Mar 22, 2010

Sunday Service

After a bit of a rough week, I accepted an invitation to join a friend in attending a church service in PNG. Explaining the experience to you will be a bit difficult, but I'll do my best.

Grace picked me up at my apartment at 9:45am or so. We took a drive along roads I had not traveled before to one of the local villages, a seaside village called Vabukori. The day was hot, but the views were lovely. When we arrived at the village, we stopped and picked up the woman who invited us to the service, a wonderfully sweet woman name Emily. As we drove up to the church, I realized we were the only ones who actually drove to the service; all the others walked there from the surrounding village.

Before we even got out of the vehicle, I heard the most wondrous music. There were no instruments at all and I later realized that instruments would actually detract from the sounds, not add to them. Now comes the difficult part. How in the world do I describe this music!?!

Leo laughs at my fascination with John Wayne movies, and in particular, my all-time favorite flick called "Donovan's Reef". The setting for the movie is Hawaii, and in it, when the locals sing in their native tongue, well, that music is the closest thing I can equate to what I heard yesterday. However, there were some major differences.

The Building

Before I get to the music, however, perhaps I should describe the church. In the PNG churches I have attended, as you walk in the back door, men move to sit on the left side of the church, and women on the right. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, I think, since I saw some exceptions far to the left and far to the right in this church. Still, the seating has a great deal to do with the music, as I'll describe later. This church was an open affair built on the ground and supported by large timber framing. Above, the largest timbers spanned from the edges to the center of the round assembly area. In the center was a huge iron circle that brought the timbers together in a central hub. Wooden slats were laid across the spokes of the "wheel" which resulted in a beautiful overhead structure that appeared both strong and traditional in appearance.

The People

The church is one called a "United" church and seems to be a spin-off from the Methodist traditions. The area to the front left was occupied by the male deacons, facing the congregation much like a choir does, and the area to the front right held the female deacons. The men wore white business shirts and ties, and white wrap-around skirts that hit mid-calf. Most of the deacons, and members of the congregation, wore some kind of thongs ("flip-flops") or other open-toed footwear. The female deacons were dressed in white as well, although I think they wore one-piece dresses, as opposed to skirts and tops.

When we walked in to the church, the music was in full swing although the service had not yet started. I searched for a choir director before realizing that the songs were just started by a single member in the church and picked up by the others. Now I'm going to attempt to describe the music.

The Music

During the service, I only heard 3 songs that were recognizable. First, the doxology was sung at the beginning of the service. The harmonizations were a bit different than our renditions, however, giving the song a distinctly Polynesian sound. Near the end of the service another such single verse song was sung, although I can't quite put my finger on the song title just now. And somewhere toward the end of the sermon, the visiting pastor had the congregation sing "Work for the Night is Coming" (I think) in Motu, the language of these people.

The songs were generally started by a female deacon or congregation member. The congregation sang loudly, but in a controlled manner. After the first few words, however, the fun really began. All of the songs were sung in parts; I could sometimes pick out something close to our four-part harmonies, but often, could detect even more layers in the music. The really amazing thing, however, was the fact that much of the music was also separated into men's and women's parts that were separated by more than these "parts". Often, the mens voices set out a deep base, occasionally sounding like drum beats, while the women answered the call in mostly low-to-medium tones with a few women taking the higher voices. Because of the location of the congregation, this call-and-answer resulted in the music moving from the left-to-right sides of the church in waves. Because of the divisions into parts, and the synchronized but separate startings and stoppings in the music, the songs had a level of complexity that is hard to describe, although I had the feeling that if I knew the words, I would actually be able to pick from a number of places to join in. I noticed that most of the congregation participated in the singing, so although it sounded like a choir, a much wider participation was involved. It was, in a word, INCREDIBLE.

Final Notes

Although I could go on-and-on about this, my posting is already too long so I'll try to bring it to an end. The service was conducted almost entirely in Motu. However, during the opening comments, although I was never formally introduced to the congregation, my presence was commented on and I was welcomed (in English) to the service and provided with a heartfelt welcome, a wish for enjoyment during my time in PNG, and a message of fellowship to my church at home. It was surprising, a bit embarrassing, but one of the sweetest welcomes I have ever received anywhere! The Motu language spoken actually surprised me. Not at all like the pidgin widely spoken here, Motu seems a bit more lyrical, sounding more like Hawaiian (to my untrained ear) than anything else I've heard so far, and not much at all like the Asian or English languages. Although I could understand only the occasional English word during the sermon, the visiting pastor was extremely engaging, a wonderful story-teller, actor, and strong speaker. He had the congregation on the edge of their seats for much of the sermon, and I could tell by their responses that he was a master at delivering a message to them. It was really wonderful, and I'll never forget the experience. I truly hope to go back one day, although we've already made plans to visit 2 more churches in the coming weeks.

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