Note: Hi! Rebstock here! Occasionally at MennoNerds we get submissions from folks who don’t necessarily want to be regular writers or are just testing the waters. Shirley Kurtz sent us the following submission as a story about culture, language, and the universality of Christian worship. Hope you enjoy it!
No puedo comprender. I can’t understand. So much is gobbledygook. I can catch the Dios te bendigas—God bless yous—when the crisp-shirted men shake my hand in welcome and the frilly women air-kiss and hug me. And I can copycat in reply, Dios te bendiga. But most everything else is a marvelous mumbo-jumbo.
There’s the drawn-out, deafening music: the praise band stretched across the stage, thumping on drums and guitars; and others in the room jingling tambourines; and some lone person producing bellows from an actual cattle horn. No hymnals! No lyrics on the wall! At some point the ringleader pastor dials everything back, ceases his up-and-down hopping and lets the song trail off, and the children up front who’ve been waving filmy scarves put them away, and the congregation moves into a more introspective number, maybe Yo sé que estás aquí, siento tu caminar, te mueves entre el pueblo, trayendo sanidad. (Later at home I hunt online for the songs, relying on key words I managed to pick out and scribble down, which is why I can now bewilder you, too.)
The band’s last song signals the offering, time for old and young to flock front to the money baskets. Then come the gibberish announcements. Next a few tiny children might head to the mike to read verses out of their Bibles. And somebody might go forward to deliver a testimony. Hard as I strain, I remain profoundly uninformed. Médico? Cáncer? A diagnosis scare? I grasp for any recognizable vocabulary, struggle to deduce. Soon the youngers skip off to Sunday school, and as the fire goes on dancing atop the altar—a cardboard(?) construction in front of the podium, meant to represent rocks, with a lamp down inside and a fan (I figure) to keep the luminescent, flame-shaped piece of silky cloth fluttering—the pastor launches into his sermon, an earnest string of jabber.
My first Sunday at Enciende Una Luz, this immigrant Mennonite congregation that meets just outside the city limits of Harrisonburg VA, a slight teenager with chocolate eyes slipped into the chair beside mine to interpret the sermon. No no, I whispered, Muchas gracias, but I want to hear the Spanish, I’m trying to learn. She obliged me. So I’m still doing that—purposefully puzzling things out (or not). But after the service I might question her or somebody else in English. I might be wanting enlightenment on, say, the saga that unfolded during testimony time, or the sermon theme.
Where is your husband? people sometimes ask. On the rare occasions when he shows up, they highly approve (lacking my fascination with the language, and my deeper motives, he’s come for my sake). Maybe they’re worried about him being unchurched. Though I try to explain where he attends, I don’t outright say he prefers to sit through something intelligible. I also don’t say he’s not as hung up as his wife.
I don’t know what I’d ever do if the pastor asked me to give a testimony. What could I possibly declare in my butchered Spanish, given the floor? How could I admit my lack of faith? No tengo su fe. No tengo un testimonio grande y glorioso. Why should I let drop my thoughts about the cloth-draped cross up front—stolid ordinary posts, stained dark, and connoting a mortifying scheme hatched up by God? Ustedes creen que hay un Dios quien mandó a su hijo para ser crucificado. Pero no. Creo que no. Why spell out my rebellion?
Maybe, though, I could stammer other of my sentiments, absolutely heartfelt. Me encanta su manera de vivir con valor y fidelidad. Tratan de vivir todos los días según las enseñanzas del Señor Jesus. I love how you live so courageously and faithfully, how you try to live every day according to the teachings of Jesus. Acuden a la iglesia domingo tras domingo. Se preocupan el uno del otro, se preocupan de mí. Sunday after Sunday you show up. You care about each other, you care about me.
My bliss at church, dear reader, hinges on the vast gap in comprehension. I don’t guess I’m spreading the bliss here, confessing to you—if not to everybody at church—my feelings about religious doctrine, my skepticism. But try to imagine how freeing this is—not understanding.
SantosantogloriaaDiosDiosesbuenosantosantosanto. What is the pastor expounding about up there? Hell? I don’t know. Heaven, yes, I think—he’s uttered the word for it while pointing toward the ceiling. For me, even heaven is problematic. Does he attribute to his God a bloodlust for slaughtered bulls? An atonement scheme with proscribed gory rituals, culminating in a singular human sacrifice? Does this God relegate innumerable sinners to eternal torture? That I’m spared such knowledge makes me giddy, almost. The cluelessness prevents me from feeling harried and argumentative.
As for the Spanish, true, I’m trying not to stay uninformed. But contending with the constructs of an abstruse language, tediously parsing it for enlightenment, seems way different. It’s just clean hard mental exercise. My idiocy does not bring judgment tumbling down around my ears and leave me shamed. All the while, I’m protected by the others’ empathy. Lupe, Vicki, Carolina, Guadalupe, Veronica, and Celia merely shine their smiles at me and murmur kindly corrections. We’re so glad to have you here, Guadalupe tells me. She’s the one who goes for matching outfits—if her dress is peacock blue, her husband’s tie is, too. We like you, says Guadalupe.
My flubbing saves me from the burden of rightness—and righteousness. I’m just me, somebody who botches things, safe among a people whose own tongues trip like mine over a nonnative language (for indeed, their English is heavily accented and sometimes mangled). I don’t belong with this congregation, I’m not at home, yet the experience feels very nearly like salvation.
A strange thing happened last Sunday. At offering time, tromping up the aisle with the others while the band banged and twanged out their song, I caught a snatch of the tune, one deeply familiar: En la cruz, en la cruz, yo primero vi la luz, At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light. It came as a surprise—usually at church I don’t hear the grim washed-in-the-blood hymns from my past. I stuck my money into the basket and returned to my seat, a pleasant warmth suffusing me—a coziness, an impression, almost, of standing under a bathroom heat lamp. The glow, how odd.
It was just the song’s familiarity, right? The rush that came with recognition. And maybe an association with the overwhelming relief that always came when I responded to those ghastly evangelistic invitations in childhood, yielding up my wickedness. (Such catharses, of course, never lasted, but how could I factor that in, sobbing my guilty little brains out?) Possibly, too, the floodlight bulbs on the low-slung ceiling at Encienda Una Luz contributed.
Or was it the cross, last Sunday? The fact of it, of a bloodletting God? But that wouldn’t have warmed me, brought comfort. It would have made me prickle with antagonism. Could it have been just the love of the sweet Lord Jesus seeping in, blotting the grimness?
Do you know the truth, yourself, about things divine? About the cross, and the hereafter? I’m guessing not. You maybe say you do—you call it belief, or faith. Belief and faith, though, have more to with things unknown. For me, I think the main true thing is that I don’t know beans. God forgive me if I ever contend, in my pitiful Spanish or silly hoity English, something otherwise. Meanwhile I’ll flounder, thick tongued. Meanwhile I’ll bask in the saints’ love at my church.