Tuesday, September 29, 2015
On Happy Africans
Once every year, happy Africans appear at the Lutheran Church. I am almost 61, have attended church for almost as many years, and this has occurred all my life.
The happy Africans are often from Tanzania. They wear pajama-like garments emblazoned with colorful batik patterns. The garments are loose so that they can move freely. Generally, the Africans comprise an a capella singing group. With broad grins, they greet congregation members sullenly taking their accustomed places in the pews. The leader of the Africans announces that in his country people dance and sway and clap their hands when they worship. "Here in Minnesota," the leader says, "I understand that people are more reserved." The man teaches the people in the congregation a few phrases in Swahili – the old men and ladies and the earnest young couples with their babies repeat the words several times until the band leader says that they have spoken them correctly. Then, the singing group begins to snap their fingers in unison and they sway back and forth rhythmically and, somehow, manage to sing through the enormous grins decorating their dark faces. At certain points in the song, the congregation members are supposed to triumphally clap hands with their pew-mates and, then, spin in a circle while ululating. The lead singer demonstrates ululation: the high-pitched whinnying sound fills the church. "It’s like saying ‘yee-haw’ in Texas," the band leader tells us.
Of course, the Lutherans are always embarrassed by their dusky brethren. Most of them can barely clap their hands rhythmically and the swaying, the wiggling of the hips, the high-fives with one’s neighbor, the spins on heel and sole – all of these gestures are, more or less, beyond their capacity both physically and emotionally. Those who are exertionally capable of such motions refuse to perform them. Many of the old ladies, who are good sports, are incapable of dancing in that way – to move with the lithe precision commanded by the band leader would result in a fall and broken hip, but they try unsuccessfully to imitate the singers. The happy Africans have the gift of song and dance: God’s grace causes them to whirl and prance like James Brown. The Lutherans trapped in their pews and their sluggish, obese bodies gaze at them with something like adoration.
Of course, the happy Africans have not come to occupy the pulpit. They don’t espouse doctrine or debate social policy. They don’t quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther, for that matter, and aren’t deputized to read the scripture to us. When they speak, the happy Africans talk with nostalgia about their churches made of white-washed plaster in Tanzania, their church-schools just recently opened for girls, and, then, they ask for money. The happy Africans always ask for money because they are poor and wish to continue their missionary work but resources are scarce on the Dark Continent and they are dependant upon the largesse of this Christian community in icy Minnesota.
As to their performance, the happy Africans are comprised of a chorus of wholesome-looking men who shimmy rhythmically and sing in wonderfully close harmony. Sometimes, a man steps forth and cries out, singing a phrase in a high voice that verges on falsetto. Then, someone responds, repeating the phrase, and, for a minute or so, the jagged, high-pitched cry is passed back and forth, while those not echoing the call, sway back and forth singing a refrain that scarcely varies or progresses. Sometimes, enthusiasm causes the happy Africans to clap their hands together or high-five one another over their heads or shout out: "Gee - Gee - Gee - Sus!"
Their singing is very beautiful and, because of repetition and their rhythmic shuffling back and forth, hypnotic – at first, the songs made by the happy Africans are the most beautiful thing you have ever heard but, like the music of J. S. Bach, it all sounds alike after awhile and goes on too long. Their women, who are dressed like tropical sunflowers or orchids, squeal with delight as their men sing and dance – the women wear bright bandanas over their heads and their wrists and throats and breasts are covered with silver and gold bangles and, on their fingers, they wear bright carbuncles of turquoise.
The presence of the happy Africans in our Church is a rebuke to us, a demonstration that our faith is pallid, timorous, and unenthusiastic. For this reason, it seems we must pay the happy Africans to depart so that our worship practices are not subjected to invidious comparison. I am happy to give them 20 dollars for their efforts with the wish that they never appear again before our altar and in our church – but, of course, they (or someone like them) will return in another four or five years.
It seems impossible to me that the Africans are actually as happy as they seem. How can this be? I am reminded of a famous poem by Charles Simic called "County Fair." At the fair, the poet sees a six-legged dog. The dog’s trainer throws a stick and the dog retrieves it while a drunken man kisses a girl. Commenting on the poem, Simic once remarked that he felt that poets are like the six-legged dog – not only are they strange, malformed, and freakishly different from other people, but they also have to perform. These Africans are peculiarly, freakishly happy; they exude a monstrous joi de vivre – it is enough for them to simply exist within this state of blessedness, but they also have to perform. They must sing and dance and clap their hands and wiggle their hips and shoulders for our entertainment.
