by Abriel Newton
We are leaving tomorrow, and the sky is so open I lose my breath when I see it at night, coming backwards out of our hut. Oh. This is the sky, here. And I don’t want to leave it. We are in Ncome South Africa. The Zulu village is outside of Johannesburg, the ground here hard-packed and dusty, the smoke sweet and sharp.
Jenna, Steph, Christine and I are in Dudu’s empty hut, which we assume is the guest hut. It has linoleum mats, a tapestry hanging on the back wall that says “Jesus is the Way,” and a door we keep shut with a stray nail. There’s a wardrobe with blankets inside and a bench near the window. I think the hut is made of concrete, and the ceiling is so intricately connected, the beams crisscrossed and almost basket weaved. Christine leans in to Dudu, “You floor is very pretty,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. Dudu smiles at us, “Yes, very beautiful.”
She lines up mattresses on the floor, and the first night, she makes us sit and watch her and her mother prepare our beds, and in the morning she brings us bath water and corn biscuits. The second night, we help set them, and she tells us not to be scared, that the cows are crying. The third night, I make Dudu’s bed by the wall, as one of my only ways to show gratitude, but I make it wrong, and she redoes it.
The last night we are writing, and Dudu pushes the single candle closer to our mattress, and we circle it, writing close on the floor. We are silent. Dudu shifts around on her bed and after a while asks, “Switch off?” snuffing out the candle with her fingers when we say okay. We are covered in thick blankets, and the flowers on these are the ones that I will continue to see. They are the same blankets from village to village, as we travel, a group of fifteen students from Susquehanna University. We are here to get to know the people we meet, herded by leaders that grew up here. Minutes pass and I wonder why Dudu is sent out here to sleep with us in this empty hut when the rest of her family is in the surrounding huts in the compound.
Dudu gasps, and my eyes fly open in the blackness. “Christine. Will you pray for us?” she asks, leaning over her mattress.
Christine comes up onto her elbow. “Out loud?”
Christine opens her mouth, but then Dudu is lighting the candle and curling up on her knees on the mattress, and laying her head in her folded hands. We all copy her, and she prays for us in rapid-fire Zulu. And it is so fast that I know she prays every day, she has the words for her questions and wishes memorized. “I asked God to protect you tomorrow,” she says, “I have a pain in my heart because you are leaving.”
She smiles, and we cannot say anything. None of us were expecting that. She is a stranger and we are in her house and she is praying in a language we do not understand. I lay still and blink at the back of Jenna’s head. I’ve never heard anyone pray like that before, so fast and quiet and vicious. Where does this seemingly honest and genuine care come from? Would she pray like this for the people in this village, or would she pray harder? Embarrassed that I’ve never seen this before, I am silently crying.
I am thirteen. I am in confirmation class in the attic of the church, tapping my fingers. I have to get home in time to watch America’s Next Top Model. John is the pastor of St. John’s UCC in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. He’s round and bald and always has white dried spit in the corner of his lips. His teeth are twisted, stalactites of saliva exposed whenever he speaks. He narrows his eyes.
We’re going over answers in the book, and I’m regurgitating what I find in the Bible, what I hear him say. Yes, I agree with that. Yeah good point. He reads off of his papers. He offers nothing. Last Sunday, he preached that we should all give more money to the church, because then we’d have a better chance of getting into heaven. We cannot be selfish, and keep our money to help us stay living and comfortable. Give to God, give to the church and to the pastor, and then weep when you see Jesus. I prop my feet on the chair in front of me, reclining, watching the boy with blonde hair across from me. The hour drags, and finally, he dismisses everyone, patting my feet dismissively. I wince.
“Is something wrong?” He smiles tightly, gathering his books.
“I just twisted my ankle at ballet.” I say watching the ground, making to get out of my seat.
“Do you want us to pray for you? Is that what you’re asking?” He seems too eager. He looks around at the rest of the students.
