Going to church in Malawi, like most things here, takes time. I used to begrudgingly drag my flip flops through the sand before plopping down on a thin wooden bench for a few hours of church. No longer a bored teenager, I’m just a middle-aged mom returning to her childhood sanctuary breathing in the deeply familiar world I love.
My old friend Peter has four children of his own now who compete to sit next to me. They squeeze Peter off our pew.
Sunday School was a Baptist History lesson. The speaker talked a lot about my parents, who were the missionaries who built the Baptist clinic down the road.
Peter’s oldest children, whose names are Colleen and Beeston sit on my left, while the younger two girls, Grace and Memory, sit on my right. They take turns holding my hand and giggling. It’s a wonderful diversion from the rapid fire Chichewa I barely understand. I can pick out words like God, strength, love, gift and joy…and Jesus of course. Every once in a while the preacher says something in English just to make sure I’m getting the gist. I can keep up, but don’t ask me to take a quiz.
The crowd stands to sing. There is an offering. The choir sings. The youth choir sings four songs. They dance and sing with smiles that toothpaste commercials would envy. Since my last visit someone had given the church an electric Yamaha synthesizer resulting in a Samba rhythm.
Next, we were all directed to kneel and “pempela.” Pray. This is actually our second time to kneel and pempela. We have already prayed about six times the regular stand up way. We kneel to pempela and I join all my Malawian children and their mother on the cement floor.
As the preacher directs the room, everyone begins to speak their prayers out loud. Like a teapot ready to boil, voices bubbled up from the floor steaming up through the air like gentle cloud of words. Malungu this and Zikommo that: God this and thank you that. It is a beautiful and moving. The voices of the faithful raised in simple praise rise from the cement floor up through the tin roof. I can hear Peter’s wife with her small, strong voice, and Peter, joining the men’s voices on the other side of the aisle. Shifting on my knees, I opened my eyes to peek and am totally caught by all the children peeking up at me. It made us all smile. Big.
This is how they do church every Sunday.
In Alabama I sit in a padded pew and read back words from a bulletin that someone else typed on to the page, from someone else’s prayer book. But this is unplugged and unscripted. It is an intuited way of worship that I miss. Their audible prayers have renewed my soul. I feel like a deer lapping up cool spring water.
I crawl back up to our skinny pew and we continued for a while more. The sermon is about not being jealous of other Christians when they seem to be more successful than you are in life. Comparing the status of faith and finances, it’s everywhere.
I think the people at my church in the dirt know something more about trusting in God than I do. It probably has something to do with actual dependence on God for literal daily bread. It’s the meek that inherit the earth after all and the poor that shall see the kingdom of heaven.
Church ended with a song. Grace was on my right and Memory was asleep in my lap.