This past Sunday afternoon I found myself free and decided to attend a Bible study that was being hosted by one of the members of my church not far from where I live. Since I had time, I decided to stroll to the place, enjoying the warm sensation of the afternoon sun. A few metres from our gate, I saw a mukurino woman and her two children. A massive woman, tall and with a rather muscular body. She walked with a determined gait and a non-smiling face. She certainly looked like the type who don’t take any chauvinistic nonsense from any man. She looked quite capable of comfortably fighting two men my size, while at the same time breastfeeding a baby and watching the pot of milk at the fire place from boiling over. But that was not even the most striking thing about her. Her dress was. She was wearing a long white robe with purple, green and yellow straps hanging from the neckline. Of course her head was covered with a white headscarf. Her son, a boy of about 7, was also wearing a similar robe, with a flat cap that had the purple, green and yellow colors at the base, perhaps to distinguish it from the Muslim type. The daughter, a girl of about 4, was wearing ordinary clothes but had a white headscarf.
If there is a group of Christian worshippers I admire, it has to be the Akorino. Because they are completely at ease with their dressing, yet they do not make you feel like you are inferior for not being like them. At least the ones I have interacted with. Their girls are completely at ease with their pleated skirts. I have always wondered where they get them. I have not seen a single shop in the CBD selling pleated skirts. Anyway, some wear red crosses on their dresses, shirts and coats. They really don’t care what you think. If you don’t like it, then don’t put them on yours.
One of the fallacies that we human beings have is assuming that the way we do things is the only correct way. We do not appreciate otherness, or rather, we are reluctant to acknowledge that other people can do things differently from us, and still be right. We don’t like people doing things their preferred way. Or having tastes that are different from ours. And this is especially pronounced when it comes to worship. Christians have a tendency to dismiss other Christians’ style of worship as misguided.
My parents have always let me do things my way, trusting the soundness of my judgment, ever since I was young. The net result of that is that my mother is a Pentecostal, my dad is Catholic, but I grew up in the Presbyterian Church where my grandma Joyce fellowships. Yea, that woman has had immense influence on my life. My current church, KAG Parklands, is Pentecostal, but is has all the markings of a mainstream church. There is absolutely no drama. Everything is done in an orderly manner, just like the mutaratara (procedure) of the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps that is why I so comfortably settled there. Anyway, the thing is, whenever I am in Chuka with my mum, I go to her church. And whenever I am in Kamulu with my dad, I go to his church. They don’t require me to, I just don’t find it necessary to hustle looking for a church to attend just for one weekend. But I remember the first day I decided to go with my dad to the Catholic Church, I was rather nervous. Because, I did not know what to expect.
You see, the Presbyterian Church, like any other church, has its own way of doing things. The service begins at about 10am in the vestry, an office where the elders and the parish minister sit and share roles for the service. One elder is then given a huge Bible, usually open, and leads the procession of the elders into the main sanctuary, singing a hymn. The Parish minister and the preacher (if different) are usually at the back of the procession. When the congregants hear the hymn, they all stand up and join in. The leading elder will then place the Bible at one of the two podiums and the elders go to their seats, usually at the front facing the congregation. The facilitator will then go to the other podium and call for another hymn, which is the opening hymn for the service. Now, when I was growing up, the primary musical instrument in the church was a massive traditional drum that was played by an elderly deacon at a standard rhythm, irrespective of the song.
After the hymn we would go to the next item, the long prayers (maoya ma maraja). And they were indeed long. An elder would stand up and pray. And pray. And pray. Pray for the service and the preacher. Then pray for the country. Then pray for those travelling, first by road, then by air, then by rail, and finally by sea, in that order. Then pray for school fees for kids. Then pray for those in various hospitals, here and abroad. Then pray for the rains, especially in Giampampo where the beans are rumored to be withering. Then pray for the misguided youth who are wearing miniskirts and sagging jeans. Then remember the elephants that have formed the habit of coming down from the forest to destroy crops. Then pray for sister Nkirote, so that she can overcome the menace of cockroaches in her kitchen. Then bind the spirit (kirundu) of fertility among rats and mice, that is causing them to reproduce so quickly. Pray against the weaverbirds that are destroying sorghum in Kaanwa. By the time the praying elder is done, half of the congregation is asleep. The other half, well, they have just finished mapping out the week, having decided to start locking up the chicken because the beans are germinating, decided that Kairu, the black cow, needs to see a bull tomorrow because it has been acting funny this morning, and that Kiruja’s Friesian bull should do the trick to ensure we get a high quality calf, and also made a mental note to remind baba Wanja to repair the fence where Kiogora’s goats had broken into the garden. Mercifully, this session of long prayers has since been reduced ever since the Rev. Dr. David Githii introduced a praise and worship session in the PCEA church. But I hear the church later defrocked him.