But can they really be so happy? Three possibilities suggest themselves to me. First, the Africans are like all other people – they are neither happier nor sadder than the rest of us. In this case, their performance is dishonest; it is a lie intended to deceive us. Or, it may be, that the Africans are happy because they are child-like, ignorant, too stupid to perceive the darkness that has gathered around us in our pews, too innocent for despair. (I think that more than a few people in the congregation condescend to the African’s happiness – the singers from Tanzania are happy because they are inferior to us.) Or, as a third possibility, the Africans are happy because they experience in their hearts and souls the grace of God and that this makes them unafraid, courageous, zealous, and graceful in their expression of their faith. Most probably, I suppose, the Africans are happy because they have felt the presence of God in their lives and that this presence is not merely a subject for contemplation but an energy that impels them to action. Many people have read their Bibles carefully and have studied theology and know the poems of Dante and George Herbert and John Donne and have attended church scrupulously week after week and year after year and have had their children baptized and, then, confirmed in the Faith and supported the mission of the Church in all ways and, yet, have never felt a single particle of God’s grace. There are many who have hoped and prayed for God to show them a sign, for God to succor them in their grief and misery, who have spent their whole lives waiting and watching, in continuous vigil, for some proof of God’s existence and mercy. But no sign is given and no help rendered, not a scintilla of proof extended – a silence that is consistent with the Protestant doctrine of faith by grace, that is, faith by God’s election; if God has not designated your for salvation, then, your receptors for the divine are occluded, dysfunctional and broken. But the spirit has descended upon these happy Africans and filled them with joy and, now, they are manifesting vividly the signs of their election, waving their hands in the air, harmonizing, clapping hands together in a display that embarrasses and, ultimately, terrifies those to whom God has not extended his grace. Perhaps, the basis for some of the persecutions of the faithful was precisely this sense of bereavement, the idea that the obscene joy of the happy Christians should be eradicated so that it does not continue to taunt us.
A sneaky sort of self-regard influenced my thoughts about the Tanzanian gospel singers, the so-called New Life Band from Arusha in that country. One of my grandfathers was a Lutheran pastor, a man who died before I was able to form any memories of him. My grandfather’s uncles and brothers-in-law had been missionaries to East Africa, workers in the vineyard in the country called Tanganyika when I was a child. When I was small, I recall fearsome tribal masks on the walls and long spears made of iron-hard, black wood, and a bullroarer that howled impressively when it was spun around overhead on its raffia fiber rope. These objects were souvenirs of East Africa, together with tattered photo-albums full of small black-and-white pictures taken in Tanganyika. In some of those pictures, men with spears stood proudly over dead lions and there were pictures of small, squat churches with walls made of white plaster as bright and pale as the snows of Kilmanjaro hovering like a cloud over the barren, thorny plains. The missionary preachers wore clerical collars and frock coats, absurdly heavy garments in the equatorial heat, and their lady-wives looked even more uncomfortable and ridiculous in their layered Victorian blouses and corsets and broad ankle-length skirts made from some plush fabric that absorbed the sunlight like velvet. The missionary couples stood among almost naked people, the native men’s genitals covered by leaves held in place on their hips by string and the women bare-breasted, most of them with swollen, pregnant bellies, black skin glistening like an ooze of oil in the blinding light. Apparently, their mission work was successful – I think there are now more Lutherans in Tanzania than in Western Europe, more Lutherans on that tropical savannah than among the lakes and prairies of Minnesota. And say what you might about missionaries and their work, efforts now disapproved by many right-thinking people, one thing is indisputably true: those absurd, censorious preachers with their tight lips and Bibles written in German wanted the Black Africans to go to heaven, that is, wanted for them the same celestial delights and joys that they desired for themselves and their children buried under the blazing African skies and their long-suffering, homesick wives. Their heaven wasn’t segregated. Those old Lutheran preachers expected to fall asleep and, then, awake in Jesus’ bosom surrounded by their Black brothers and sisters baptized in the faith that their mission had brought to the Dark Continent. (And, looking at the New Life Band’s website, I observe that the clothing worn by band-members in concert in Africa looks a lot more like the frocks and gowns worn by the old missionaries than the bright Batik dashikis sported in Lutheran churches in Minnesota. In Africa, when the band performs the men appear in dark brown suits with black dress-shirts and pink ties.)
During the offering, the New Life Band sang "How Great Thou Art" in Swahili. The close harmony was otter-smooth, suede-smooth, a tight sealed fabric insulating the tune from all insult and indignity. Earlier, band members had performed a song named with the Swahili phrase "Don’t give up" – the song was slow and very beautiful and I wrote the phrase on my service bulletin, a word or words that sounded to me like "Foo - mee - lee - ah." The band leader repeated this phrase and said that when you hear those words, the singer is admonishing someone to not despair, to continue striving and not to abandon hope. The phrase was repeated against a dark, throbbing background, an impassioned cry like a scarlet thread extending through the church sanctuary, and, when this song was performed, perhaps, the Africans did not seem so irrationally happy. But their optimism returned in their final song, the hymn "We are marching in the light of God," a congregational favorite, performed by the Band in several languages – I think the tune is originally Zulu. The singers didn’t merely march out of the sanctuary – they made a parade like a New Orleans "second line", they strutted, they took long strides, "truckin" like figures in a Robert Crumb cartoon, swiveling their hips with the regal demeanor of those born to wear the purple vestments of a great emperor.