Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sunday morning has become my favorite part of the week in Tchekpo.  Sunday has always been my favorite day.  Back home I had a routine of waking early, going to Starbucks for a white chocolate mocha, read the newspaper, watching Meet the Press, and I usually had a weekly telephone chat with Pat and Leanne.  It was my Sunday ritual.

Children I pass on my way to church.
 There is a ritual evolving in Tchekpo.  I still wake early, but now I have a cup of instant coffee with powdered milk, eat oatmeal, get dressed up in my very best African Complait and set out for the mile walk to the St. Stephens Catholic Church.  The walk is beautiful and serene, through narrow winding dirt roads lined with African flowers and foliage.  I pass huts with thatched roofs, children playing and neighbors visiting with each other.  I also pass a couple other churches along my way, some with services already in progress.  I hear singing and occasionally what sounds like an evangelical preacher warning his tiny flock of the perils of sin.  The churches I pass are small one room  
Not my church, but a church along the way.
buildings with only wooden benches, but they are so picturesque, in their secluded African setting.  Before I get to the Catholic Church I veer off of the path and walk through a wide open field.   The field is bright green.  Wildflowers and butterflies are sprinkled all about.

Finally I reach the open doors of what I now call my church in Tchekpo.  The church sits down in a valley, with many huge trees. I’m never quite sure when church will start.  It’s different every Sunday.  The priest from the neighboring village of Ahepe, comes to Tchekpo to say mass.  He then returns to Ahepe to say Mass. My neighbor or Moses, or both stop by my house on Saturday night and tell me what time church will be on Sunday.  By the time I arrive, there are already people gathered in a myriad of clusters outside of the church.  Some clusters are praying, some are obviously in a meeting of sorts. Many are just little groups of villagers visiting with each other.  At the entrance of the valley that leads to the church there is always food being prepared by a group of women.  The women are cooking rice or porridge over a wood fire in big caldrons, and there is fresh fruit; bananas, pineapple, oranges, mangoes.  In another area, to the side of the church, the choir is practicing their songs for the days service.  The most beautiful music I’ve ever heard sets the mood to celebrate.  Just for a few hours this African village experiences hope and sense of community.  They are so poor in all material ways, but their Sunday Church is rich with color and music and laughter and faith in God.   Everyone is happy on this day.  The sun is shining, kids are laughing and playing, mothers are carrying their sleeping babies in papooses on their backs and there is a large circle of teenagers dancing and singing.  As poor as they are, they are all dressed in stunning, crisp, clean, colorful African complaits, the women wearing coordinating head dresses.  I’m filled with happiness and contentment when I experience this scene.  I savor it.   It’s also the time that I contemplate the fact that often….people seem more joyous here than at home, and then for a fleeting moment (because that’s all I make time for) I question the meaning of life, and I think the world is topsy-turvy, and I think about them all yearning to come to the United States.  I wish that they knew that they are as happy, maybe happier than the people I see in the States.   They are not content though. There are too many of them who are hungry, and sick and dying.

St. Stephens Catholic Church

The church is modest, the roof peaks out in the front.  Inside the church is filled with wooden benches, and has a concrete floor.  There are no windows per se.  In place of windows there is a graphically pleasing pattern of openings along the walls in the shape of crosses that let the breeze flow in.  Africans must have discovered a form of airflow dynamics out of necessity.  In the few buildings they have, instead of large windows, they are built with small openings, strategically positioned.  It’s as if the breeze pushes its way through these openings and creates a natural wind path.  It’s an unexpected reprise from the African heat.  A cool breeze inside, when there seems to be no air moving outside.  The openings also allow for natural light to filter in.  Rays of lights going this way and that way.  Upon entering the church you see the altar at the front.  There is a stature of Mary on the right side of the altar, and a rough lecturn on the left.  The room is painted in pretty, bright colors.  The colors of the church and rays of light mixed with the colors of all the African fabric people are wearing is a sensory delight.

