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Sunday, 12 October 2014

I've Been to Church!

Don't worry, I've not been converted.  I'm still the same joyfully debauched old Pagan I've always been.  I have, however, just had quite a strange experience (even for me) and I want to write about it to get my thoughts in order.  In a public place.  Where people can comment if they want to.

The Beginning

It all started a few weeks ago.
I was busking in Manchester on a Sunday afternoon.  When I'm doing that I often see groups of people obviously coming back from church.  They're all smartly dressed, often in family groups, sometimes carrying Bibles and almost always black.
One of these folks, a young woman, came up while I was playing and all but begged me to play in her church.  I even protested that I'm not a Christian but she insisted that it didn't matter, so I said yes.
The church in question turned out to be an evangelical Afro-American style church with a mostly Nigerian congregation.

Good Grief, Why?

I've been thinking about this question quite a lot.  I think it's partly curiosity.  Another part is the fact that the girl who asked me was really, really pretty and I find it very hard to say no to a pretty young woman.
Even if she wasn't, though, I think I'd have still said yes.  I like saying yes to things when I can.  New experiences are welcome, especially if they're likely to be interesting and unlikely to cost money.
I also felt that, while they get a saxophone in the mix, I would get to play with a band.  For free.  And I'd get to learn a new style of music.  That thought turned out more prophetic than I'd expected.

On top of all that something else struck me.  It's very easy for a Pagan like me to hold a prejudiced view of Christianity.  We still, to some extent, see them as the enemy for very good reasons.  Anyone who witnessed the frothing insanity of the Rochdale and Orkney Satanic Abuse scandals that were caused by a few fundamentalist Christians would naturally want to keep them at arm's length.  However, I won't tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush and I don't consider all Jews misogynistic separatist nutters so maybe I should be more open to these Christians.  It's my sense of being fair.


So, I had a chat with the pastor and then I went to my first rehearsal.
I'd insisted on attending a rehearsal because I wanted to meet the band, make sure we could get on, get copies of the sheet music and so on.  I was thinking it would take a few rehearsals to get to grips with it all.
When I got there I met two young men, one who played drums and one who played keyboard standing in for somebody else.  Where was the sheet music?  There wasn't any.  I was told, "This is worship music" which meant that you just go for it.   Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmm!
Well, the choir sang, the lads played (and the keyboardist very helpfully told me what key we were in) and I went for it.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but it seemed to get better once I'd got into the patterns.
I was then invited to the service the next morning.  Fortunately for my confidence, I couldn't make it but I promised to come back.
I went for a second rehearsal last night, which again surprised me because it had already started when I'd got there and lasted half as long as the last one.  Formality didn't seem to be the watchword of this gang.

The Service

And so, as I'd promised, I went to church.  It was . . . different.
I don't think I've been to a normal Sunday service for 30 years.  Despite my non-religious parents, I had to go to church schools as a child and was consequently dragged to church services every so often.  They were very boring.  They involved muttering prayers with your head down, singing dull songs from dusty hymn books and listening to some dreary bloke in a collar droning on about something irrelevant.
The bloke droning on was there today.  To be fair, his powerful Nigerian accent made it very hard for me to understand the majority of what he was talking about (something to do with how polygamy is 'bad').  I suppose it's the nature of preachers to go on and on for ever, but this guy was doing it more like a motivational speaker than what I'd expect from a church pastor.  There was another guy who led prayers with an even stronger accent who left me completely befuddled.  The congregation, however, loved it - mostly.  I'll have to say that the regular shout's of "Praise the Lord!" sounded like a kind of religious Tourettes
The lack of strict formality really surprised me.  Instead of standing, sitting, kneeling etc in unison people were pretty much doing their own thing.  Some were coming and going, some shouting 'amen' to things they liked, some were kneeling, some standing with their arms wide and an expression of rapture.  One guy was reading the sports news on his phone and nobody seemed even slightly bothered. 

The Music

But, it was the music that I was there for.  That was intense and honestly one of the most Dionysian things I've witnessed.  I was concentrating on trying to play in key and follow the patterns of the music but those members of the congregation who knew the songs were really letting themselves go with it.  The songs lasted at least ten minutes each and ran straight from one to another for a good half hour.  During that time there were people dancing and singing and totally transported by the experience.
At one point someone said, "God wants you to sing and dance" and I could only find myself approving.  These people definitely celebrate their religion.


I did worry about certain things.
One of them was the potential for disagreement.  Fortunately nothing like that happened.  The whole service was pretty much entirely praise and worship.  Apart from the sermon that I couldn't really understand there didn't seem to be anything problematically political going on.  I'm still expecting to clash at some point, should I choose to play for them again, but so far so good.  Nobody's even tried to convert me.

Another thing was race.  Having had an ex who was black and saw damn near everything as a race issue, this was nagging at the back of my mind.
I'm used to being a minority in many ways, but none of them are obvious.  They don't usually show up until I've got to know my peers and they start asking questions about my life.  By that time I've already been accepted.  I've never been in a racial minority before and being the only white person in a room containing at least a hundred black people I was in a minority of one.
I was expecting to feel like a spot on a domino.  I didn't.  I felt like a saxophone player!

And That Was That

It was a bloody long service (although mostly not boring).  I got there at about 10:50, walking into the middle of a kind of adult Sunday School thing and I didn't get to leave until after 2pm.  I caught a bus back into Manchester with a member of the choir, a very pleasant young woman who said I'd done pretty well.
That's nice.

I'm glad I did it.  I'll probably do it again.  It was fun and the people were lovely.  They even offered me jolloff rice, but it had meat in so I had to refuse.  I was expecting pious hypocrites and I was pleasantly disappointed. 
I'm glad of that.