I’ve mentioned before that there’s a strong Christian component to these trips. I’m not going to try to convince you of anything other than that this is good for Burundi, and not even in this article. I just want to tell you about going to church in Burundi—and compare it to church in the United States.
When David and his wife Felicite came to visit us in the U.S. one year, after seeing the way that Americans live and behave, Felicite said something that has stuck with me for years. “You in America are rich in money, but we in Burundi are rich in time.” The truth behind her words becomes evident when you put a team of Americans at the mercy of Barundi drivers. In Bujumbura, we always try to fill the day (or two) that we have there with activities that one could only do in Buja: hippo spotting on Lake Tanganyika, a visit to the Livingstone/Stanley Rock, etc. Vickie, our coordinator, says “breakfast is at 7:30; we’re leaving at 8:30,” but we have to remember that that’s “Africa Time.” The cars might not arrive until 9:15, and that’s just the way it is.
This relaxed idea of scheduling gives you the first idea of what church here is like. In the States, church services (in my experience, anyway) tend to be an hour to an hour and a half, with socializing afterward. We sing some songs together, sometimes there’s a multimedia event like a video or skit, and then a pastor gets up and tells us about the bits of scripture he’s been thinking about lately. It’s neatly packaged, starts and ends on time, and you can generally expect the equipment to be modern and the volume level to be manageable.
Here in Burundi, I’m not sure if I’ve ever arrived before a church service has begun. When we roll up (and we generally leave for church when we plan to), the music has already started, and it is loud. My hearing is not amazing, so I tend to need televisions louder than everyone else. That being said, I’ve never felt like church in Burundi needed to be turned up. In fact, I’ve worried in the past about the speakers’ ability to maintain the volume they’re blaring—not just for fear of quality drop. I’m surprised the speakers last as long as they do, blasting that loud.
It could be at least partially because we always get seated very close to the front (near the only speakers). On previous trips, it was actually more common for us to be seated on stage behind the pulpit, facing the congregation. Blessedly, this did not happen this trip, though walking down the aisle after service has begun to take all the nice chairs at the front is only a bit better. Humility is a major theme in Jesus’ teaching, so these options can be difficult for someone who is working to maintain that. It helps to remember that being disrespectful to our hosts, who are just that happy to have us, is far worse than accepting that yeah, maybe it is a big deal I’m here. It’s because of the work we’re doing, though, not who we are.
So now we’re seated—well, we’re standing at our seats, clapping along to the wildly exuberant praise and worship in a language that we don’t speak. It doesn’t matter, though. When you’ve resigned to trusting that God takes care of you in all things, and seen Him do it (and He does), a simple thank you doesn’t go near far enough, particularly when you have a front-row seat to some of the worst things humanity does to itself. The Christians here continually amaze me with how fully they throw themselves into practicing their faith. I always leave Africa reinvigorated and ready to face the struggles that come to my life personally; after seeing God here, it really reinforces my understanding that He truly is everywhere, watching out for me. If the people here can believe He is good, I sure can from my cushy, air-conditioned American living room.
By the time you’re over being amazed at how long these people can sing and dance with their whole selves, it’s time to sit, and here comes someone to talk. We concede that this portion of the service takes longer because they have to repeat every sentence in English (or Kirundi), but don’t expect a half an hour sermon and then lunch, because this guy’s African and you know one of the pastors that came with you is the one actually giving a message. This Sunday was Pentecost, so one of the elders of Kwibuka Friends Church came up and talked about what that meant for a bit before introducing all the different (I think there were six or seven) major groups that form the church: elders, musicians, and several choirs. Then, David, our host, was invited up to talk a bit (he has history at Kwibuka) and introduce his family and Vickie (she grew up going to Kwibuka Friends), who introduced our team—we came up to stand on stage with her. Then several choirs came up to sing one after another, then the band played something slower while the church came forward to give their tithes and offerings. Then, after one more choir, they introduced the pastor from our team who was to give the message. He did so (through a translator, of course), and we were done.
Please understand: I’m not complaining. Yes, I tend to be a hyperactive person, so I wouldn’t attend a church with a service this long every week. However, I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. I’m sure that they were taking what little time they had with us to show off a bit, and I’m glad they did! It seems like their congregation participation is much higher than at my home church, and Kwibuka might be a bigger church. So if anything, it’s good I was taking notes; I should try and bring some of that fire back to the States. It’s a shame our final Sunday in Africa will be spent in transit; I’d have loved one more long, exuberant service.