country church

When I was a kid, our pastor had a message he shared during the children’s story about once a year. He’d remind us that the building we were in — the pews and the pulpit, the classrooms and the choir loft — wasn’t the church. He’d explain that the people made the church, and then he’d lead a parade around the sanctuary and point out various members of the congregation, saying, “Ann is the church. Bill is the church. Jeremy is the church. Sherrie is the church.”

Perhaps it was the repetition, or the parade around those pews. But whatever the reason, that lesson is one that’s stuck with me in the [many!] years since.

It came to mind when Mark and I attended a business meeting at our church shortly after we were married. The main topic on the agenda was, literally, the color of the carpet on a platform the church was building at the front of the sanctuary. The discussion was heated and long and ridiculous. Neither one of us has ever forgotten that eye-opening moment — although that didn’t stop us from belonging to a church several years ago that launched a huge capital campaign to raise money for a new building or watching our church plant fall apart over, among other issues, the building we had hoped to make our new church home.

I’ve attended church in so many different types of buildings, from the tiny country church in the woods where I played piano once a month in high school to the high school building where our current church sets up [and later tears down] a worship service, children’s ministry and student community each week. I’ve heard from God at campfires, in auditoriums, on hillsides, in my car, in pews and in chairs, on my knees and on my feet.

I thought I knew what church was.

And then I went to Africa.

Kenya Artisan Group Church

We drove into the slum, slowly, as we inched by people and goats and honking cars and motorcycles. One thing I didn’t expect about Africa is how many people are always around. Our van driver, John, had been incredible, dodging potholes and answering questions and only laughing a little bit when we butchered the few words of Swahili we tried to learn. Still, he missed the road we needed and had to make a U-turn. As our eyes grew bigger and our knuckles whiter, he whipped the van around without hitting anything.

My eyes stayed wide as I noticed the ditch of running water and trash — so much trash — between the dirt road we drove on and the shops selling produce and shoes and butchered meat and sugar cane. Trash litters the ground in Nairobi, and garbage piles the size of mountains are about as common as goats. And goats were everywhere in that place.

We’d been told this slum wasn’t as bad as the one we visited on our first day, but it seemed pretty bad to me. Maybe because I started crying that first night and hadn’t quite stopped. Maybe because it was Saturday, so it was shopping day for Kenyans just like it is for Americans. Either way, reality or impression, I felt unsteady as we pulled up to our destination.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from being a dumb tourist and holding up my phone to take a photo as I climbed out of the van. I was reminded to put away my phone, and I fell in line with the rest of our group. We walked up dark, uneven steps to the second level of a warehouse-looking building. A woman named Faith came out of a door to welcome us, and we walked inside.

The room was dark and narrow, and we all shuffled around, unsure of what we were supposed to be doing. Eventually the language barrier grew small enough that we understood, and we moved benches to the back of the room and sat down in plastic chairs.

We were visiting an artisan group, a handful of women who create beautiful products that Mercy House sells. {You can see their super cute and affordable bracelets here.} Because we’d visited another artisan group two days before in a different slum, I assumed this outing would be just about the same. I thought we’d meet some artists, hear about the group’s beginning and its mission, and view their products in a small shop.

This visit was much different from that one.

Mercy House vision trip team

Even though it was Saturday, it was time for church. My understanding is that the Have Hope Group rents that dark room without electricity, without furniture, without comfort for just a couple hours each week. And the week that we visited, they used those hours to worship with us.

A woman they called Mama Professor shared a message from the book of Luke, reading Jesus’ words while the other women murmured, “Praise God! Amen!” It was a story familiar to me, but still I made a few notes in my phone about her reminder that I am a sinner who needs Jesus.

We didn’t receive a bulletin or program when we walked into that room. Nobody projected lyrics on the wall or plugged in an amp for the guitars. Candles weren’t lit and we certainly weren’t wearing our Sunday best. (Some of us [*ahem* ME] hadn’t even showered, and we didn’t get those matching shirts until after worship was finished.) Nothing about what happened in that dark room resembled any kind of church I’ve known.

