The Amazing Side of Things

Posted by Andy Charnstrom on

In messages over the past couple of weeks, I have referred to life as being both terrifying and amazing.  Life today presents us with great uncertainties, and there is much to fear if we choose to live our lives afraid.  Today, though, I was given the opportunity to experience the amazing side of things, and I will not soon forget.

A new friend—a pastor leading an independent congregation made up almost entirely of refugees from the bitter warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—invited me to come assist him in the wedding of a young couple.  The groom, a handsome young man of 26, has lived in the United States for five years, the beautiful bride for two.  Both speak English but are clearly more comfortable with Swahili.  Their pastor is multi-lingual and very adept at translation between the two languages.   I’m not sure just how much translation was really necessary on this day.

I had naively asked the pastor what the time of the wedding was; he had responded that we would be done by three o’clock.  “What time does it start?”  “Eleven o’clock.”  “Oh!”  This was not going to be like any wedding I had officiated before.  It wasn’t.

Worship began even before the service could be said to have started.  The band—a keyboard in need of some repair, two guitars and a set of drums—filled the background as singers began to fill the chancel area.  Voices rang out, often a chorus responding to a soloist, and the crowd up front grew as more and more guests filled the pews.  By the time it became clear that we had “started,” the pews were full and the voices of the choir—by this time, about twenty or so—were ringing out in traditional Congolese worship music that needed no translation.  These were songs of joy and the words were punctuated with shouts, laughter, jumping, and dancing.  Awesome harmonies seemed to come effortlessly; the background music of the band was turned up in a near-futile effort to keep up with the voices.  The competition grew even more fierce as volunteers came forward to join in the singing; the procession would have thrilled the heart of any choir director or worship leader and, by the time the crowd had given all that it could, at least fifty people—mostly young men and women—stood, danced and jumped together, shaking the walls and the floor and piercing even the hardest of hearts with music that rose in praise and joyous worship.  I have never experienced such heartfelt and energetic worship; no translation was required.

Two choirs and another small group of musicians were present, playing, singing, raising the roof.  One had traveled from Grand Rapids to share in the joy of the bride, who has sung with them since coming to America.  Another, led by a young man who has been in this country only six months, sang a song in French, and many of the congregants seemed to understand.  Which reminds me—as I was standing in the Narthex of the church before the music started, I introduced myself to many of the men and women, uncertain who among them would understand as I spoke in English.  One man, though, asked in broken English, if I spoke French; my unconsidered response was, “Un peu,” which constitutes almost the sum total of the French that I recall 44 years after last studying it in college.  As he smiled and began an enthusiastic greeting in a language I foolishly had said that I can speak “a little,” I could only wave him off and confess that even my “un peu” was a gross overstatement.

A handsome groom, a beautiful bride, a happy family and a congregation that wrapped three hours of worship around a brief wedding ceremony because, after all, that’s the way they do it in the Congo.  Praising God in song and movement, lifting God’s name in worship, unashamedly and, yes, fearlessly reaching for a God despite the danger to those who congregate to worship.  A joyous celebration of new life; hope for those who have seen far too many violent deaths, who have watched dreams die at the hands of unimaginable hatred.  Americans by choice and by determined struggle, against all odds finding their way to the promise of a better life.  Amazing.

And as I pulled away from that church, seeing the celebration continuing in the parking lot through my rear-view mirror, I was left wondering why we are so terrified.

Tags: congo, indiana, indianapolis, indianápolis, nora, union chapel, united methodist church, wedding, congolese