Monday, November 11, 2013

I wonder what languages will be in the service

The first edition of the
Ekajuk New Testament (1970s)





“I guess I am not late,” I think as I enter the empty church.  I quickly take in my surroundings, typical of village churches I have been in before.  Two girls are at the front of the church decorating the altar and pulpit with green and white fabric, the colors of Nigeria’s national flag.  The building was fairly large for a village church, probably big enough to hold about 200 people.  It was incomplete, built of unpainted sand and cement blocks with open windows and a corrugated metal roof. The wooden pews in the first several rows are simply constructed with a seat and back, but also include a wooden plank in front of each to kneel on.  Further back, the pews are simple benches, each constructed of a plank of wood set on cinder blocks or stones, but still having an extra small wooden plank to kneel on.
I have come to attend the mass in the Catholic church in Winnimba, a small village in Cross River State, Nigeria.  My three colleagues each have gone to other churches to observe the use of Scriptures in other churches as well.  In Jos, the city where we are based, sometimes the first Sunday morning mass starts at 6am.  We thought we might be late arriving at seven in the morning, but it was quickly apparent we weren't.
As I approach the girls in the front, I notice that they are speaking in Ekajuk, the local language.  I ask them in English when the mass will start, and they tell me eight o’clock.  With an hour to spare I sit on one of the low benches in the back and continue to observe.  I write a text to Christy.  It ends with “Young girls r sweeping and decorating all speaking Ekajuk.  Wonder what lgs will b in service.Z”
Frankly, I was not expecting much.  We just finished a survey in another language area where people spoke the local language with each other, but only used Hausa, a language of wider communication, in the service.  We had observed this lack of local language use in about 14 churches, and I was feeling a bit discouraged.
The second edition of the
Ekajuk New Testament (2012)
Around seven-thirty about five older men and women entered and sat in the pews on the front right side of the church.  They began a call and response of prayers in the Ekajuk language.  I wasn’t surprised when I heard the word “Mary” repeated again and again, and recalled the first time I attended a mid-week mass in Cameroon about seven years ago.  There the mass had also been in the local language, Wimbum.  Although the repetition of the prayer would make it easy for me to join in, I didn’t like the idea of praying to Mary asking her to pray on my behalf.   They came to the part of the rosary that I thought was probably “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” so I tried to mimic and join in, meaning it with all my heart.  By now there were about ten people who had joined.
After the rosary, most people left for a little while, before the main mass started.  It began with a procession from the back led by a young man carrying a crucifix and two young men carrying lit candles shielded by their hands.  Later I was told that the catechist had been called to go to another church, so the young man leading the procession was the “auxiliary catechist” standing in on his behalf.  I have seen all of this in churches in America before, so what struck me the most wasn’t the fine green and white robes the young men were wearing, or the way they lit candles on the altar.  What struck me was that everyone was singing in Ekajuk.
I continued to be surprised as the all the singing, liturgy and announcements continued to be in Ekajuk.  Then one of the young men read a passage from the Old Testament.  I knew that this had to be read in English, because there is no Old Testament in Ekajuk yet, they only have the New Testament.  Likewise the Psalm with its response had to be in Ekajuk.   But the Epistle and Gospel readings both came from the Ekajuk New Testament.  I looked around and noticed that a few people had come with both an English Bible and the thin red Ekajuk New Testament.  For a village church, where it may be typical for only a few people to own a copy of the Bible, this was quite impressive.  
When the young man got up to preach, he went back and forth from Ekajuk to English.  I got the impression that he wasn’t really saying exactly the same thing in both languages, but that he was preaching on basically the same themes.
Towards the end of the service some of the liturgy was in English, but overall I came away surprised, encouraged and impressed.  There was little chance that these people could have known I was coming and adjusted their service just for me.  We told no one which villages and churches we would worship in.  Later I met the catechist of the church, who happens to be a part of the Old Testament translation team.  Although this means some of what I saw may not be typical of other churches, since he wasn’t even around, I had to assume that what I saw that day was what they normally did.
Over the next five days, I attended morning mass in three Catholic churches and interviewed catechists, pastors, elders and deacons in about twenty churches of all denominations.  Although for various reasons I saw that sometimes the readings were in English rather than Ekajuk I was amazed at how consistently the Catholic church used the Ekajuk language.  It was apparent that they hadn’t just started using it recently either.  Even before the second edition of the New Testament came out, they had a few of the scarce copies of the first edition, and a service book including hymns, liturgy and the rosary in Ekajuk.
This catechist shares his Ekajuk New Testament
with several Sunday morning readers in his church
“I have really seen why survey is necessary,” I say again and again to my colleagues as we approach the end of the fieldwork.  “If someone had asked me about Scripture use in Ekajuk prior the fieldwork, from my impressions based on several conversations in Jos, I would have said exactly the opposite of what we observed.”  I thought because the first edition of the Ekajuk New Testament was hard to find and the second edition only came out last year, that few churches would be using it.  Although several church leaders didn’t even know where to get a copy, every single Catholic church we interviewed had at least one and was using it.  I’ll tell others stories from the fieldwork in other blog posts.

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