Sunday, June 6, 2010


I went to Pentacostal church today with my supervisor. The Pentacostals have a reputation for the longest church services in Rwanda at over four hours (Catholics are the shortest at about two hours). I have the misfortune to work in an office full of Pentacostals, all eager to bring me to their churches.

What happens over the course of four hours? People filter in from about 8-9:30. They greet each other, accompanied by a choir singing  hymns in Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili. The worshipers sit on benches; my section is mostly married women, several with babies strapped to their backs. Young people seem to sit in a separate section than married, and kids are in the back, on benches and a woven matt on ground. The singing and dancing is nice, and I admire all of the women’s colorful church outfits made from typical African wax print fabric or tie die.

The church is huge, but still under construction: there’s a brick fa├žade with arched gaps where windows will be, cement stairs leading up to a future second story, and wooden poles in the ground supporting a temporary tarp ceiling above the wooden benches. The tarp is from an old Rwandatel advertisement; I can make out a giant faded cell phone and a slogan about good rates. In the front is a table with a donation box on it; at one point during this first section many people rise to give money. To the side is the area where the choirs sing; this church is well-off and has a speaker system, electronic keyboard, guitar, and bass. Behind the table is a row of benches on which sit seven or so men in suits, pastors and visiting pastors, facing the congregation.

When my boss arrives he brings me to sit on display with him in the front, a spot from which I watch in envy as women pass babies around and bounce them on their laps. The songs stop and the pastor speaks, first welcoming visitors and newcomers, including me. I duly impress everyone with a few words in Kinyarwanda about how I’m a volunteer and will stay in Gisenyi for two years. Then there are speeches from congregation members who want to give thanks. This strikes me as a blend of entertainment and testimonial: each shares their micro soap opera story that ends happily thanks to the power of God. One thanks God for bringing her family out of bad fortune: her mother has made a spectacular recovery from an illness. There’s the business-suit clad woman who has returned from a training abroad (thanks to God she was invited) and is donating half of her per-diem to the church (thousands of francs). Finally there’s the couple that got married last week; they were too poor to afford the wedding or furniture but were given donations from the church and are thanking the congregation and of course God.

Next there’s speeches by several pastors, some visiting from other places, on several topics including the importance of keeping one’s bible in good condition (it’s bring your own Bible in Rwanda). One pastor goes on to interpret several scattered passages from the New Testament, which various congregation members are called on to read aloud for those who did not BYOBible. There’s more singing, during which time donation boxes are again placed on the table and people proceed to give everything from large notes (totaling a few dollars) to lose change. Some are only pretending to put money in the box: I’m close and I can hear when it makes no noise.

Finally they ask people who have not yet received Jesus to come forward, and I ignore my boss’s suggestion that I might join them. Four young people kneel and are surrounded by the pastors, who pat them on the heads and speak in Kinyarwanda – I’m told at this point at some churches in Rwanda there might be actual flaying of bodies to rid them of demons, but not today, not at this church. Lastly, a couple that is to be married next week stands up to speak and be videotaped by an ancient and huge camera. And there’s another speech to close the service, and everyone does the Rwandan hug/shake in which they  grab each other’s outstretched arms or pat each other’s backs from arm’s length and then shake right hands while saying “Yesu ishimwe,” Praise god.

And at last it’s over, at about 12:30.

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