Can I get an Amen?

My mother will be pleased to know that I went to church on Sunday.

Religion is very important to Malawians, a fact I had been warned about even at my Fulbright orientation in June. Depending on whose statistics you believe, 60-80 percent of the population identifies as Christian, 12 percent as Muslim, and the remainder other faiths or nothing at all. The Muslim population is geographically concentrated along the lakeshore, however, and in the Central region, where I live, Christianity is predominant. Religion seems to be more performative here than it might be in the US; blood-of-Jesus bumper stickers abound, most social activities at the college revolve around religious groups, and large gold crosses are worn without the irony of “bling.” During lunch time, street preachers are a common sight; they stand on a corner and tirelessly shout the word of God (in Chichewa). Christian charities play a prominent role in the NGO sector, and Sundays are devoted to church-going and little else; downtown Lilongwe is empty by 3 PM on Sunday afternoon. Certainly, the church is an important social force in Malawi, though the extent to which demonstrations of faith indicate belief vs. performance is not entirely clear to me. At the college level, the only community with which I feel familiar enough to speculate, there seems to be a lot of do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do. That is, I’m not sure that religious values dictate behavior patterns when no one is watching. But I suppose this is a common problem with most religious traditions.

There are many academically interesting aspects of Malawian Christianity; belief in witchcraft exists alongside belief in God, even in devout Christians. In some areas, belief in witchcraft and/or miraculous intervention has prevented the effective treatment of HIV/AIDS with Western medicines. While a discussion of the interaction between religion and economic development is beyond the scope of this blog post, I will merely suggest that Karl Marx may have had a good point.

But back to my church-going experience. I expected a uniquely African setting and service. Instead, I walked into the church and felt like I could be in Omaha, Nebraska. The Capital City Baptist Church, a strangely modernist triangular building, looks a bit like a prison from the outside. Inside, however, the trappings felt familiar; a nice wooden cross hung front and center, greenery with twinkling Christmas lights adorned the edges of the sanctuary, and those ubiquitous appliqued banners hung in along a back wall. The congregation sat on a collection of molded plastic chairs instead of pews, and was a mix of ex-pats and Malawians. (My housemate estimated the mix at 20 to 80 percent, but the church leaders, with the exception of the pastor, seemed to be mostly American.)

Having grown up in a fairly conservative religious tradition, I was expecting something different – but even my expectations of difference were mistaken. Instead of being sung from hymnals, the words to the songs were projected onto a screen behind the pulpit; instead of an organ or piano, the singing was accompanied by the “worship team,” a band (including a keyboard player). The scripture readings, too, were projected, though many members of the congregation appeared to have their own Bibles. Though a projector is certainly more dynamic than a hymnal, this style of worship creates a little cognitive dissonance for me. How strange to find that a church in Malawi is far more modern than my church in Iowa.

So, how was it? Before I go on, perhaps I should qualify my assessment: I’ve only been to one Baptist service in the US, and it was in a historically black church in DC, so I was prepared for the handwaving and the Can-I-get-an-Amens. Actually, here the latter is more of – Amen? (The Malawian Baptist church seemed less based in fire and brimstone than the church of my DC experience, actually.) Also, I was raised to be a staid Methodist who prefers order and hymns written by dead people. So, I found this service a little too praise-and-worshippy for my taste. I also really wanted to sing Christmas carols, but we sang only Silent Night; the rest of the music was of the generic praise-band variety.

Aside from my disappointment in the music, the service was fairly unremarkable. The sermon was standard Christmas fare (there was no room at the inn for Jesus because Mary and Joseph didn’t have a reservation, but since we know he’s coming, we should make room in our hearts), though the pastor’s Malawian English led to some amusing mis-hearings on my part. It took me a couple minutes to figure out that he was saying “angels” and not “NGOs”. To be fair, it is far more statistically likely that a Malawian will say “NGO” than “angel,” though perhaps not in the context of the Christmas story.

After the service, there was a fellowship hour, with instant coffee and children sticky with Jesus’ birthday cake tearing around the church parking lot. This, too, felt very Western to me, and I’m curious if I would find the same familiarity in a Malawian church with a less international flavor. So will I be going back? (I’m anticipating my mother’s line of questioning.) Perhaps. I am determined to sing some Christmas songs, and those played on the radio are almost exclusively in Chichewa. But I’m also curious about other religious traditions that exist here, and I’d like to see more of a mingling of African and Western traditions. More updates as events warrant.

My internet at home continues to fail, so this may be the last post before the holidays. If so, Merry Christmas! I’ll be having a rainy Christmas dinner with some friends, but I will be thinking of home.

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2 Responses to “Can I get an Amen?”

  1. Donna Says:

    Maybe you shouldn’t be too hard on the religious faith-as-put-into-practice of the locals there. As you said, your primary observation of that is with college kids, and speaking strictly from my own personal experience 100 years ago when I was in college, I’d have to say that putting my faith into practice took a definite back seat during those years and the first few years out on my own. I think it’s all a part of spreading your wings. Hope you had a nice Christmas – Grandma and Carol said you called them and told them all about your day – how weird to think that as we were beginning our own celebration yours was already over with and you were probably in bed. We missed you!

  2. jess Says:

    ??? it is far more statistically likely that a Malawian will say “NGO” than “angel,”… ???

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