The Animated African Church Service

In case you didn’t go to church on this Sunday, I have just the thing.

On May 4th of this year, I was given the chance to document one of Iringa’s liveliest, most intense congregations. I suspect that the photos and footage these next three weeks will be met with a mixture of disturbance, intrigue, and perhaps genuine appreciation for the work this church is doing.

I leave the reaction up to you.

***

Sundays mornings were always a peaceful time in the ordinarily-active city, Iringa. Since my arrival in January, I took advantage of this lull each weekend by working on my blog at the town’s Internet cafe, Iringanet. There, I’d park myself on the patio, set my laptop on the tabletop, and type away.  

Sunday afternoons, however, became a different story.

At around one o ‘clock, loud, booming music erupted from somewhere across and street. I got used to it and didn’t pay too much attention while concentrating on my writing. But then began a raspy-voiced man declaring his speech in revolution-style. With his declarations and screams and an audience’s resultant cheer, I thought it was a political rally. As interesting as this would be, it was not a political rally, but a spiritual one.

The cheering and speeches and singing would go on for hours all afternoon, each Sunday week in and week out. I eventually discovered that directly across the street was a church housed in the warehouse space making up the bulk of a sheet-metal roofed complex fronted by many small businesses.

A large church within

If this was their weekly routine, there was no use trying to fight against it by hoping for some sudden peace and quiet to write. Interestingly, their activity would become an inspiration and an experience from which to write about.

One Sunday I walked across the street and found the church entrance between two of the small business that fronted the building. The music ever-louder as I approached, I made my way past some attendees dressed in their Sunday best standing just outside. Over a cement step and around a wood pillar, I poked my head into the already-open door to discover the church in full swing.

It was a large, open room packed with a sea of 300–men in slacks and button-ups and even suits and women in either similar Western church-style or their traditional, brightly colored, thin fabric shawls, skirt wraps, and headscarves. Everyone stood at their chairs probably three dozen rows deep, facing a smooth, cement stage where a Western-suited, middle-aged preacher stood alongside an eight-person chorus belting loud singing and praise. 

It lifted my spirits; I enjoyed the experience being here with all the energy. People in the back looked at me, but no one did so unfriendly. I simply stood back near the entrance without saying a word, a fly on the wall. I flew away after a few minutes.

I returned the next week to witness attendees involved in intense prayer. They weren’t bowing, but standing and even moving about in such a way that I can imagine athletes might pump themselves up before a big game. I watched a thin man in his thirties and in his white button-up, pumping his fists at his side, his eyes clenched as hard as his hands with head cocked down while mouthing words with tight intensity.

My third visit offered something I’d only ever previously seen on TV: the two-handed, head-touching, immediate faint-inducer. I watched a few women fall for the preacher’s touch and into the arms of waiting people behind her. This third visit was the charm, motivating me to return with camera to catch these interesting aspects to their worship. While there, I asked around and met one of the assistant pastors. Eventually, I was introduced to the the middle-aged preacher, and man in charge, Bishop Boaz.

He welcomed me to come photograph his church. I did so the following Sunday.

***

I arrived in my own Sunday best at 1:45 to find the room 3/4 full and Bishop Boaz sitting silently and straight-faced in back while his people led the way for the first hour. The service lasted from 2-6pm. 

Things started off with a white top, black bottomed six-member dance/singing troop walking out on stage with the sounds of the first drum beats/keyboard chords/bass notes out the large, black cube speakers off stage left. 

The half dozen didn’t just sing and look good, they had choreography for each song.

Yet they were just the backup for the lead singer who changed from song to song.

Meanwhile,  a team of dancers did their thing on the floor.

It was all in Swahili, but I knew the words Amen and Hallelujah. And a Tanzanian teacher friend of mine from my school would later tell me that the man in the picture above sang, “There’s a fire.” This meant, there’s a fire from Satan if you don’t watch out. Despite the dire warning, he sang it in a light, upbeat fashion. 

During this time, Bishop Boaz calmly remained in the back.

And while adults worshiped, children all sat to the left of the stage.

The audience mostly stood and moved–some modestly, some eagerly–with the music. An evermore-snugly packed 300-person crowd made for a warm energy.

After a couple of songs, I realized I was smiling. Sounds corny, but I felt a lot of love in that room. And the love uplifted me–not just in mood, but in spirit and outlook. I wanted to be a better man; I wanted to do more with my life.

I even started to dance a little.  

And then I was struck by the contrast with which I entered this hall. I came in wanting to capture the parts of the service that were the most interesting, the shows of praise that had caught my eyes before, that separated it from worship as I knew it back home. It was academic at best and even “look at them” at worst.

Now feeling the positivity from the crowd, I felt guilty for having had such motives. There was nothing here to scrutinize. This was a gathering of people to celebrate life and improve themselves, and I dug every minute of it. The assistant pastor had asked me prior to the service if I’d be willing to say some words to the audience when Bishop asked me up on stage to do so. I said sure but didn’t know what I was going to say. “Nice to meet you all”, or something. Now I knew what I was going to share, and I was eager to do so. Before I had that chance, however, things would take an interesting turn.

After 45 minutes of music and praise, Bishop took the mic and led some words of prayer. Though the audience listened, they also took it upon themselves to engage in their own praying. And soon this took over as Bishop quieted. With no music and no one at the mic, all there was–though it wasn’t insignificant–were the murmurs and speaking of 300 people with hands lifted and eyes closed.

This, too, was a show of spiritual power and uplift. And like the singing, had me straddling the fence between observer and participant. Yet this very session of prayer straddled a fence itself, starting from a prayer and meditation eliciting calm, peace, and spiritual oneness; then graduating into ever-quickening voicing and emotional outbursts from the people.

 

Bishop and company helped lead the escalation.

And things were kicked up a notch.

I didn’t feel what these subjects were feeling, but from the energy and high I felt from the worship beforehand, I could better empathize with how they got here.

Empathy though, would be tough to muster for the next scene.

Next, there was an eruption.

And I’ll share that with you next week. 

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