The uncertainty comes down hard, bodies shift in seats. “I have to go,” someone says, slipping out. I look to my friend Jess, who shrugs and frowns. Everyone else wears nearly the same expression. “Sure.” I smile weakly. The students and Pastor John gather around me, his hand hot on my ankle, their fingers brushing my head and shoulders.
“Okay everyone,” he begins and as he says whatever it is he does, I watch my ankle. The heat could help it, a hot stone, a flax-seed bag, things from the earth. Asking some spirit in the sky will do nothing, and his hollow voice reflects this, confirms it. I might believe it if his energy was real, if I could feel sincerity or intent.
I leave as quickly as I can, hobbling down the stairs and out into the grass.
We are in Lucky’s village, and Dallas, Christine and I are playing a game with the children in the yard, Fire in the Mountain. I don’t know who these children belong to, but they are a force of around six. We sing with them, “there’s a fire in the mountain, fire, fire, there’s a fire in the mountain fire fire. Group of…” And we rush to cluster in groups, the children clinging to our knees and fingers.
Sometime, we are told to go join the rest of our group. We walk along the road with the kids holding our hands until we get to the other girls’ compound. A few women are in a line on the ground near the fence, drumming furiously. We sit and we watch with children on our laps, and I’m wondering if this isn’t for show. There is snarl, a snap of a growl and howling, and I look behind the group to look for an animal, a woman throws back her head and I realize that it is her, heaving. She runs into her hut to pray, and I am told by Lucky that they are drumming for her, to carry her to her trance, so the ancestors can bless our visit. The children are silent and watching, and the women in the line watch for her to come back out. No one is shy about the situation, no one wary or self-conscious, and I feel a scrape of envy.
The woman stumbles out, stomping her ankles with shells, singing, hooting and fidgeting in a circle. She does this until she falls down on her hands and knees and starts to talk faster than before. And this is when the ancestor of the mountain is in her and he speaks through her and I am fascinated. I want to go over and hold her face so I can watch her eyes and see if she is genuine, like how badly I want her to be. I want to stay here, where this sense of being lost inside a dance or a trance is natural and normal and feels right. And I wonder if she put her hands on my feet and I felt the heat from them if my muscles would heal.
I keep watching the streetlight and how it casts her body harsh and how unnatural it is in this world, this practice that comes before Christianity that comes before industrialization. Her trance is validated for me by the idea that she is not doing this for God, but for the spirit in the mountains, for something older, and so I believe it. At home, on every corner dirtied with coal soot, is a streetlight, a bar and a church.
I am in elementary school, maybe sixth grade. I rush up the basement steps to the cramped living room. My father’s friend, Al, watches his wife as she pontificates about her “amazing experiences” to my parents, lumped together on the couch in the half-double.
“Lisa you should come to the church, bring Mike and the kids,” she nearly shouts, leaning in close to my mother, who imperceptibly shifts backwards.
Stacey. She says she speaks in tongues every week; that the spirit is so strong, the people are amazing and the pastor is wonderful. I don’t remember my parent’s reactions, so I don’t know what this means. We leave, and my parents talk in low tone and upturned lips.
I have heard of the Pentecostal snake-handling churches, the Holy Ghost people lapsing into glossolalia, men and women, overtaken, holding poisonous snakes, snapping and shaking. Mark 16: 17-18 tells them God has given them this power: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” I do not believe this because, coincidentally, I do not believe in a God, but something earlier, and so this feels less real.
We are in Matiyani. Our host family is taking us to church with them, a three hour service. I can’t imagine three hours of silence, monotone singing and a sermon that puts people to sleep. Dallas and I take turns carrying D, Winnie’s daughter. Gift is Winnie’s sister, and they are both Mama’s daughters. There are so many girls in this house that we can’t keep them straight. Gift is the favorite, and she sings in church, so we are going with her. The rest of the family stays.
The church is not as extravagant as my mother’s church with the beamed cathedral ceilings and tiered altar. This church is filled with plastic chairs, open doors, and lilac cloth that doesn’t reach the entire way around the bright airy room. There are no cushion-covered pews or organ pipes that stretch to the ceiling. This is not a church built to be impressive so much as functional, and for this, it feels more real.
