Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Church in Any Language

We didn’t go to church for a month after we arrived here. The CLO gave us their list of English-language religious services, as we’ve come to expect at each post. But here, the list was distressingly short. It was filled with orthodox services and with chapel services at Camp Bondsteel (almost an hour away) or at Film City (a nearby KFOR/NATO base, open to some employees of the American embassy, but not to family members, so Alexa and I can’t go). There was one and only one non-orthodox, nearby, open-to-all-of-us option: Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit, or Fellowship of the Lord’s People. According to the information from the CLO, this congregation is mostly Kosovan, and services are conducted in Albanian, with English translation. I had visions of headphones, flashes of polite smiling while utterly failing to communicate with the other attendees, and fears of just plain not fitting in. We weren’t sure exactly where this church was located, and to be honest, we didn’t expend a lot of effort to find out at first … we were too busy trying to find out if there were any primarily Engish-speaking congregations that we could visit instead. We didn’t find any.

Accordingly, this past Sunday, we piled into the car and went to church, for the first time in a month. As we entered the building, my dread premonitions seemed to be coming true—all around me, I heard people speaking Albanian, but none speaking English. I understood not a word. The greeter gestured us toward a specific section of the sanctuary, and I began looking for where the interpreter may stand, or where the headphones and jacks were. I didn’t see any, and I began to wonder just how this English translation would occur.

Before the service started, we met three English speakers: a probably-American man whose native language definitely was English, an African woman whose native language may have been English, and a Kosovar woman whose English was superb. I relaxed a little, but not much—here were three people we could talk to, but what about everyone else? Would our opportunities for Christian fellowship be limited to these three?

Not by a long shot.

When the service began, it became clear how the translation occurs: from the stage, with practically the entire congregation chiming in to help when the interpreter gets confused over a word. The greeting was spoken in Albanian, with a woman translating each phrase or sentence into English. There was a time or two when she did hesitate over a word, and at least half the congregation called out the correct word for her. When we started singing, the words were projected onto a screen, but each verse took up twice the amount of space it “should” have: Under each line of Albanian lyrics was a line of English lyrics. Most of the songs were sung first in Albanian, then in English; a couple were sung in English first.

I even tried singing a little in Albanian, after listening to the pronunciation and reading the English translation so I had an idea of what I was saying. That was one of those small moments worth remembering. There I was, for the first time in a church service where English was not the primary language, singing praises to God in a language that I didn’t know, but understanding the words because the translation was provided, and sometimes because I knew the words in English already. It reminded me of the first time I attended Maadi Community Church in Egypt—a little glimpse of what Heaven will be like, although it felt a bit like a different perspective this time, because of the unfamiliar sounds of the Albanian language. At MCC, it was a glimpse of Heaven because of all the different “nations” and “tribes” worshipping together; at the Fellowship of the Lord’s People in Kosova (the Albanian word for Kosovo), it felt more like a preview of the “every tongue” part.

After we sang a few songs, a prayer was said in Albanian—no translation. After a few more songs, a prayer was said in English—no translation.

Then the pastor started speaking. He spoke in Albanian, with a woman translating into English after every sentence or two (no short phrases for him—he was eager to share). When she hesitated over an English word, he joined the congregation in providing it for her. He introduced two special guests: two pastors from neighboring countries who were in town for a prayer breakfast, which was attended by government officials from Kosova, Serbia, and many other countries, including a congressional delegation from the United States. He invited these guests to greet the congregation.

The two other pastors came up to the podium, one at a time. They each spoke in English, passing along greetings from the evangelical churches in their home countries (Serbia and Macedonia) and expressing hope for reconciliation of all the people of the Balkan region, which is well-known for wars and ethnic violence. One even joked about how he, like me, tried singing in Albanian for the first time that morning. The interpreter translated their comments into Albanian—again with some assistance as necessary from the congregation. The second pastor said his first sentence in Macedonian, obviously not expecting anyone to understand—the translator smiled politely and looked at him blankly, and the congregation chuckled. It was obvious that most of the congregation speaks English, and it was equally obvious that English is the language of communication among the various ethnic groups of the Balkans.

After the greetings from the pastors, the children went to the front to be prayed over (in Albanian, no interpretation). Alexa chose to stay with us. Then the children went downstairs to Sunday school, and Alexa announced a desire to go, too, but reminded us that “Mama needs to go with Lexa!” So we excused ourselves and followed the sound of children to the Sunday school room, a windowed room off a larger fellowship hall. I was grateful to see that the service was being shown on a television in the fellowship hall—once Alexa is comfortable enough to be in Sunday school without me but not yet comfortable enough to be in there without being able to see me, I hope to hear the sermon from that television. For this week, however, I sat in the Sunday school room with Alexa in my lap, listening to the story of Zaccheus, first in Albanian, then in English—I even was consulted on the proper English pronunciation of his name—and then the memory verse, first in Albanian, then in English. Then, while the children colored a picture of Zaccheus in the tree, I chatted with my first non-embassy-affiliated Kosovar acquaintance. She was very friendly and welcoming, and she offered to put me in touch with the woman who coordinates a weekly playgroup for preschoolers.

I knew when the service was over, as the congregation moved down to the fellowship hall for coffee. Jeff and I met the pastor, who spoke to us in fluent English. We tried to catch the Canadian missionary who had delivered the morning’s sermon but were unable to do so—undoubtedly, we’ll meet him some other time, as he and his family live in Pristina and attend the Fellowship of the Lord’s People regularly. We didn’t stick around very long after service was over; Alexa was hungry and exhausted and needed to go home. Unfortunately, service begins at Alexa’s usual lunch time and goes through her usual nap time … we’ll have to figure out how to adjust her schedule so that we can attend church without inviting a hunger- and/or sleepiness-induced meltdown each week.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve found our church home here, or at least a temporary one. If we hear of other English-speaking congregations, we may try them, but my impression is that we will be able to make friends and enjoy Christian fellowship at this church. I didn’t hear the sermon, but Jeff didn’t tell me of any major theological differences, so we’re hopeful that this church is what it appears to be: a fellowship of Bible-believing Christians, many or most of whom speak a language we understand as well as one we don't.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience, and talking of heaven and tribes and tongues. Beautiful. ~Elizabeth


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