Église (Sunday, 2011 May 29)

May 30, 2011

[This should probably be tagged "fiction", but it doesn’t fit with the other fiction, and I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Names were made up to protect the ludicrous. I don’t usually go to this kind of service in the States, so I don’t have a basis for comparison, so this might be a "religion is weird" piece or it might be an "Africa is weird" piece. Your call. N.B. the M.C. and the holy water thing are made up; see the following post for further details.]

I got up early on a Sunday to go to church, mostly to see a baptême, baptism, but also to pick up chicks. We got there a little late; service was supposed to start at 8, but we rolled in around 8:40. The ushers were readily identifiable because of their sashes, baby blue or pink depending. The one who showed us to our seats wore a Bluetooth earpiece and a Ché wristband.

"Ladies and gentleman!" the M.C. announced. "Your patience please! We’re suffering from some technical difficulties. Our organist is patching his keyboard." Sure enough, the poor sod was unscrewing the case of his electric keyboard, gripping a wire in his teeth like a seamstress with pins. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him. "We will begin shortly. In the meantime, how about some refreshing music from the Choral Group of Lower Hauts-Plateaux! And a one, and a two, and a one-two-three-four.."

A song started up, something in traditional African evangelical style, very call-and-response and with a tangibly familiar melody. People milled, chatting and taking pictures. A vendor worked the crowd, selling Bibles and chains. I looked around; the stage was silent, but there was a felt banner in blue and green that read "THE JESUS AND MARY SUNDAY MORNING VARIETY HOUR".

The choral group got through two or three numbers before the situation was fixed. The M.C. bounded back up onto the stage and, ever charming, continued again:

"Ladies and gentleman! We’re terribly sorry for the delay, but if you could just have a seat. I think we’re ready to begin." Assorted shuffling as people found their places. "Aaallll riiiight!! How’s everyone feeling today?"

Scattered applause and ululating.

"I can’t hear you!! How are you FEELING????"

Applause, whistling, cheering.

"All right!!! Are we ready to talk about GOD????"

More applause. Foot stamping, rhythmic hand-clapping. Faintly, a chant: "Je-sus! Je-sus!"

"Whoo! All right! I can hardly wait — we’ve got a great service lined up for you today! We’ve got a guest appearance from Father Fomo, a skit by the All-Star Hauts-Plateaux Players, and best of all — a baptism!!" Cheering, applause. "And now, to get us all started, our very own Father who art in Cameroon — a man who is just covered in the blood of Christ! It’s my honor to introduce — Faaaaatheeeer Kenmoe!!!!"

Polite applause as the priest takes to the stage. The organist plays him to the podium, and Lighting follows him with a spot. He hugs the M.C. — they touch temples, then again, and again. They shake hands, and finally the priest is ready to perform.

"All right!! Funny story, I took a trip last week to Bafoussam, but I’m so glad to be back. Travel’s really hard here in Cameroon, wouldn’t you say? Finding a car was tough! I had a real… Devil of a time!" Rim shot. Laughter, applause. "Seriously, folks! I had to hitch a ride with some… Holy Rollers!" Rim shot. "We’re just getting started, folks! Why don’t you give a big Hauts-Plateaux welcome to our All-Saints Marchers!"

There’s a drum beat and the organist is playing something peppy and the children of the congregation are walking down the aisle. It’s a strange kind of cadence, not a real march, but a procession with steps every few beats. It’s executed with military precision as the boys and girls, all in some kind of hooded robe, come up to the stage, then stop, then turn left, then take a step, then bow.

"Wasn’t that great? Thanks so much for marching, guys. Such discipline. You know what that puts me in the mood for? — how about a round of Father, Son, Holy Ghost!?"

The audience really loves this idea. Their wild applause is accentuated by a light show, the spots going crazy as red and blue flash. An audience member is selected somehow and she makes it up to the stage as the clapping turns into more chanting. She gets all the way up to the stage before everyone calms down.

I try to follow the rules of the game but my French isn’t up to the task. It seems like some kind of Biblical trivia mixed with a kind of shell game. The priest reads a Bible quote off of a note card, then puts it into a Bible, which is then mixed up with three identical Bibles. Then everyone quiets and the priest asks — "So, Madame Noubissi — which is it? Father, Son, or Holy Ghost?"

The audience is calling out suggestions and Madame Noubissi, the quintessential Cameroonian "mama", is struggling to follow some of them, even as she looks happy to be on stage and participating. She calls out in patois with someone, presumably a member of her family, but doesn’t seem happy with the answer. Finally she turns to the priest and says, "Son."



