Second Great Awakening, Redux – a Sunday Morning Service in Mbale

Things got weird when the first person dropped.

But I should set the scene. It’s Sunday morning, and, in a quest to better experience East Ugandan life and culture, I decide to check out a Christian church service with our expert chef and a few others. Dressed up in our Sunday finest – for me in Uganda, that means linen pants, a button-down reddish-clay Madras shirt, and sandals; for the American girl with us, a skirt, nice belt, and tan button-down; for our host, a royal purple blouse and dark purple skirt – we walk to her church, sun bearing down on us like an angry grandmother after she catches you with a cookie right before dinner, air thick enough to eat. We’re there just before 10 AM, with our host explicitly warning us that services tend to be long, so I’m thinking it will be about two hours of cultural immersion. The outside looks like this:


The service is about as full as a poorly-attended political rally when we arrive, with all the quiet and open space that entails (lacking only the booming echoes of a high-school gym; brick rooms are not conducive to this). The two lecterns – one to speak Luguisu, the other to translate the first’s words into English – are leading a prayer, so we’re standing up, most everyone with their hands up in the air, just like the images of the people on the infomercials that sell Christian CDs to the types of people that still buy Christian CDs from infomercials. I’m one of two white people and one of one person to be something less-than-Christian, so my hands are safely dangling at my side and my brain is elsewhere, directing my eyes to take mental snapshots of the scene:


Which was all dark dirt, hard wood benches, pious Ugandans, and decibels. The room is maybe sixty feet by thirty feet, with seats for 150 or so and a stage meant for the Bishop and other leaders. There are bedsheets lining the walls, previously used as makeshift signs for celebrations and anniversaries, now relegated to keeping out the sun and drawing bored visitors’ eyes during particularly boring portions of the service. They also keep out the wind – the room is more or less a Thermos, and it’s like we’re in a sous vide machine, cooking ever so slowly (this may be a contributing factor towards what goes down, which I’ll get to shortly). But the parishioners are used to it – repurposing pieces of paper into fans just like Southern women are known to do in America – and at least we all sweat together.

Bishop Ivan is up; he’s the leader of this church, and gives the first of his two “teachings,” with one of the lecterns providing the play-by-play in English – or Luigisu: the Bishop switches back and forth regularly, with the lectern seamlessly transitioning, in a pretty impressive showing of flexibility (it’s clear they’ve worked together a while). This translating, by the way, also slows down the teaching to a crawl, like driving on dusty, pothole-speckled – or really, road-speckled – Ugandan roads.

To formerly-Lutheran ears, the Bishop possibly confuses intensity of volume with intensity of piety – he is loud, so loud that his voice crackled over the loudspeaker like a rapper using distortion for effect. He also confuses the role of the Holy Spirit in his life, when he starts off his time by saying – in a phrase that I’m 99% sure has never been used before in the history of the world, Natalie-Portman-in-Jersey City-esque – “Yesterday, the Holy Spirit compelled me to watch The Adjustment Bureau”. It was an OK movie, but not that good.

The teaching is about an hour long and is quite wide-ranging – which is to say, unstructured to a sinner’s ears, jumping off into long tangents* that include, but aren’t limited to: the invocation of Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee, and Chuck Norris; the aforementioned Adjustment Bureau; and a short discourse on geopolitics, unfortunate because the Bishop appears to know little about the subject, but the parishioners take it as, dare I say, gospel** –  but the main point has to do with reading the signs God gives you, Wise Men-like (evidently, the Wise Men told King Solomon or King Herod that the Messiah was coming, reading His Coming in the stars). By the time the Bishop wraps up part one, the room is almost full, kids returning from what I assume was Sunday School, all manner of women dressed in identical black skirts and bright pink button-downs walking in single-file, community members joining after breakfast.

Then the women dressed identically come up to the stage and start dancing, swaying really, as vaguely-Jamaican music is pumped through the loudspeaker that Bishop Ivan was previously using to increase his piety. There are a few songs*** and a few dances, interrupted only by the loudspeaker cutting out, at which point everyone else starts clapping to the previous rhythm, and I briefly consider the implications of starting to beat box, or to clap a la Steve Martin in The Jerk. I reconsider. The music returns and the performance ends.

And so Bishop Ivan returns to the stage to give his second “teaching.” This is when things got weird.

Surely you’ve seen this happen in a television show, movie, or – if you’ve done service work in certain parts of the American South – in person: “the spirit” compels a parishioner to seize, fall out of his/her chair, weep, speak in tongues, or something else that would, in most spheres of life, be a sign of mental or physical illness and (hopefully) immediately attended to. When in church, though, it is a sign of something Holy coursing through a person like blood through veins, or of something capital-e Evil being expelled from said person like a malarial patient having a bad case of cinchonism from the quinine.

Whatever it is, it is quite jarring to see with one’s own wide-open eyes.

The first person to be so moved, dressed in her beautiful Sunday outfit, shrieked in a language that was either Luguisu or Parseltongue, flailed her arms in the air, and then collapsed from her chair onto the dirt floor. Another, minutes later and directly in front of me, started shaking her head back and forth, fast, too fast, as if violently telling someone no, then stood up, pivoted, and fell – hard – to the ground.

No one got up to see if she was OK; the Bishop just kept on “teaching.” This occurred a few more times, capstoned by the Bishop laying his hand on a parishioner’s face – like he was trying to palm her as a basketball – and all-but-saying “The Power of Christ Compels You,” at which point the woman started screaming and running around the room.

She did not stop screaming and running around the room until the end of the service. This was a good five minutes worth of summary and prayer matched with screaming and running.

In sum: four hours, a half dozen collapses, and one extremely uncomfortable secular white person.

It should be stressed that this isn’t what every Christian church service is like in East Uganda, just as most American Christian church services aren’t speckled with tongues and exorcisms. With alternative religions being pretty prominent in certain areas of Uganda – some call the collective group “witchcraft,” though I think this is a loaded term weighted with negative history, one that creates more heat than light –  it’s not totally surprising that this would happen here, at least according to those I went to the service with.

As my friend told me while walking back: “Well, Mike, you sure got your cultural experience of the day, huh?”

Sure did.

*The Bishop was also extremely Zionist; I did not expect paeans to the Israeli state and invocations of evil’s inability to get rid of the Jewish people — up to an including a castigation of the Palestinian people and an assertion that “The Palestinians will never take back Jerusalem”) — at a church service in Uganda. After the service, one theory we came to was that, because mainstream Christians in Uganda are much more into the Second Coming and the End of Days than, say, mainstream Christians in America, they’re more enthralled with the idea of the Semites keeping Jerusalem ready for Jesus (the logic of which boggles my non-religious mind; perhaps a better student of either religion could help me out here)

**It isn’t lost on me that I also have a penchant for jumping off on tangents

***It’s a strange thing to hear songs you sang in Confirmation class pop up halfway around the world; here, it was that “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” ditty, though they didn’t know the hand gestures we were taught. I did not teach them; sorry, SOTV! And there was no slightly overweight, highly over-earnest young white guy playing the acoustic guitar in cargo shorts, hemp bracelets, and other implements that are meant to project  “I’m cool, but, you know, cool for Jesus

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