Sunday, December 7, 2008

Church dinner

I think cultural differences will continually catch me by surprise no matter how many weeks and months go by. Personally, I think I'm adjusting to the new culture quite well and my expectations have been in check. But, there are some things that are so much a part of your identity that you don't even think to consider them differently in a new culture. For instance, take a church dinner. Please imagine what a typical church dinner, a social if you will, would look like on a typical Sunday evening in a typical church. For me as a child, me and my friends would stuff our faces with food as quickly as possible and then beg our parents to let us go play. The mood was light, the dress was casual, and the lone prayer of blessing the food was the only thing that stood between the congregation and tables full of home cooked dishes passed down by the generations before. The few times I attended a meal at Southwest Christian Church the same scene repeated itself as in my childhood; however, a few prized desserts by seasoned old ladies warranted experienced churchgoers to hit the dessert table first. At our old church in Buckhead, it was slightly different; we had games, chili cook-offs, and birthday cake to celebrate the passing years of our young church, and yet it was markedly the same.

With all these memories sewn into our lives, Rob and I attended a church dinner at St. Etienne's Sunday night. The evening began at 5:30 as we walked through the door and I knew then we were not in for what we had expected. The ladies were dressed in their Sunday's finest sari-type regalia and the men in no less than coats and ties. We sat down at a table laden with the finest china I've yet seen in a room decorated as if for a wedding reception. There was a DJ in the back of the room providing a festive Christmas ambiance as we all waited for the dinner to begin. We were presented with a program bulletin listing the order of events in both Kinyarwanda and English—the program listed words to be given by the archbishop, various distinguished guests, and mothers' union representatives with dinner lost somewhere in the middle. Speech after speech, sermon after sermon, prayer after prayer, and song after song continued until well after 8 and I wondered if everyone else had forgotten about dinner. Surely not as Rob and I exchanged stolen glances, they couldn't have, the tables were still pristine and untouched. …The meal finally began well catered by a local hotel. Chapatti, matoki, cassava. One thing I've discovered is to take a little bit of everything offered. Not so much as to be polite, but because I've learned a good lesson. Once at a lunch I noticed a banana dish that looked delicious and a pot of beans that seemed to be your standard pinto bean. I loaded up on only these two items and happily took a seat. Two bites later I knew I had made a mistake and because you can only go through the buffet line once, my very grumbly stomach let me know it until dinner. So with a well mixed plate, the evening continued with speeches and greetings from far away guests. The hour was late by the end of the program and everyone was on their way home in a flash. We caught very few familiar faces to speak to, but those we did were happy to see us and thanked us warmly for attending. While our two main objectives, dinner and socializing, didn't unfold exactly as we expected, hopefully the church will begin to see us as participatory members and relationships will follow suit. As we walked across the street to our house shortly before 10, Rob and I said, "well, next time we'll know what to expect", but somehow I'm not quite convinced.

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