One of the things on my Cameroon bucket list since arriving here, has been to attend mass with one of our host families. This may seem like a strange thing to put on a bucket list because how different could church possibly be if it’s the same religion that exists in the United States and in Europe? The answer is: VERY different. During our time spent exploring the city on Sundays; going on hikes, visiting different markets and walking through various quarters, we have passed many churches. They don’t look anything like churches in the Western world- most are abandoned buildings taken over by the parish or even semi-enclosed shacks on the side of the road. But one thing ties them all together: when walking on the complete other end of the street, one can still hear the pumping music and loud singing emanating from these places of worship. Upon snooping closer, we would see people standing up and clapping, people dancing and shouting, people playing a variety of different instruments and people with mile-wide grins on their faces. This was not my general experience with church whether in the U.S. or in Ireland. So, when last weekend, Arjun’s host mother invited us to attend church with her, I quickly agreed.
Mass started at 10:30am (the second mass of the day- there is also one at 8am) and the church is only the next street over from ours so we walked there. At first glance, especially in the haze and cloudiness of the morning, this Protestant church was slightly foreboding, to say the least. It is situated inside a giant, abandoned, concrete factory so instead of glass windows there are gaping holes and instead of walls there are pillars of cement or protruding wires and metal rods. The only thing that might demonstrate a church is the huge wire cross on top of the many-storied building. But the outside was teeming with people stopping to buy food at one of the stalls set up in the exposed foundation before heading in, so the building was less-than solitary. We walked in to the usual stares, pointing and whispers (which have become so normal to me at this point, that I barely even notice) and sat near the front. Inside the big, open room were pews towards the back and then a large space at the front before the altar which had a chair and a pulpit on it, but little else. The decorations were basic: some ribbon here and there and a plain wooden cross. A choir and band sat off to one side and were already playing when we got there.
The mass itself was probably the most fun I’ve seen people have at mass in a long time. It was the most fun at mass I’VE had in a long time. It was mostly music, with different groups standing up at random around the room to sing their songs or play their instruments which included traditional drums, flutes and something that sounded like a kazoo. An ensemble of retired ministers started off by singing their way into the church. One man even got up and sang a song he wrote himself. Ah, here was the use for the open space in front of the altar! He jammed out, adding dance moves liberally. The minister also joined in the dancing and singing, often abandoning his chair and the altar so as to have more room to dance. It felt more like a concert than a mass. There was constant noise: clapping, snapping, singing, repeating words during the homily, and crying out agreements. At one point, Arjun and I had to stand up and be welcomed since we were new to the parish and everyone came over to shake our hands. After two hours (yes, TWO- would Westerners ever be able to sit this long or have this long an attention span?!), we were ushered out with several little girls hurrying over to touch our hair and our arms. I tried to remember afterwards, did we even really pray?! It must have been hidden somewhere in all that music. But even though maybe there wasn’t as much time for quiet contemplation and serious praying, I felt like the parish was more connected to the essence of their religion than most people I know back home. The emphasis here is put on joy, laughter, music and enjoyment of worship, without most of the rules and regulations that come with church back home. People leave church smiling, children run around and dance during the mass without anyone being annoyed and much of the population is made up of young people. Arjun’s two host sisters, Lucresse (16) and Morgane (19) came with us. Church here is not a requirement or an obligation, but a time that seems to be deeply cherished because it is a time to relax, reflect and appreciate, while also having a lot of fun.