Joburg Expat: The Expat Worshipper

April 6, 2013

The Expat Worshipper

If you're arriving on America's shores and settling in a place like New York City, a melting pot of cultures if there ever was one, you might be forgiven for not noticing. But if your destination is a place like Tennessee, you will know at once: The USA is Christian country.

There are more churches here per square foot than any other institution. You cannot drive for more than a few hundred yards before rounding on a church. Before I get from our house to Starbucks, another ubiquitous franchise in this country (and, to be honest, the place I mainly worship at) I will have passed at least five churches on the way.

The little one right outside our neighborhood usually makes me laugh. They've always got some funny message up on the board. This morning it was "honk if you love Jesus; text if you want to meet him." I suppose it's an old joke, but it took me a while to figure it out. Nothing like starting your day with a smile of dawning recognition on your face. I fleetingly thought of taking a picture while driving by, but then Jabulani correctly pointed out that picture-taking must rank in the same category as texting, and I wasn't that anxious to meet Jesus quite yet.

The little church on our way to school

This one didn't make me laugh but I found it inspirational
nonetheless, which is what I love about this little church

I had kids to drop off at school first.

The feeling that typically takes hold of me when coming across yet another church in God's own country is a sense of awe. They are, most of them, simply gigantic. Resembling more an airport than a house of the Lord, complete with a terminal-like entrance hall, cafe, and gift shop.


When we were relatively new in Overland Park, Kansas, and it came time for our annual Christmas church visit - yes, you may call me a hypocrite - we picked the church closest at hand: Church of the Resurrection right across the street from us. We have, after all, a very tight Teutonic-bred schedule on Christmas Eve, opening presents right after church and the obligatory singing around the tree. Therefore, proximity is a definite virtue in a church vying for our attention. The denomination is secondary (our family is a mix of Catholics and Lutherans) as long as they don't tell me we're all sinners.

I hate being told that I'm a sinner.

But even that can be made up with lots of good singing.

So we drive up to the church, park our car, and follow the throng of people filing into the well-lit and well-heated building from all sides. We follow the ceremony from our perch upstairs, along with thousands of other worshipers (membership there is 16,000 and weekly attendance over 8,000), not sure whether to view everything on the stadium-size TV screen on the left side of the stage or the equally large one on the right. We are in awe when the minister informs us that should we have missed any of the sermon - I DO have a preponderance for nodding off in church, this guy has seen right through me - we can get it at home as a podcast. Or maybe even connect to it right here, via Wifi. The culmination is the lighting of two thousand candles - small kids have been supplied with battery-operated ones - starting with complete darkness until the sanctuary is as bright as day.

This church is a well-oiled machine.

Except when we step out afterwards into a beautiful scene of freshly-fallen snow, still aglow with a goodwill toward all men, we cannot find our car. Shivering, we trudge up and down long rows of cars, dodging masses of patrons already arriving for the next service, but without success. Eventually the kids and I huddle back in the foyer, thawing our frozen fingers, while Noisette sets out on a lonely and courageous quest to deliver us from the evil of a lack of transport.

We are trying  hard to cling to the last shreds of goodwill.

I mean, it's Christmas Eve, our kids are hungry, and the only obstacle between them and a pile of long-awaited Christmas presents is the damn car. Looking back, I still consider it a miracle that the night didn't end in a complete meltdown. Not just the kids, mind you. The temptation of Noisette and me blaming each other for the lost car was overpowering.

A Christmas miracle, if there ever was one, that we didn't descend into a yelling match.

We eventually found the car, helped by one of the many friendly parking attendants employed by the church, who took our key into his own vehicle and drove across the entire parking lot beeping at everything until he got a response. Let me just say here that this is not typical. For me, yes - I will park my car and immediately forget where it is or what it even looks like. But Noisette is very organized and has a good sense of direction (which is why I totally would have lost the blaming game). The culprit in this case? There was not just one but something like five vast parking lots and three main entrances. We'd never been to a church before with more than one entrance, so it simply didn't occur to us that we were searching our car in Terminal A when in fact it was at Terminal B. Perhaps a train link might have helped. Which I'm sure would be easy to build using a portion of the $10 million they raised in donations just that year.


One of those gigantic churches in the U.S., Brentwood Baptist Church.
You can seriously get lost in there for three days. Except scores of
friendly ushers will gladly show you the way.

Fast-forward a few years and we find ourselves in Johannesburg, South Africa, looking once again for a church to satisfy our Christian longing that predictably appeared on the morning of December 24th. Where, we wonder, do South Africans go for their Christmas Eve service?

Well. Most likely church isn't where they're going. Unless of course you can call a braai a form of worship. Which it totally is.

And I don't blame them. The church we ended up going to, based on vague recommendations from some local friends we called, and again selected for its unique virtue of proximity to our house, was so surreal that I often wonder if I didn't imagine the whole incident.

The parking lot was the first thing that should have tipped us off. There was only one, and it was small, and ours was the very first car in it. We were wondering whether we'd gotten the time wrong. Where were all the masses arriving early to secure a good seat?

There were no masses.

When everyone had shuffled in and taken their seat, I counted twenty-eight people. Or rather more like eight adults and twenty kids. Although it was extremely hard to count, because most of the kids were wandering around aimlessly. Together with the peacocks that were pecking away right outside the open windows. Two of the kids, it turned out, were the minister's and his wife's kids and at times toddled up to their parents, who'd be forced to interject the occasional "yes, Johnny, you can have a cracker but you'll have to share it with your sister" into the sermon. Which was greeted with relief by the few adults trying to follow the proceedings, because the rest of it made no sense whatsoever. Some type of Woodstock-meets-Celtic-druid ritual with people holding hands and humming strange words. There was also a candy apple someone was holding up at some point. The whole thing ended unceremoniously when the one kid yelled "ewwww, he stepped into the bird poooh" from the outside.

Everyone was grateful to the peacocks. By the way, the singing was terrible.

We tried again the next year, that time at a Catholic church in Bryanston, but the priest was from Ireland I think and mumbled so badly that no one could hear him over the constant din of the background conversation. About rugby, I'm sure. Or whether someone at home had remembered to put the boerewors on the braai. No one could see him either, for that matter, as he was also rather short. He might as well not have been there at all. That was also the year Sunshine informed me she was about to throw up, right as the Our Father was intoned, so if any Celtic rituals or candy apples made an appearance, I wasn't there to witness them.

The year after that, we went on a safari for Christmas.

It's only April now, so thankfully we have plenty of time left before the big decision is upon us again, but I can already tell it will be a real chore to decide, because there is so much choice within just a two-mile radius from us. Maybe I should start going to church now, just to complete all my research before Christmas.

If only the Starbucks were closer. I could sit through any sermon with a Grande Latte. I'm sure of it.

(And here I find myself again at the end of a blog post without actually having written about what I set out to at the start, so once again this topic will have TO BE CONTINUED...)