all week, was one of very few people in our team who knew it well. Why? because the rest of us were busy in our different stations and didn’t have an opportunity to learn or practice the song nor the various gestures that accompanied the musical triumph.
As we made our way to the front, I said to FabBab “Amazing Grace, right?”
“No, we’re going to sing the song the children learned in VBS.”
Horrified, I looked to L4L to save me from this nightmare scenario, “we don’t know how that song goes!” I whispered in what felt like slow-motion.
He and I would be fake-singing for these incredibly kind and welcoming hosts. In a little less than an hour, I had gone from the supreme heaven of experiencing my first Kenyan church service, to a shame spiral of terror that Alighieri himself would have a hard time fully putting into words.
“Johnny Appleseed would be a welcome save at this point,” L4L solemnly offered as we took our spots.
You probably already know the white-hot burn of embarrassment that we endured for the next 3 minutes as the song was blasted through Lisa’s smart phone while she dutifully tried to conduct our choir of awkwardness. I pretended to know every word and movement, but the end result was a ballet of buffoonery paired with smatterings of unsure musical mutterings.
The upside? All of the CHILDREN who were lucky enough to attend VBS and had been singing “New Creation” all week, joined in, complete with the gestures. The kids provided a welcome background and distraction from our lack of skill. Of course, looking out onto the crowd of kind smiles coupled with polite applause, it became clear that this church was filled with saintly people who had hearts of gold, they were enduring this train wreck performance with grace. Though in the interest of full disclosure, I did catch an empathetic “Bless their heart” look from Elizabeth, Beatrice’s sister who is also the Deacon in charge of music.
With the customary welcome performances concluded, it was time to get down to the word of the Lord, in Swahili. Beatrice, who is pretty much the greatest person you could ever hope to meet halfway across the world, made sure to let us know in English which chapter of the bible we would be reading together. While they listened in their native tongue, I hoped I was keeping up the pace in my english version.
Once the Bible chapter was read aloud in full, Beatrice began to reflect on the meaning and its application to her sermon, once again, she saved our bacon by interpreting for us at the end of each thought. Our boisterous and hilarious friend was neither as she wisely led her friends and family in the Word. I marveled at the same truths that applied to the mountain villagers of Gatundu, translated just as well in the suburbs of America.
Soon, the time would be not only be up at the service, but our Kenya trip too was drawing to a close. Tomorrow, we would begin to pack and say our goodbyes, and by Tuesday morning, we’d be on a mattatu back to Nairobi. I began to feel a swell of joy, love, and a desire to stay forever.
But first, it was time to do the offering.
For those of y’all who have never had the pleasure, there’s a point in a church service where you offer up money into a passed collection plate to pay for the various good said church is doing for your community and church family. American churches usually get a bunch of pocket lint and lack of eye-contact in their collective collection plate, but here in the remote “Old Church” within the “New Church,” there was no plate passed. Instead the Deacon in charge of tithing and finance, opened a large brown accordion file that was both ancient and neatly filled with well-used personal envelopes for each church member. With a quickness she called out the names of those whose envelopes were empty. One member was home ill, another was too late to put his offering in his envelope before the service but was ready with it now. Everyone else, be it a single cent, or whole shillings, contributed to the church that morning. No matter how “poor” they seemed, everyone happily parted with a portion of what little they had.
With the pleasant business of giving / holding the whole congregation personally accountable in front of everyone, out-of-the-way, it was time for more praise. The intoxicating drumbeat that Elizabeth seamlessly played was sublime, and once more I felt as if my insides were made of glittery bubbles. The smile on my face was permanent, and the pure happiness is something I’ll never forget. The church stood on their feet, sang, and neatly filed out, all to the sweet beats and Swahili songs of worship. We spilled out into abundant sunshine and practically took off in flight we were so invigorated by the service. I’ve never experienced anything like it, people who many would consider “less fortunate,” or ” who had nothing,” were unable to contain the unbridled thankfulness they had for all of God’s blessings that were bestowed upon them.
From beginning to end, church clocked in at a little over 2 hours; the best 2 hours I’ve ever spent in church (save the 3 minutes we murdered “New Creation.”)
Beatrice came to see me during lunch, “Well, what did you think of church?” Her loud enthusiasm and huge grin told me that she already knew my answer.
“BEST CHURCH SERVICE, EVER! I’m not even exaggerating Beatrice, your church is incredible and SO DIFFERENT than American church! The joy and excitement was absolutely electric!” She clapped her hands at my exuberance.
“I couldn’t believe how JOYFUL your version of “How Great Thou Art,” was! It was incredible to see it sung as an energizing praise song!”
“What do you mean?” She was genuinely confused by my observation.
“In America, that song is a ballad, it’s usually sung much slower and often makes people tear up. It was so cool to see everyone rejoicing in the upbeat praise version.”
“But my dear friend, listen to the words! It IS a praise song!!”
Though the trip was drawing to a close, I knew that this was just the beginning. The rest of Sunday afternoon, I spent handwriting an outline for the very series that you are reading now. Out of Africa, was always intended to be a 10 part limited series chronicling that one time I decided to say YES and followed my Jesus-loving dear friends across the world. Today’s installment was the 9th, and on Monday I will debut the final post. I have purposely taken my sweet time with these accounts, as my end goal was always to post number 10 at a very specific moment. Why am I suddenly being so cryptic? IT’S A CLIFFHANGER, BABY! ALL WILL BE REVEALED MONDAY!
Stay Tuned for OUT OF AFRICA PART 10: What I Learned On My Summer Vacation!
Your Pal and Friend to the End,