"You’re sure now? You say it’s Son?"

"Yes! Son!"

The priest turns to the Bibles, and, as the tension builds, flings his arm. The Bible on stage right flies open. The organist plays a sad little tune.

"Oh, that’s too bad! It was Holy Ghost! That’s too bad — but as a consolation prize, take this beautiful handmade wooden cross, courtesy of Chez Mbougang! Let’s give her a hand!" The woman walks down the aisle to her seat to polite applause and the show’s theme song as the table with the Bibles rolls off onto the wings. Another choir gets up and starts singing as the organist plays another song.

"Wow, how exciting! I was nearly convinced for a second there. And did you see her face? She was happy and joyous. But it turns out that that happiness and joy was empty." Lighting is really working it — reds and yellows and a spot as everything dims. "And although you dance, and the organist plays some def jams, in my heart, I am beating a funeral drum. Because I know that your joy is empty, that there is no heart for your happiness. You! Marchers! You call that marching! Everyone wants to march but I’ve never even seen half of you at practice! And you! Organist! You didn’t think to even try out your keyboard before bringing it on stage? And you! Choir! Some of you just showed up in street clothes!" I’m not really following his train of logic here but I’m feeling a little offended all the same. I look around but the rest of the congregation is looking thoughtful and a few are chuckling. Is this a sermon? "And tonight you’ll all go home to celebrate your new baptism and you’ll put on loud music like Little Country and Tom Reynolds and you’ll dance! You’ll dance! Not one of you will go home and turn off the music and say ‘let’s just sing God’s music, that will be fine’! I just want you to know that if you go home and put on loud music, your new blessings are instantly cancelled! So forget about it!"

The M.C. bounds onto the stage and the priest tosses him the mic. "You heard the man! Let’s get baptised! Boys and girls, come on up!" Lots of milling around follows as many people, including some adults, come up to the stage and form if not a line, at least an ordered mass. Most of them are wearing all-white ensembles. Someone points out to me the priest’s son, a serious-looking boy wearing a white blazer. They all turn to face the audience and the priest leads them through a bunch of vows. The baptized swear that they believe in God, the Eternal; that they follow the doctrines of the Catholic Church; to do God’s work in their daily lives; and incidentally to give up vampirism and sorcery. They all look very solemn.

"That was great, guys!" shouts the M.C. "All right, Father Kenmoe! Let ‘er rip!" And suddenly the priest appears on the floor carrying a giant firehose. He’s spraying the assembled with what I presume is holy water and he’s got an ear-to-ear grin on his face as he works the hose back and forth. He’s staring right at me. Some of the baptized flinch in spite of themselves, but none of them run or laugh, and even after the water stops they’re standing there still looking solemn and as holy as you can be while sopping wet. The audience is cheering wildly and stamping their feet.

"How exciting! Let’s all congratulate the new Christians! Now remember what the Father said about that music, guys! Now, let’s all be good Christians and salute each other in the spirit of God!"

This is my favorite part of the service. You just reach out and squeeze the hands of people all around you. It’s the only decidedly human thing about these events. They seem like they’re saying something but even if I knew what to say in English, I certainly have no idea how to say it in French, so I just smile broadly, mime their hand positions, and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

"Wasn’t that nice?" the M.C. continues. "Why, times like these I just feel so in touch with the Word of God. It reminds me of the time that –" He’s interrupted by a clanging bell. "Oh boy! You know what that means –"

"COMMUNION TIME!" shouts the audience.

"That’s right! And for that, we need –"

"THE CHRIST-VAULT!" shouts the audience. And they wheel it out, a giant picture of Jesus with a dial where his heart would be, bathed in the finest lightshow my little village has to offer. They turn the dial this way and that, and at last they swing open the door and they pull out plates of wafers and bottles of wine. The audience is already getting into position. "For your convenience, there’s another communion line in the back for those extant Christians out there! New Christians, up here with Father Kenmoe please!"

As for me, I got my picture taken with the Virgin Mary, bought a package of waferettes, and followed Boris to the nearest party, celebrating the baptism of one Hervé-Michel. There was lots of food and more than a little alcohol, but that sort of thing seemed perfectly normal by now — also, a lot of dancing to the music we’d been encouraged not to play. There was a startlingly attractive lady there who looked a little like Carmen Sandiego, but it turned out to be Hervé’s girlfriend of three years, so, probably better to leave that sort of thing alone.


Communion stuff is stored in here.


It’s important to wear your finest wizard robes on the day of a baptism.


I have no idea who these people are but they sure look rich, don’t they?

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