Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Surprise Concert

I was eating pancakes when I received the call.

“So, I think my mamá wants us to play music for this thing, but I’m not really sure what it is or when, but she asked if I could play the violin and you could play the guitar.”

These are not the best phone calls to wake up to.

“I don’t have a guitar.”

That seemed to settle that, so I hung up and moved on to my papaya. I hadn’t taken more than a bite when the phone rang again.

“She says she’ll find us a guitar, and could you be here in 15 minutes?”

I thought for about two seconds, but I've found that when someone asks you to do something a little crazy, the best response is very often 'yes.'

My friend Bethany and I both live with faithful members of the large Catholic church here, and her mamá was hosting a gathering of church workers. Knowing that we liked to play music, she asked us last-minute if we wouldn’t mind being the lunch-time entertainment. Or at least this is what Bethany gathered from the phone conversations she’d been having all morning. Phone conversations in Spanish are very hard.

We sat in her room and played through a few hymns and praise songs, me grateful that in the absence of sheet music I could fall back on a genre that seldom has more than four chords. After 15 or 20 minutes we shrugged at each other and set off, instruments in hand, to find the venue.

“What are we doing?” I asked Bethany.

“I don’t know, but somehow this is normal life in Honduras.”

Her mamá was calling from a venue we’d never heard of, the “Casa Blanca.” We ended up asking a tajadita seller for directions. The place was a compound, with beautiful trees and trellises and open meeting centers. We milled awkwardly outside a meeting hall for a few minutes before Bethany’s mamá found us, hugged and kissed us, and filled us in.

“I have fifty priests down there,” she exclaimed, “I hope you can improvise!”

We were ushered in to a room where a few dozen people were gathering food from a buffet. As the murmur died down, we received an introduction from a priest who had been hastily filled in on our names.

“Let’s welcome Bétany and Kateri who will be sharing three songs with us this morning,” he said, and we shrugged at each other again, and launched into “Be Thou My Vision.”

We were meant to be background music, and we were. People talked quietly, but applauded enthusiastically when we stopped. If I faltered or played the wrong chord, Bethany saved it with a strong melody on the violin.

It was really not that bad.

Everyone was polite afterwards, and they gave us food from the buffet and asked about our time in Honduras. The priests shook our hands (there were no more than six or seven priests there, in the end, the rest of the people were church members) and we left no more than 40 minutes after we arrived.

“What did we just do?” Bethany asked.

We shrugged at each other and moved on to something else, both a little bit more convinced that when someone asks you to do something a little out of your comfort zone, you should probably just say yes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Church, Translated

“Church” translated into Spanish is “iglesia,” a delicate word that makes me think of stained-glass windows, or maybe icicles. Though the Conquistadors got off on the wrong foot in Latin America, massacring millions in the name of the God of love, they left behind more than their language. In their wake they built cathedrals of astonishing beauty.

Sometimes on Sunday nights, I go to Mass with my Honduran mother. The sanctuary is breathtaking, with ornate paintings and a gilded altar. But when the priest speaks, his voice is carried away to the high ceilings, or lost in the people murmuring the prayers along with him; and I don’t understand.

It’s a little easier at the Evangelical churches. They’re recent imports. Ten years ago, Protestants were almost invisible – now they’re close to 40% of the population. Their churches are smaller and poorer. We sit with a dozen or two others on folding chairs and listen to the pastor preach in her booming voice that I still don’t always understand.

In the sanctuary, in the folding chair, I stand when the others stand and sit when the others sit. I try to steal glances from the coveted few hymnals to sing along with songs I don’t know. I bow my head when we all are led in prayer. What’s left when you don’t understand the words? Letting a wave of rapid and devout Spanish pass over me I realize that at the heart is Jesus – or it’s nothing.

I’m not used to feeling lost in church. The church was my third parent, my sixth sibling, or maybe just a doting great-aunt who had me over twice a week and spoiled me with toys and candies. And along with the root-beer-barrel candies that they must have bought in bulk in the 1970s because they were ancient and sticky and as abundant as the loaves and fishes, I grew up with the taste of the Christian language in my mouth.

Going from my Baptist church to my Christian Reformed college, I hit a little lurch. It was like moving to England where I could make myself understood, but I couldn’t quite figure out which were cookies and which were biscuits, or stop myself from giggling when someone said “loo.”

I learned that when the Scripture reading’s done, the reader will say, “This is the word of the Lord,” and I’ll say, “Thanks be to God.” I learned the subtle art of hand raising, which is usually on the second chorus right as the guitar drops out; and I learned that when you shake each other’s hands you say, “Peace be with you,” unless you want to be extra earnest, in which case you grasp a hand in both of yours and simply exhort, “Peace!”

With this under my belt, I was prepared to tackle the “iglesia.” I may not understand the homily or the main points of the sermon, but when someone takes me by the hand and offers, “Paz,” I can figure it out. But as the people rush around me and snatch the hymnals that I reach for, I realize how much less I’m learning without the Spanish language.

My mind wanders when it isn’t caught by words. I count the gilded ceiling tiles. I wish that someone would come over afterwards and explain to me what everything means. And picking at a string in my dress with my eyes accidentally open because I didn’t realize it was a prayer, I realized two things:

First, if someone wanders into your church who doesn’t speak your language well, they’d greatly appreciate your help. Printed sermons are phenomenal, but outlines work. The words to unfamiliar songs are essential. Ask if they have any questions. Be patient enough to answer them. But second, and maybe more relevant to our churches back at home, “Church” itself can be a language.

