Palm Sunday at the African Catholic Church

My new host family attends the African Catholic Church. I’ll be honest that on coming to South Africa I had no idea that there was an African wing of the Catholic Church. I assumed that all Catholic churches in South Africa were Roman Catholic. There is a Roman Catholic Church in our community, but as of yet I have not met anyone who attends services there.

I had the opportunity to join my host family for the service on Palm Sunday—a four hour service that was much too much for my American sensibilities of time. The entire service was in Setswana including the Book of Common Prayer. Although I am growing more familiar with the language, I found that I didn't understand majority of the service as the phrases “I ask for”, “I want to buy”, “I come from” and “I am a volunteer with the Peace Corps” were not used. I did pick up on “Modimo” (God), “Godimo” (sky/heaven), “Morena” (Christ) and “Jesu” (Jesus).

Despite the language barrier, I found that there was much that was similar to experiences I have had in Catholic churches before and also found elements of a few other familiar denominations sprinkled in here or there. I knew many of the hymns, some prayers were familiar, and the knowledge of the Spirit’s presence was a constant.

It is the tradition of the African Catholic Church to wear black and white. The women must wear a skirt and cover their heads while the men must wear a jacket. Unfortunately I did not bring a black or white skirt with me and all of my head scarves are multicolored. So I looked slightly out of place with my black and cream flowered skirt and my red and black checked head scarf—not only was I not in black and white but my wardrobe obviously did not match either.

My host-brother is an altar boy and my host-mother sings in the choir so our family went early for the Palm Sunday procession from the priest’s home to the church. After a prayer, the altar boys led the way with the crucifix and the incense leading the way followed by the priests and the rest of the assembly. My host-mother lent me a prayer book and I managed to fumble my way through the hymns while trying not to take a tumble as we traversed the dirt roads to the church.

Here I was left to my self for moments as my host-brother continued on to the altar and my host-mother made her way to the choir loft (not really a loft but a set of chairs set apart from the rest of the assembly). My host-mother’s older sister took charge of me and led me to sit with her. I soon discovered that I was sitting with the gogos (Setswana for grandmother). Next to our section were the older mothers (40s and 50s). In the section next to the mothers were the young women. And the men sat in the section farthest from us. If anyone hadn’t noticed yet that there was a white American oddly dressed in the assembly, they noticed now.

The sanctuary itself was a large room with the altar one step above the main floor. In the wall just behind the altar the builder had omitted bricks to form a cross (the most beautiful part of the sanctuary to me). Before the altar, wooden folding chairs divided the room into the four sections (gogos, older mothers, young women and men). There was also a section up at the front for the children and the previously mentioned separate section for the choir (entirely made up of women). The seats only filled half of the room. The back half was empty. I was told that on Good Friday they had to rent extra chairs because so many people attended the service. The roof of the sanctuary was made of corrugated tin, as most roofs in this part of the country are.

A few highlights from the service itself:

The signing was amazing. All acapella. Every man woman and child singing with full voice, abandoning themselves to the song. Whether they could carry a tune or not, they gave it their full heart. It was a beautiful sound that carried surprisingly well in the dismal acoustics of the place. Village life is full of song. You can almost always hear singing off in the distance from a church service, a funeral, a wedding, someone’s stereo—always music. Many of the people I know in my daily life often unconsciously drift into song as they work. It is as if there is a natural rhythm to the place that undulates just beneath the surface.

The church broke bread together in Holy Communion administered by the priest. I was prepared not to participate since I am not confirmed in the Catholic Church. But my host-mother and others insisted that I take part since I am a Christian. There was a five rand fee to participate in communion—with current exchange rates, that’s about 50 cents. I was initially surprised by the fee but soon realized that the money would cover the expense of the communion preparations. I went forward, paid the fee, received the priest’s blessing and received the body and blood of Christ. (The body a typical wafer used at most Catholic churches and the blood a very cheap wine that tasted like rubbing alcohol mixed with a few grapes.)

Towards the end of the service, my host-mother was asked to introduce me to the congregation. This meant that I had to go forward and greet everyone in Setswana. I managed a few sentences of greeting and thanks and received the approval of the congregation. Although slightly embarrassed, I was glad to be introduced. That’s fifty more people in the community who know me and are aware of my presence. Each meeting goes a long way towards integrating me into the community. A daily process for the coming two years.

There are many different churches in the village, and I plan to visit as many as I can. I want to get a broad understanding of what fellowship looks like here. Church and religion are very important to village life. I hope that I will gain a deeper understanding of its importance within this new culture and find ways to adopt it into my life here.