On this Sunday, when I entered the church I saw a group of ten to twelve women.  They had moved the benches to form a circle.  It was early; about an hour before mass was to begin.  There were a few people sprinkled about sitting on benches in quiet contemplation or prayer.  The women who had formed the circle had a table in the center with a white cloth over it.  A Statue of Mary, flowers and two candles were on the table.  One woman would speak in a rhythmic cadence and the other women responded in unison as if it were a response to a prayer, and then there was silence.  Their heads were bowed and their eyes were closed.  Outside the choir was still practicing in melodic  African harmony.  Their singing needed no instruments.  It is that beautiful.  Suddenly there was a loud bell.  I caught a glimpse through the window openings of a women walking through the church yard with a cymbal and a metal stick.  A loud, echoing, clanging of the cymbal signaling to the whole village that it was time for church.  All the people who had been lingering outside now began to spill into the church.  The women in the circle ended their prayer group, dismantled the altar, and moved the benches back to their original positions.

At 8:15 I could see a procession of people lining up outside of the church.  There were three tom-tom drums and drummers.  Moses is one of the drummers.  There is also a small, tinney sounding, silver instrument  about the size of the palm of your hand, shaped like a canoe.   It’s like a tiny cymbal, but is hollow.  It has a very African sound that compliments the drums.  The choir outside began singing,  and moving into the church.  Llittle by little everyone inside was singing  the same song.  African voices and musical instruments filled the church in harmony.  As the choir processions in, they are swaying and moving to the music, and so is the rest of the congregation.  Swaying, and kind of dancing, and clapping their hands to the beat.  First the altar boys enter, carrying a cross, then the choir; next, a teenage girl balancing a bowl of smoking incense on her head, and finally the priest.

I am intrigued with and enjoy watching the children who are in this church.  The small, under seven years of age children.  They are always so well behaved, not squirming around.   They appear confident, and secure.  I’m not sure why that is my impression.  What makes them seem different than children I see in American churches.  I guess it’s the way they carry themselves.  They are not shy, they stand up very straight, they sway with the music, and they look me right in the eye.  They don’t appear to be confined to a pew.  Sometimes they just get up and walk around, and look at everyone and everything.  They are as cute as they can be, all dressed up.   Very, very rarely do you hear a  baby cry…anywhere, not just in church.  The phenomena of the quiet, sleeping babies will be explored in another blog.

After the choir has taken the front row seats, and the music stops, mass begins.  The mass has the same structure and formalities as a catholic mass in the States.  The music is different, and the Offertory and Offering of Peace are different.  During the Offertory there is yet another procession, people walk, dance and sing up the aisle with large bowls of a variety of food on their heads.  Kassaba’s, fruit, rice.  After church this food is distributed to people who don’t have enough food.  The offering of Peace is lovely, and lengthy.  While the choir is singing; men, women and children get out of their pews, and make their way around the church, bowing to each other  and warmly taking  each others hand, wishing them well.

The priest is lovely.  He gives the sermon in Ewe, so I unfortunately can’t understand what he’s saying, but he comes down from the altar and walks the aisles while he is preaching.  He interacts with the congregation, asking them questions.  They often laugh at something he’s said.   I’ve been impressed that he seems to wear a perpetual smile.  He looks happy to be doing what he’s doing.  He radiates.

On my second visit to the church I was introduced to the congregation by the priest and asked to say a few words.  I gave an Ewe (local language) greeting, which they all appreciated, and said 'unconn-nya Adoowah'…which means my name is Adoowah in Ewe.  That name was given to me by the people in Tchekpo because I was born on a Monday.  I was not prepared to speak to the congregation, and didn’t really know what to say.  Moses was by my side and translated.  I told them that I was raised a Catholic, and that my uncle was a priest. I told them I was very happy to be here, and that they have a lovely church.  Moses whispered in my ear that I needed to give them some advice.  I looked at him astonished.  Advice??!!??  He said yes, “they want advice.”  I was speechless for what seemed like a long time, and then I said, “I don’t really have any advice for you right now.  I think I will learn more from you, than you will learn from me, but maybe with the help of God we can do things together to help the community.”  They seemed happy and surprised that I could learn more from them, than they could learn from me.   I believe this to be true.

I have felt welcomed in such a warm, genuine way throughout Tchekpo, but never so much as I do on Sundays, when I go to St. Stephens Catholic Church.  My faith is renewed.  Father Dougherty would be pleased.

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