Is it hard to believe that not everyone knows “Awesome God” or “Amazing Grace”? That people may not know a VBS from the NIV? If Church isn’t their native tongue, they might not. And while they may have learned enough about “Jesus” or “love” to get the gist of the message, when the message is on reconciliation or tribulation or sanctification without an explanation, people can leave without any better understanding when they walked in.

Jargon can also be dangerous. It lends itself to empty prayers. It’s easy to say things automatically that you don’t really mean, disguising a lot of nothing in stained-glass wrapping paper. But it’s more than that. This jargon can seem like the password to a secret club, where inside everyone sounds like each other. The truth is it should never be about sounding more like each other. It should be about sounding more like Christ. Being fluent in “church” should never be a prerequisite for being welcome in one.

The goal is not simplicity of thought, but simplicity of purpose. And this purpose is not potlucks or discernment or love offerings – it’s a gospel that transcends language barriers. When the pursuit of Jesus Christ becomes the focus of the Church, there might be very different accents; but in the end, regardless of the language in which it’s spoken, “church” translated will still be church.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Blind Leading the Blind

In Honduras, football is sacred. And I’m not referring to that silly, showy sport with all that padding and goalposts. I’m talking about nothing but a field, a couple nets, and a ball that you actually kick with your feet. When Honduras plays, the country’s on holiday. Men, women, and children wear their jerseys and when the games start, the streets empty as people pile into each other’s houses to watch.

I was buzzing with excitement too, though I couldn’t define a fault or a penalty if you asked me. I was like a kid asking how to say “goalie” and “field” and “announcer.” We sat on little folding chairs in a room with a dozen friends who pressed against the television, listening with all their might. When the announcer roared or we gasped in disbelief, sometimes they turned to us and asked, “What happened?” because none of them could see. We found ourselves guessing because we couldn’t understand the rapid stream of Spanish words and thus we watched, our parts together making a whole.

My friend Anna and I first visited the blind school with our class. It’s an organization dedicated to providing life skills and vocational training for adults, many of whom become blind later in life and must relearn how to do the things we take for granted – like ride the bus or dress themselves. They study music, massage, computers, braille, and carpentry. It’s one of the most highly-regarded schools in the area and people come from all over for the two-year program. And it’s about two blocks away from us.

We visited again, just the two of us, and began to meet the people there. They walk fearlessly between classroom and courtyard. The veterans hold the arms of newer students, and the bold grab the hands of the timid. Our new friends introduced us to newer friends, and we passed hours talking in Spanish that seemed to roll off our tongues easier there than anywhere else.

We were completely charmed. I tried not to be offended when a blind man, Nixon, professed undying love for Anna because “she is the most beautiful.” Another new friend was eager to perform for us a Spanish pop song that he’d translated into English. He sang it in an accent we couldn’t understand, but with such abandon and sincerity that we applauded uproariously at the end.

Our new friend Leo got out his guitar and played some of his favorite songs for us -- everything from traditional Honduran music to “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Almost everyone at the school is musical and we passed the guitar around to everyone who heard it and came over. We watched the blind climb trees to pick fruit, dance salsa together, and smile with the unbridled joy that comes with not knowing how to guard your facial expressions.

We left only when it became dark, and promised to return the next week for the big game, when true to our word, we leaned forward on the edge of our seats as volunteers passed us popcorn and coke in little plastic cups. When the ball rolled into the net, we all shouted together, and I didn’t know how full a room could be with sound. Our friends jumped up and ran into each other, hugging everyone who wandered in their path. We screamed and pounded our feet against the floor, for a moment, feeling like our hearts beat together with the hearts of all Honduras.

I’m not going to cheapen our experience with some play on words that has to do with what our friends see and what they don’t. All I know is that the blind lead the blind with more care and love than most of us could muster. And as we said goodbye again, laughing and shaking hands we were counting down in our heads how many days before we can visit again.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Calling a taxi is still not easy. Directing a taxi where to go, when you yourself are not exactly sure, is even more difficult. This is why my friend Anna and I ended up at the wrong university stadium last Saturday. By the time we drove to the correct stadium, we missed the walking tour we wanted to participate in. However, Honduras has definitely instilled an attitude of “go with it,” in us so we thanked our driver, made a few phone calls, and changed our plans.

We started by checking out the marketplace in Tegucigalpa. It was bigger than any farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, with booths full of fresh beets, pataste, papaya, squash, pineapple, and any other food you could imagine. Everyone was yelling and kids were riding on their parents' shoulders, and it was just so much fun. We bought pupusas from a vendor and walked past butcher stalls to watch a makeshift dairy churn cheese in huge plastic barrels. Honduran cheese is different from the cheese we're used to. There's quesillo, which is kind of like mozzarella; but most dishes use a hard, salty, crumbly cheese that I still haven't learned to appreciate.

From the market, we walked to Central Park. Everyone we passed by was enormously helpful. People offered directions without us asking, some even welcomed us to the city. Our next stop was the National Art Gallery. A local orchestra was practicing in one of the empty rooms upstairs, so the entire time we browsed, we were serenaded. Overall, I was quite impressed by the innovation and quality of some of the work in the museum.

All in all, it was a great cultural experience. We met tons of kind people, used our Spanish enough to call taxis and talk about consumer rights with a curious passer-by. It’s also nice to feel like I’m figuring out a city. We were almost giddily exited when we realized we could get from Congress, to downtown, to the market, and back if we wanted to. A second-hand store attendant recognized us from last week, and we found a new favorite bakery. At the end of the day, we saw the walking tour that we had missed -- a group of tourists, everyone with expensive cameras, staring at things though their lenses. I think we ended up getting the better part of the deal.