And yet.

When Mama Professor shared the Word and I shifted in my plastic chair, as unsteady in the wobbly seat as I felt in my heart, and when a dozen Kenyan women began to worship without accompaniment and with abandon, we did church.

When the Have Hope Women’s Group made all of us get up from the hard benches, move the makeshift pews around the room, and insisted we sit in chairs with backs, we did church.

When Mama Professor reminded us about planks and sawdust and the sin in our own lives, when she said, “You keep on shouting, shouting, shouting, forgetting that you are a sinner,” we did church.

When the women sitting on those hard benches without backs responded to the Word, saying over and over, “Praise God. Amen!” we did church.

When Maureen stood at the front of the room with a twinkle in her eye and informed us muzungus (white people) that we’d better be ready to dance, we did church.

And when those women stood and danced there and closed their eyes there and raised their hands and voices there, I cried. And I felt the same God they praised there. And I knew I might never be the same after what I’d experienced there.

And we did church.

Later, after the brief service concluded, the women of the Have Hope group brought in boxes — of product for us to take back to the States for Fair Trade Friday, of t-shirts that I think they’d made just for us, and of bottles of Coke and Fanta they wanted us to drink. We came, in theory, to help them. Instead, they honored us and worshiped with us and, despite surroundings that felt so primitive to me, took dozens of selfies with us on both our phones and theirs.

And there, with our sisters, with these brave, strong, incredible women, we did church.

mercy house selfies and coke

I’ve had a hard time at church since I got back.

Some of that is to be expected, while God works through the layers of junk that Africa began peeling away this summer. This trip has left holes that haven’t yet been filled and twisted parts that haven’t yet been unraveled. And, let’s be honest, my tendency to cry during church is well-documented.

What’s really messing me up on Sunday mornings, though, isn’t the disparity between our air-conditioned auditorium with comfortable seats and amplified music and the narrow concrete room without electricity or carpet. It’s more that the difference in what’s outside the walls is hard for me to handle.

See, when I was in Kenya, I came face to face with an ugly truth about myself. I realized that, despite my claims and beliefs to the contrary, I really do believe that comfort, safety and ease are God’s biggest blessings. More than I ever praise Him for my salvation or His goodness, I run through a list of luxuries that make me feel hashtag-blessed. I thank Him for a place to live and food to eat every night as I put my daughter to bed, and when I hear about one more person injured or killed or suffering from disease, I thank Him that it’s not MY person this time.

But the women who shared their space and their Cokes and their church with us don’t have those same luxuries. They don’t have safety or health or comfort guaranteed, not the way I do here. And yet, they do church. They praise God and thank Him and LOVE HIM in a way that, honestly, I simply do not understand.

Instead I find myself asking, there, “How can they praise God when they live like this?” and asking, here, “How can they praise God when they have NO IDEA HOW EASY WE HAVE IT?” I know. It’s big of me to be so judgmental. It’s not judgment, though, not really. It’s confusion and questioning and trying to hear the things God is telling me.

And it’s noticing that it’s harder to hear that voice here, with all the noise of my air conditioner and car insurance and extra bedroom and grocery pickup. It’s knowing that, when I’m honest, I may not be willing to trade running water for more Jesus. It’s wondering if it’s even possible for me to sort through all these things, if any amount of prayer or blogging or talking or journaling can ever make it make sense.

And it’s being glad that, no matter how hard this is to process, no matter how long it takes me to understand, I’m forever grateful that while I was in Kenya, we did church.

To support these women who praise God and build community and create beauty
in a small, dark room in the slum, subscribe to Fair Trade Friday.
Your subscription will mean that impoverished women around the world
(including the ones I met in Kenya) are able to support their families
while you get a box of beautiful hand-crafted products. You can sign up right here!

Have you ever “done church” in a way that’s drastically different from what you’re used to? How did it affect you?

Photos from the Mercy House Vision Trip were taken by my friend and fantastic photographer, Darren Pedroza

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