22 September 2014

are you a missioner if you don't like going to church?

It’s Saturday night. Maybe we’re having a quiet night at home, just the two of us. We might be out with friends, enjoying dinner and meeting new people. No matter what we’re up to, the inevitable question always comes up…

“So, are we going to Mass tomorrow?”

our church: the church of the uganda martyrs in kiseke.
We haven’t opened up too much about our faith and spirituality since getting to Tanzania. For those who don’t know, we work for a Catholic organization and we ourselves also identify as Catholics. Yet these last nine months, we’ve struggled to solidify what our faith looks like in Tanzania.
For anyone of faith, attendance at religious services is a pretty important part of the religious practice itself. For us Catholics, that means Mass. Michael and I adored going to Mass when we lived in Dallas, Texas. Mass was a chance to worship together with fantastic music, to become reinvigorated for the coming week, and to meet up with dear friends after the service. Almost nothing kept us from going to Mass.

Here, going to religious service is super important. We’re reminded of that every time we go to the market on Sunday morning after church. Many of our favorite vendors ask us, “Mmeshasali leo?” “Have you already prayed?” or they like to make sure we know their status. “Sijaenda kanisani,” they’ll say. “I haven’t made it to church yet.” But the implication is that they will make it. It’s just that important.

But we have to push ourselves to go to Mass. What gives?

First, as we’ve noted before on this blog, the language is a critical and completely challenging part of life. And no matter how long we stay here, it always will be. We naively thought, as “young” adults, our brains were still capable of taking on a whole new way of speaking. While we are making progress, we’re nowhere near where we thought we would be. (What’s that saying about the benefits of having low expectations?) If we have a hard time catching even slightly complex thoughts in daily conversation, how much more do you think we struggle to understand fancy prayers, passages from the Bible, and songs that aren’t enunciated so much? Um, a lot.

the gospel from this last sunday. don't worry, we don't get it either.

We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves to help us along the way. We always bring a Missal, a book with the order of the Mass in Kiswahili, and we try to download the readings in English to our phones, so we can follow along with both the Kiswahili and English text while it’s being read. But honestly, it’s still really tiring. It seems more like a language lesson than a faithful, motivating-me-to-be-a-better-person practice. 

Second, Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, is just practiced differently in Tanzania. There are so many differences we could point out, but a large one is the financial part of being a Christian. (We’ve been told by non-Catholics that this extends across the Christian family in Tanzania.) Most Christians belong to a jumuiya ndogondogo, which translates to a Small Christian Community. Members of these groups get together on a weekly basis, read passages from the Bible together, comment on them, and contribute financially. 

When Michael and I first arrived in Tanzania, we had no doubt that we would one day join in when we found a neighborhood to settle into. But honestly, it’s just too much work for us! It’s incredibly difficult to express your faith or spiritual beliefs in another language. To add to that, the contribution of money is a big deal. Most Sundays after Mass, there are “competitions” between the Small Christian Communities to see who can fundraise more for the church. The groups are called and one by one, they parade up to the front to donate their money. (You can even hear everyone’s coins “clink” against the inside of the wooden box.) Then, everyone in the congregation sits and waits while the money is being counted. Finally, the tallies are announced to see which of the groups won! Sometimes the congregation is pressured then to give even more if the initial account was not high enough. These “announcements” easily add 30 or 45 minutes to the service. 

here, money is always a part of the conversation. for those interested, 10,000 shillings is the equivalent of about $6.06, 1,000 is 61 cents, and 500 is 30 cents, just enough for a one-way daladala ride.
For us one-hour-long-Mass people, this is too much. We get antsy and don’t like sitting around for that long. Most Sundays, we walk out after communion. I know, I know, we’ve become “those” people. 

Supa, a young man who works in the medical laboratory in front of our home and also attends our same church, confronted us about it. “Why do you guys always walk out before announcements?” he once asked us. Oops! We tried to explain the difficulty we have with those announcements, but I’m not sure it’s one of those issues was understood cross-culturally.

But more than that, the financial part of the service makes us uncomfortable. Sure, we’re taught that charitable giving to your church is important but these acts are always done privately. To us, it seems more time is dedicated to fundraising for a new floor for the church in Tanzania than spiritual nourishment. 

Last but certainly not least, it’s easy to be batted around by the ups and downs of life in a developing country. On the negative side, life here is just hard. We’re not used to it and we probably never will become completely used to it. Everything, from menial tasks to fixing a broken faucet to going shopping, takes a lot more time and effort than in the United States. This might not seem to directly correlate to faith and spirituality but all of these little things can certainly add up to a less positive outlook on life as well as less energy to dedicate to faith. We know we should pray but from morning to night, even outside of work, we’re busy: cooking the dog’s food, picking bugs and rocks out of our rice and beans, roasting peanuts to have as a snack, wiping off the tables and chairs yet again because of all of the dust that floats in through the windows. These are a few of the chores that we’re reminded of most days when we wake up. 

So when we do have five minutes of spare time, dedicating ourselves to self-reflection, studying theological articles, or even praying (gulp!) is not at the top of our list. It’s easier to zone out, skim the Facebook wall, and go to bed. 

At the same time, there are a lot of “ups”. I am constantly amazed at the optimistic outlook of Tanzanians. There is so much going against them - a poor education system, inadequate access to healthcare, and the lack of a livable daily wage, to name a few. But they continue to get up as soon as the sun rises and work until the sun sets, most with smiles on their faces. I truly don’t know how they’re able to do it, day in and day out. With the joy they radiate, they remind me of the invincibility of the human spirit. I have watched Tanzanians rise above so many situations and let-downs that would have left me hopeless. But they continue to pick themselves up and try again, serving as a testament to their spiritual strength. 

As we become more settled in our rhythms and routines at work and at home, we’re having conversations about how to get into those same rhythms when it comes to our faith. Yes, we need to set a practice but more importantly, we need to open ourselves up to learning from the culture around us, as they continue to hope against all odds. We’re humbled as we put ourselves in the place of the student once again.


  1. Great post Ashley! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Great Post! So...do you think this is how mass-going Catholics felt when the mass was said in Latin?...I think about that every once in a while. And I'd love to know how your fellow missioners feel about "life here is just hard"...does it get any easier with time?...do some things still suck no matter how long you've been there? Here's a very unsolicited idea for a post: Ask the same 3 questions about life in the TNZ to MKLMers who are new to Africa, who've been there a couple years, have been there longer and perhaps the answers would be interestingly different depending on how long the person answering has been in TNZ. Again, great post - thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing! I feel like you guys have hit on so many topics that also have made an impact on us, even though we're on different continents.

    1. Kim, it's so reaffirming to hear that. I know we often feel like we're "alone" in Tanzania so it's great to know that our fellow missioners on the other side of the world resonate with what we write about. Thank you!


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