I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this past Sunday morning. I didn’t sleep well because I sneezed all night; I may have had a cold, or the painting chez Yaye may have affected me. And then there were the Gabonese (?), Ivoirian, and possibly Cameroonian neighbors. For whatever reason, they were having a rooftop party with lots of faux Caribbean (Okay, now I’m just hating…it was West African music from which West Indian music was derived, but the Africans are still guilty of re-stealing it, if such a thing is possible. Just bear with me and let me land.) music in French and general howling. It was as loud as it could have been.
“Loud music doesn’t bother me; I will sleep soundly,” boasted a certain small child who was sleeping over, right before he slept so soundly that he made peepee on my new mattress.
Sigh. By 9am, I was so ill, fatigued, and horrified that I knew I had to attend mass, if only so I could remember that it’s not actually all about me.
I’m not Catholic, but I decided to be during my time here because there is a Catholic church right down the street from my apartment, and the peepeemakerwhoshallnotbenamed attended school there last year. I wanted to be part of the community. I’d had a difficult time finding out when masses were held, so from time to time, I would just stop in to pray, either at that particular church–St. Joseph’s Parish of Medina–or at the grand cathedral downtown. At the grand cathedral, I found a list of mass schedules. Perfect. 9:30 am it would be.
Due to Mattressgate, I didn’t arrive until 9:45. Grawoul*, but I’d have to wait to be seated. The mass was difficult to follow, and if I hadn’t attended parochial schools or masses in my past, I would have been totally lost. I picked up that the priest was preaching on the need for Senegal’s Christians to be good examples during the Lenten Season, noting that Christians are often Christ’s worst enemies because of the horrible example they set for others. I didn’t understand much more of the message, but that was good enough for me. I was glad I’d come.
After being seated, I struggled to follow the many gestures and genuflections. I tried to say the Apostles Creed in French. I tried to hum along with the prayertime chants. As the Lord was my witness, I tried. Then there was Communion.
Hmm. I didn’t know what to do. Do they offer open or closed Communion here? No one asked me if I wanted to participate, or abstain. We all filed into line as we were tacitly told.
It was only when I began to get close to the front of the large, beautiful church that I realized I couldn’t see exactly how people were taking the Communion. I tried to peer over a couple of shoulders, but to little avail. I could see that after whatever happened had happened, people bowed a little in front of the pulpit.
Two people in front of me. One person in front of me.
The nun was standing there, waiting. The round wafer in her hand. Did I grab it? With which hand. Left hand is bad in Senegal. I chose the right. She refused! I think she shook her finger at me, but I can’t remember because I instantly went into ughthisisawfulcuzimscrewingup mode. At some point, I managed to negotiate the wafer out of her hands and tried to mumble some sort of apology in French, before bowing, wondering where the wine/juice was, and fleeing to my seat. Maybe no one saw me. Maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal.
There were hands on my person. Then there was a small crowd. I turned to see if I had dropped something. There was the fat usher, the lady who gave me my seat, with her sash–a sash that read “Service d’Acceuil” (Welcome Service). And others.
“You can’t take the wafer to your seat! What are you doing!?”
“Oh! I guess I’m a little confused…It’s my first time here!”
“Oh?! So, you are not a Christian!” She summons more people. They descend on me. I try to explain, all the while realizing that this has actually created a huge scene and that we are in front of the entire church. The fat usher does not understand French. She summons someone else, with whom she can discuss me in Wolof.
“You can’t sit down with that. Eat it right away or give it back. Or, are you into black magic?” Quoi!?
“Have you been baptised?” Oui.
“Are you a Christian?” Oui! That’s why I’m here!
“If you don’t eat it right now, we will think you are trying to leave with it to do witchcraft? Are you Catholic?”
“Madame, this is not how we do things in this church!” What the he– QUOI?!
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I don’t speak French well, so I am a little confused. It’s my first time at this church.”
“So you are not a Catholic?” Make it stop.
I eat the wafer, which I can barely swallow because my throat is dry with horror, and I walk/run to my seat. Everyone is looking at me. They are staring/glaring. Some are smirking. Maybe two people tried to hold back laughter. Some are whispering.
It was near the end of the service. I think praying happened. I was stunned, angry, and half-past humiliated. So I prayed, too. I prayed to God asking him why he had allowed me to put so much in the offering basket, especially when everyone else just offered coins. I asked him to punish everyone who had stopped me, halted Mass to accuse me of being a witch because I wasn’t a Francophone Catholic who’d been attending their masses for years. And then I determined that I would find the fat usher and tell her how bad a Christian she was.
Mass is dismissed. I walk out quickly, aware that people are staring at me still, wondering who I am and why I tried to steal their wafers. And I was so tired, and so depressed at that point, and still so ill that I decided to just let it go since I’d never be attending St. Joseph’s again, ever. I would just go home and go to bed on the one mattress that wasn’t filled with child waste.