They sing so many songs, and Gift is at the front, screaming into the overbearing microphones, most people sing along. Sometime in the service there is an upbeat song, and people start gathering in a loose circle at the front. They start dancing. We join in, and my face is red from laughing and I’m holding hands with people I don’t know, spinning faster, and I don’t feel this comfortable at home. At the same time I am wary of this. I feel like I am missing something crucial when I go home to church with my mother. Maybe I’m missing what came before a concept of God that I was so raised to believe in.
St. John’s has a Valentine’s Day Dinner Dance every year, transforming Fellowship Hall in the basement into a soft glowing dance floor where the After Hours Big Band comes to play. I am sixteen. The kids from school don’t dance. They hug the walls when someone tries to drag them out. “It’s swing music,” I say, “It’s fun.”
A few elderly couples get up to sway when they play “My Funny Valentine” but otherwise they sit with rigid backs and straight teeth, tapping their feet in time. I want to run around and slide all over the floor, but no one else is and so I feel constricted. I grab my brother and drag him out onto the floor and move his arms around, forcing him to dance. He grimaces and runs away, and I’m left awkwardly in the middle of the floor. People are watching and I can feel the outer edges of my body and know that I am very here and very present and I cannot get lost in this “Moondance” because everyone is also so very much here and aware.
At the church in Matiyani the praying throws me. People stand, and the keyboard goes, and I think this will be a silent couple minutes and they will talk to God inside. But people start speaking, pacing back and forth, their faces all screwed up and lined. Gift hasn’t left the front, and she is swaying. And her mouth is open with her white teeth and her lips are going fast. The man from the circle with the yellow pants is pacing at the front, gesturing at the ground over and over. There are people on stage, facing the walls, shaking their heads. Everyone is crying and conversing with God, absorbed. The younger ones pace, the elders sit, but their faces are just as concentrated, just as lost in their prayers. They are not here anymore, and I’m annoyed that my mind is so present, and I am embarrassed by my American sense of self that I cannot let go.
I am jealous because I don’t have this confidence, this unabashed passion. I don’t have the opportunities to lose myself like this. And this sounds backwards, me coming from the West, thinking I am lacking in any form of opportunity. Still, I am jealous of the way these people interact with each other, how they understand something I don’t seem to get. I don’t know what it is that I’m not comprehending. How can I be jealous when every person we meet says they want to come to America? It is the great dream. I accept this passion towards, this near possession of, the spirit in this church as more genuine than the one at home. I don’t believe in a God anymore here than I do in America, but the sense that there is a realness about belief here cannot be denied. No one is pretending to sing.
At home, in my mother’s church, the UCC, I don’t sing, but I stand with my hymnal open and move my mouth. Sometimes I say “watermelon” or “peas and carrots” like they taught us to do in elementary school if we forgot the words. I wonder how many other people are whisper singing and going through the motions. At home, Pastor Bob speaks of swallowing a bottle of Vicodin and how the cleaning lady of the motel found him. The elders in the church whisper, how inappropriate. How real. They shun him, talk about him after the service and at meetings. He shouldn’t bring up something like that when addressing the congregation about getting closer to God. Bob is more honest and open than John, and for this baring of himself, the people of the church do not like him. What would they say if I got up to speak, looking at me like they do, like my mother does when she tells me I can’t wear those clothes to church, these people that won’t dance when there is music.
There is too much small talk. Oh how is school / I haven’t seen you in so long / You’ve gotten so grown-up / How are you? Fine of course, of course.
One of Gift’s sisters looks at me in Matiyani outside the church. “What do you want?” She is direct and serious.
I balk, startled. “I don’t want anything.” I say, gesturing around like that’s supposed to mean something.
“What do you want?” She steps closer, watching me.
“Um, to get to know you.” I squint in the sun.
She pauses, considering, then her face changes, opens. “Oh. Okay. Thank-you.” She turns and walks purposefully into the church, like she actually wants to be there, and I am left to follow her.
Read an interview with Abriel here.