Thinking Out Loud

February 24, 2020

Worship Community Knows No Language Limits

Filed under: Christianity, guest writer, missions, music, worship — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:31 am

guest post by Ruth Wilkinson

Four Canadians got out of the cab and started walking up the short rise to the small wood frame church building. A hot day, for we gringos, especially dressed in button-up shirts, long pants, socks and shoes. Because it’s church.

We’d come a long way to be here. Maybe not as long a way as the people who every week walk 2 or 3 km down and back up the mountain, but still.

Having visited Cuba a couple of times before and enjoyed the tourist experience, we’d started wondering how we could actually connect with Cuban people. The staff in the resorts are all very nice, and they all speak some English. But they wear uniforms and it’s their job to make those who’ve ‘come from away’ feel at home. The resorts are not Cuba. We wanted to make and be friends with people whose concrete block and palm wood homes we’d driven past between the airport and the reception desk.

I also wanted to go to church. We’ve travelled a bit and seen some impressive old churches in Europe, but never attended a service abroad.

I asked a Canadian friend who had some experience with this for direction, and he put us in touch with a Cuban pastor who is also an area supervisor, overseeing the educational requirements of 26 other Pentecostal pastors. Between his basic English and my aptitude with Google Translate, we’d emailed arrangements for Sunday morning.

And here we were. Walking up to the door.

The walls are a single layer of palm planks. The roof is red ceramic tile. The windows have no glass, but horizontal wooden shutters against the rain in the wet season. Out through one, we can see the pit where the pig was roasted for our visit on Thursday. Through the door we can see a sheep grazing on the front lawn.

The foundation is a thick concrete pad rising up from the ground, and tiled indoors with the smooth ceramic we see on every floor. The pews are unfinished wood benches with squared seats and backs.

The room is decorated with flowers made from twisted strips of brightly coloured paper that hang within easy reach from the painted, rough timber rafters. Encouraging passages of Scripture are hand written on signs around the room. A list of upcoming birthdays hangs at the front above a shoe box filled with small, paperbound hymn books.

Here we were.

We’d talked ahead of time about the fact that we didn’t want to end up sitting in the front row, preferring the back or somewhere in the middle so we could see what was going on. So we could look around and ‘experience’ the service.

Yeah, right.

Stepping from the bright sun into the shady cool of the room, we saw that every seat was taken. Except for the front row, left hand side. A young man we’d met earlier in the week smiled a welcome and gestured for us to come forward and sit in the seats that had been saved for us. So, trying not to look put out, we did.

The pastor had arranged for a translator to be there on our behalf, but he’d been called in to work. He was very apologetic, but we were more or less on our own and, in the words of my eldest son, “We did pretty well. Between the 4 of us, we understood about half.” It helped that one of the young women who is a leader in the church ran next door to the pastor’s house and brought us each a copy of a parallel Spanish/English New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. She grinned as she gave them to us, knowing we’d brought them ourselves to give to the church. So, that worked out well.

The congregation began to sing. Or rather SING! It was loud, rhythmic, joyous. What Pentecostals do best. With just a guitar and some percussion, they raised the roof. Between songs, people spoke or shouted phrases, most often–over and over–“Gracias, Dios!” Hands raised, bodies dancing. Some of the choruses we were able to catch on to because they were simple enough.

It occurred to me that, if someone were speaking in tongues I might not know. Unless it was English.

But I wasn’t feeling it. Standing at the front, trying not to look like I was peeking over my shoulder, I could see and hear the heart of these people. But it wasn’t reaching my heart. I said to God, “I know You’re here. But where are You? Where are You?”

There was a disconnect between my mind and my spirit. I had already started wondering why I was doing this. Why was I in this room right now? You’ve heard of eco-tourism and adventure tourism? I was thinking that maybe this was just poverty-tourism. Come see the poor people. See how they live. Take pictures of their jerry-rigged existence–their cardboard box bulletin boards, their picturesque cracked walls, the sheep in the parking lot. Think, “How quaint” and put it all on Facebook. Don’t worry about the fact that they’re human beings. They don’t have Facebook, so they’ll never know.

That was my frame of mind in the moment. Standing in church, looking at myself from a distance.

When the singing ended, the pastor turned to my family and asked (we all thought), whether we had enjoyed the music and the time of worship. We all nodded and said, honestly, “Si! Gusto, si!”

Apparently the question we answered was not the one he’d asked because he handed the guitar to my husband and gestured us to the pulpit.

Oh.

Oh, dear.

What songs do we know? What can we sing that isn’t going to suck?

My husband whispered, “How Great Is Our God?” Yep, OK, nods. We know that one well enough to harmonize.

1, 2, 3, 4 “The splendor of the King….” Away we went. We sang through the first verse and started the chorus. “How great is our God, sing with me, how great is our God…”

And suddenly… I thought, “Oh, there You are.”

People in the congregation started singing along in Spanish, “Cuan grande es Dios…”

There You are.

People whose names I don’t know and possibly can’t pronounce raising their hands…

There You are.

Eye contact and smiles and recognition…

There You are.

Speaking the same language. The language of a Kingdom we share.

There You are.

Somehow, I wasn’t a tourist any more. I was among family.

Before the service ended, these ‘poor’ people prayed for Canada. For revival. For Spirit power and fire.

They surrounded us before we left and all 42 of them gave us each a Cuban greeting. Cheek touching cheek, a kiss and “Dios te bendiga.”

And four Canadians walked back down the hill and got in the cab.

Dios Cuba bendiga. Gracias, Dios.

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