Religion is a funny thing, I thought to myself last Sunday.  I was trekking up a mountainside behind a young girl who was decked out in her Sunday best: a silky peach party dress, a silky peach bonnet, and an AK-47, meticulously constructed out of banana leaves and hanging from her arm at a jaunty angle.  We were followed by her two sisters, who were similarly dressed and armed.  I was confused as to the purpose of the faux-guns, but my enquires on the subject were not successful:

 

“It’s for protection,” laughed the girl’s father. 

 

I nervously laughed along, trying to mask my bewilderment.  Did we really need protection?  Was there a real gun inside the banana leaves?  Are people around here actually fooled by guns made of leaves?  Cynthia looked back at me and shrugged, and then we both concentrated on the increasingly tricky footing of our hike.

 

We had been invited by Doreen, a P7 student, to attend church with her and her family.  We had heard stories about this church from a previous volunteer and so we were aware that the congregation would expect one of us to give the sermon.  My participation in organized religion has dwindled to once a year: Christmas mass.  I generally spend this service muttering along to prayers, like lyrics to a song I only half know, and anxiously looking around to see if I should be sitting or kneeling.  Last Christmas my dad and I were randomly asked to present gifts at the alter during the service.  I’m not 100% clear on the significance of this ritual, but it involves walking up the center aisle holding a tray with two little jars on it, and handing it to the priest.  Seems simple, but I was shaking with nervousness, frantically wondering whether some sort of verbal acknowledgment was expected: “Amen,” or “Here you go,” or whether I should give one of those little curtsey things when I handed the tray off.  As my dad and I headed off to do our duty you’d have thought my family had front row tickets to the greatest comedy show on earth.  They could barely contain their guffaws, and my mom was actually crying with laughter by the time we made the long walk up the center aisle and back to our pew.  So, you can imagine my consternation at the idea of giving an entire sermon.  Thankfully Charlee has experience with this sort of thing, and said she’d step up to the plate.

 

When the appointed Sunday rolled around, Doreen and her sister were at the Guest House at 8:30am to pick us up.  Headmaster Thomas came along too, and we all set off down the sunny road.  Thirty minutes later we reached the next trading center, Bunamubi, turned off the main road, and began climbing.  And so I found myself, scrambling along the steep mountain trail, behind Doreen and her foliage firearm.  The Ugandan ‘just’ is infamous.  Everything’s always ‘just’ around the next corner, which can translate into anywhere from five minutes to an hour.  About twenty minutes into the climb, the pastor said that the church was ‘just’ over there, and gestured vaguely with his arm.  About an hour later, we reached. 

 

The church was a standard Ugandan building of clay and cow dung on a wooden frame.  The majority of the congregation sat on simple wooden benches.  The children were all piled at the front, sitting and laying on straw mats.  Four wooden chairs had been covered in a lacy cloth, and sat in pride of place at the front.  These were clearly the white people seats.  First, there were a series of musical performances.  The point of the banana leaf guns became apparent as a line of children entered through the back door, snaking up the center aisle.  They all brandished variations of Doreen’s AK-47 and chanted in their plaintive voices: “We are the army of Christ and we shall not fear.”  They assembled in front of us and continued their song, stepping and singing as two boys played the drums.  My eyes dropped to foot level: old Nikes, bare feet, the type of clunky black platforms my sister made me swear I’d never wear.  The girls’ dresses reminded me of the party dresses I’m pretty sure I wore in the 80s.  Later they got rid of the guns, and continued with a skit about Jesus’ car, which happens to be big enough to fit all passengers.  

 

After the music it was time for Charlee to shine.  I have rarely been as impressed as I was with her composure and assurance at that moment.  Right as she began to speak, the rain clouds rolled in and water began pelting the aluminum roof.  It instantly became basically impossible to hear her, but she continued above the din, with the pastor valiantly translating beside her.  The congregation strained their necks to hear.  She was silhouetted against the grey light poring in from the open side door.  Through the rain drops we looked onto a sprawling vista of hills and valleys, peppered with banana trees and raw red patches of clay and tin-roofed houses.  Some of the children were getting sleepy, and had curled up together on the mats.  A little girl fingered my sandal straps gently as she began to doze.  Charlee directed us all to first Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind . . .”  Like I said, religion generally isn’t my thing, but at that moment I think my mind opened a little to something holy. 

 

After the sermon we went through the “introduction and appreciation” of the visitors.  I kept mine short and sweet and threw in the obligatory “God bless.”  Then we had what I can only describe as a dance break while everyone chanted the gospel and boogied around.  During the extensive final prayers I became engaged in a game of peek-a-boo with the young lady next to me.  Then I worried that the entire congregation would see me for the sacrilegious hussy I am.  Of course everyone was nothing but kind. 

 

After tea at the Deacon’s house and the long downward climb we found ourselves back on the road to the Guest House with two live chickens and a bag of bananas, somewhat dazed.  The crazy thing to me is that the Ugandan people who hosted us, fed us, and showered us with praise and gifts, firmly believe that they are the ones who have gained something.  It is a real privilege to live in a community that consistently exhibits such generosity and openness to a bunch of wacky foreigners.  The local people I know redefine kindness in their attitude towards me and all the other muzungus roving around their mountainside churches.  That’s the kind of army I think I can live with, even if foliage firearms are part of the package.                           

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