Sunday was my first time in an African Assembly of God church. My friend Momati told me that service started at 9:30 AM, so naturally he arrived at my house around 10. We walked to the church only to find we were part of the early crowd and the caniço (cane) building was being used for children's church, so I waited outside under a tree with some other women and exhausted my Xitswa (the local dialect) vocabulary in record time.
Around 10:45 some important-looking people in suits showed up and we all filed into the church. There were plastic chairs set up behind the altar for the people in suits and grass mats and wooden bench pews for the rest of us. The service started off with Xitswa hymns sung from memory by most people, and although I was graciously offered a hymnal the language is as hard to read as it is to speak. Whoever created it didn't understand the importance of vowels. Part of the problem is that there are many sounds in Xitswa that I wouldn't have the first idea how to spell, like a low whistle or a grunt for instance.
After the hymns it was time to "bring your thanks to God" and about 10 people stood and announced things God had done for them that they were grateful for that week. After the thanks was a time for anyone who had prepared a song or dance of praise to present. There was a solo song and four dance groups, one of which was the most precious group of kids I have ever seen. They performed one song with a step dance and they stomped so much they kicked up enough dust to fill the building.
After the singing and dancing the room erupted into a loud combination of everyone talking--shouting, really--at once. At first I thought maybe they were speaking in tongues but the woman next to me casually that this was the time to pray aloud. So after everyone's mixture of shouted prayers in Portuguese and Xitswa the sermon began. It was difficult to determine which one of the men in suits was actually the pastor because they all took turns contributing what were probably words of wisdom but I can't be too sure because 90% of them went over my head. The text was from 1 Kings when Joab is ordered to be killed by King Solomon. What I got from my occasionally whispered Portuguese translation was that even if you're sick or dying you should come to church because it's better to die in the presence of the Lord than at home. Fair enough.
Then of course I was asked to stand and tell the congregation my name and where I'm from and what I'm doing here. And my embarrassment was complete when I acknowledged that my name is indeed "Face" and I received not only the laughter I have come to expect but also a round of applause. Then we all got on our knees for "individual prayer" which caused the room to erupt again because there is no quiet prayer in Africa. Then more singing and dancing, an altar call to lay hands on the sick, and the offering, which was sort of a line dance...with singing of course.
The last part of the service was a very large woman presenting the pastors with their holiday gifts from the congregation (capulana, bottles of soda) and then throwing hard candies into the congregation as a New Year treat.
All in all I had a great, albeit overwhelming, time at church. I walked away with new friends, a slightly increased Xitswa vocabulary and some hard candy! Not to mention my heart was filled at the sight of all those people praising God for a solid 3 hours. It was definitely different and more in-your-face than the organized, highly scheduled church services back home but you can't help but be impressed with people who will willingly sing and dance in near-hundred-degree heat for that long. It's the happiest bunch of church-goers I've ever seen.
During one of the last hymns that was sung my friend turned to me and said "This song is a good one. It says, 'I have nothing, but I still have happiness in my heart.'" And I think that sums up the spirit of a Mozambican church service pretty nicely.