After the long prayers we would do another hymn, then go to offerings. Every congregant has a number, so you give your offering in an envelope marked with your number so that it can be recorded in the books by the deacon in charge of your parish district. I always flouted this rule though, always dropping my offering directly into the offertory basket. I didn’t see why someone had to calculate what I had given. Some congregants would come with farm produce, and these would be sold at this time and the proceeds recorded like the rest of the offering. Then came announcements after which we would do another hymn. Next would be the reading of the texts, usually an Old Testament and a New Testament scripture, read by different elders. Then another hymn to welcome the preacher. Then the preacher would preach briefly for about 2 hours, then the service would be over and the elders would walk out in a procession, with the Bible carrying elder leading again, with yet another hymn. The service ends punctually at 3.30pm.
So you can understand my anxiety at going to the Roman Catholic Church for the first time. I simply didn’t know what to expect. I resolved to follow my dad’s lead. When we got to the church, the service had already began. Then I saw my dad bow. I quickly looked at the person at the front in robes to see if it was Lady Justice Mary Ang’awa. When I saw it was the priest, I relaxed. I figured I could get away with not bowing, without being thrown into a police cell. I have problems bowing even in court. I just don’t get why I should. I have always suspected that it is an archaic practice carried down from the days when people used to bow down to kings. And the crown represented the king, so you had to bow where it was. But nobody does that anymore, and Queen Elizabeth is not even our Queen. But well, I hear that if you pull a Mordecai on Justice Ang’awa, then you might find yourself enjoying unwanted attentions of State hospitality. Though I hear Sharad Rao and his vetting board pulled a fast one on her. Daring guy, that Sharad fella. Anyway, my dad went to the front pews because he sings in the choir, and I settled somewhere in the middle. Then the songs started. Here is the thing. Catholics have very beautiful songs. I enjoyed the music throughout the service. Then suddenly people unfolded some wooded structures from under the seats and knelt down. I didn’t know why they were kneeling, so I didn’t, and remained seated. A middle aged woman seated across the aisle gave me a hard look, like she could see the sins I intended to commit the following year. But I ignored her. After all, the people I was seated with were very friendly. Then the sermon. I have listened to the parish priest of my father’s parish several times now, and I have concluded that his interpretation of scripture is very on point. Better than many protestant preachers. I always leave the church feeling challenged. As we walked out after the service, I saw a bowl of water at the exit where people were dipping their fingers, but I made a pass because I didn’t know why they were doing it.
I also do have challenges with my mum’s Pentecostal churches, especially the one she was in before her current one. I do enjoy the high tempo music. I do. The challenge comes during the slow songs, when everybody’s countenance changes. Some people start wailing, others pace up and down with clenched fists daring the devil for a showdown, others roll on floors as they cry to Jehovah. I find it difficult to concentrate on my own prayers with all the drama going on, but I have since taught myself to shut it all out and try my best to concentrate on my own prayers. Difficult, but doable.
Here is the thing. People have different ways of worshiping God, and I think that is okay. It becomes a problem when you want to force anyone to do things your way. As long as it is not forbidden in scripture, then people should be allowed to worship in the manner they see best. Whether they want to bow, pray for hours on end, wear crosses on their clothes, roll on floors, wail or do kilometric prayers, it is really a question of preference. You can’t start saying which style is better than which. Just find a church where people do things your way, and stay there. But I doubt anyone can find a church specifically tailored to their preferences, so some compromise is needed. But you need to read the Bible to know what is mandatory, what is forbidden, and what is left to personal preference. Do not just do something because everyone is doing it.