“Ah, Madame! Viens ici, je vais t’expliquer.” It was the woman that the fat usher consulted in Wolof.
“Merci, je ne veux pas parler.”
“Non! Non! Je vais t’expliquer.” And she did. She explained. And I waited patiently. And then I went in.
“I understand how to do church. I’ve been in church all my life, which is why I decide to try to join yours.” A crowd is gathering. Good. Let them hear me roar.
“My problem today was that I made the mistake of trying to join a community as a stranger in a place where strangers are clearly not welcome. Clearly, you all don’t have time to be patient with someone who comes from a place where church happens a bit differently. No, I’m not Catholic, but in all the Catholic churches I’ve ever attended, we either take our Communion with juice at the pulpit or we sit down and pray with our Communion until the priest tells us to partake.”
The crowd is growing. “Oh, so you are a Pentecostal?” “You are American? Ah okay, well you have to follow our rules here.”
“I would have followed your rules happily if you’d given me a chance to learn them. Everyone can make mistakes, but why didn’t you pull me aside quietly? Why was it necessary to humiliate me in front of the entire church?”
“No, madame, ne dit pas ca.”
“I WILL SAY IT BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED!” I am definitively in a rage. “You told me what you wanted to tell me in front of the entire church, and now you want to tell me not to tell you that what you did was wrong? The priest was right; you people really are the enemies of Christ. Vous m’avez fait honte pour rien…c’est Dieu, le temoin! Que Dieu vous punir!!!”
Gasps and shrieking. “Madame, ne dit pas ca!”
“You are the reason that Muslims don’t respect Christians much here. The Muslims here have been nice to me and the first time I come to church, I meet you monsters!”
At that point, the nun with the wafers whisked me away. She spoke quietly. She told me that where ever I go to church in Dakar, I will have problems if I don’t learn to follow the rules of the Church. I needed to understand, she said. They didn’t do anything wrong, but there are questions of security… what if I was a witch? She asked me if I was Catholic…question of the day.
“Je suis Evangeliste, mais je voulais faire partir de votre communaute. Je vois que ca n’est plus possible. Et vous allez sortir beaucoup de monde avec votre attitude.”
At which point she quietly told me that if I didn’t want to come back, that was cool, because Senegal was a free country, but if I was going to come back, I MUSTFOLLOWTHERULES.
“Your rules are more important than human souls?” I asked.
“Il faut suivre les regles, madame. Tu devrais bien regarder les gens.”
She dragged me against my will to meet the priest, to whom she told the story from her perspective, naturally. He smiled and took my hand and patted it. “Oh la la,” he said. (Seriously.) His eyes said, “you will learn.” I looked down. I was tired. I had no words for him. I had already learned. And I’d also learned that at a certain point, the conversation is just over. People who will not be reasoned with will not be reasonable. The nun smiled and told me to go home and reflect on everything I’d learned.
I walked home. I went to bed. I did not sleep well. I reflected on everything I’d learned, namely how disappointing even one’s family can be and how bad an idea it had been to try to join a ritual-based church in a country where ritual is everything. I’d thought that Christians would provide me sanctuary from ritual and gris-gris and rote, but I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong. My feelings were hurt, and my sense of justice destroyed, and my pride in my faith shaken. Even today, I am so, so angry at them.
It’s likely that practicing Christians reading this will be miffed at me for telling this story, because it makes the church look bad. To them, I will say that St. Joseph’s made St. Joseph’s look bad. Let’s stop lying and covering up and sweeping under the rug. Let’s admit that we suck when we suck. Let’s not be like inflexible, prideful, rule-centered Christians; let’s be human, and compassionate, and heaven-centered. Please.
I try to look for God in the little and difficult things, so I hope that he let me experience this for some meaningful purpose, because I really wish he’d spared me the ordeal. I doubt that the nun or the priest ever gave me another thought. The usher…maybe, because she could not make eye contact with me when she passed by my lecture with the nun, but maybe because I purposely shot exploding bullets at her with my eyeballs. Who knows? Maybe someone will rethink. Maybe the only someone will be me.
I doubt that I will be able to return to St. Joseph’s. Too painful. I hope that I’ll muster up the courage to attend another church, perhaps a Pentecostal church, but the nun’s words, her promise that I’d have issues where ever I try to worship, are still with me. Maybe it will be pillowside Pentecostal for the rest of my stay here, as it had been until Sunday. And that’s okay with me, even though I hope for more.
I will always hope for more. Because otherwise I will be forced to come to terms with all of my ex-Catholic, ex-Christian friends and just how powerful and awful and real it can be to be shunned and humiliated out of the faith. Even though I’ve tasted it, it’s still just too bitter for me to keep down.
(Paroisse de St. Joseph, Medina, Dakar. Ash Wednesday 2013. Marissa Jackson (c). All Rights Reserved.)
*Grawoul= Wolof for “No big deal”