Ordination number two

Joe, one of the Oroko translators and literacy committee members, finished seminary recently and was being ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, so everyone from our team except Becky and “the kids” (Kenneth and Laura) were present for his big day in early December.

There were a total of about 8 seminarians to sanction at the service held in the large Presbyterian Church in Kumba. An impressive building with a soaring ceiling (topped, as usual, with the ubiquitous “zinc”), it had painted white and green cement walls with decorative square “vents” cut in, louvered windows at eye level, and high windows of “stained glass” (solid panes of green, red, yellow: the colours of Cameroon’s flag). Cloth lilies were tied to supporting poles for decoration. The illuminated cross at the front of the church comprised four long fluorescent light bulbs. A bolt of the official patterned PCC cloth decorated the wall behind the altar while flashing Christmas lights adorned either corner of the stage area (one string draped on the pulpit, the other on a small Christmas tree). Ceiling fans hung from the rafters, spinning at varying speeds from lazy to industrious, but none frantic, managing to keep the air moving, but not quite able to roust a breeze. The congregation consisted of choir uniforms (4 or 5 choirs occupied different sections of the church—one even sang in Oroko); any imaginable style of dress made from fundraiser cloth; magnificent, towering, pinned-cloth hats; and a flock of video cameras from hand-held camcorders to the full over-the-shoulder professional-type. (Videographers were chided, later in the service, to honour the dignity of the service in performing their duties, and if not authorized to film the service, directed to go outside. The man sitting next to me appeared to be making an audio recording of parts of the service with his cell phone.)

The Presbyterians in Cameroon tend toward being a bit more high class, counting a lot of educated and business people among their ranks and they are more formal in their ceremonies. This ceremony started less than half an hour after the program suggested (and in my experience so far, program start times are just that—suggestions).

Piped choral music, sedate and reverent, soothed the congregation as we waited. The commencement of ceremonies was heralded by the beating of drums, and loud singing announced the proceedings. Following the choir procession was an interminable line of black-robed, red-stoled clergy (including a number of women) who filed in very slowly, numbering nearly as many as the congregation itself. (As the morning wore on, more and more people arrived, streaming in at breaks in the program—like after the sermon—so that by the end, the church, barely half full at the start, was packed.)

The first words spoken to start the program were a request: we “beg” you to “put off your phones.” That accomplished, the liturgy was opened, and the holy event began. As someone raised in a Mennonite church, I am always intrigued by liturgy; as a “word person,” I enjoy being able to follow and ponder the words of the service—though it can lead to distractions, like “good gracious, they mentioned political unrest, rebellion and terrorism in the ‘deliver us’ sections—this must be a recently updated reading” and “hmmm, those ideas are a lot more immediate to this crowd than they would be to one at home.” There were some typos, mixing up “give” and “guide,” and some slip-ups by the reader: dropping a word, or using a different preposition. Not a big deal, you might think, but then again, given the pains put into developing theologically sound creeds, heresy may rest upon something so simple as a “for” instead of a “to.”

The ordinands, including one woman, were introduced by name, their home presbytery, their present parish, their spouse, and number of children. The sermon, from the text Jeremiah 1:4-16, followed close after, urging the new reverends—and all the listeners gathered—to turn their eyes to see what God sees, not focusing on their own visions. The Presbyterian Church emphasizes both faith and intellect in its pastors, the speaker said; books vitalize the mind and faith nourishes the soul. (A disjointed tibit: I did a double take when he warned of “moral diffidence and growing sycophany” in society. Nobody else flinched. Am I the only one who finds this word choice surprising?)

The service began to drag as each of the multitude of black-robed, red-stoled clergy filed past the ordinands to lay on a hand, and to pray. Then the white-robed lay elders took their turn, but when one greeted the first new minister with a hug, the speaker urged “please shake hands, don’t embrace.” Cameroonians, I am told, do not cross their legs, and to do so in their presence indicates pomposity and arrogance. This may seem like a small thing, but it takes great forebearance to keep both feet on the floor during long church services, especially when sandwiched on a full bench. But the filing still wasn’t finished. Next, the wives of all the pastors filed past, some giving flowers to their spouse, minister announced with a smile “this is where the husbands of the pastors come in.

When all possible officials had filed past and the choir wrapped up their number (which sounded, for all the world, like “Bon Appetit, O Christ”!) the new reverends were asked to turn with their newly commissioned garments of service, to face to congregation and were greeted with whoops and calls.

It seemed pandemonium broke loose, and it continued in this boisterous vein as the offering was called with pounding drums and African-style singing. The four sections of the building each had a drop box for offering so despite having every row dance up to the offering box, the task was completed in good time. The different choirs spelled each other off, giving all a chance to shuffle past the plate. The lady behind me urged me to dance as I walked stiffly to do my part, but the lead weights in my feet and the 100s of years of Mennonite inhibitions are not shaken off so easily.

My heart sank when the Lord’s Table was unveiled next and each of the clergy filed past the officiating minister to receive the elements. I imagined the interminable wait for each person in the church to be served, but once all the clergy had been served, the congregation repeated the offering pattern with the 8 new ministers stationed in pairs around the church to serve their first communion to the congregation. The host was rice wafers and a light red bubbly. It was all handled so efficiently that even the organizers seemed surprised that the service was finished shortly before 1:00. Those with invitations were cordially invited to the official receptions for the moderator, new ordanands and “by invitation only” dignitaries, and those without were encouraged not to come. After this, each ordinand held their own reception open to all their friends and family. The girls with me were terribly disappointed to be welcomed at the second. They were hoping for a rare trip to a restaurant and escape from a sure-to-be long afternoon.

They guessed right and we were not spared. We reached the grounds for the reception around 2 but the feast was not unveiled until 5. Those at the moderator’s reception got a pre-meal meal. The rest of us had to be happy with a handful of popcorn and groundnuts to hold us through the program which followed. Lisa showed me the bulletin with a smirk on her face. “Hmm, does Dan know he’s the keynote speaker?” I asked, seeing his name on the roster. “I doubt it. I’d better go show him this.” Dan begged a pen and paper off me then slunk away to prepare some words before his moment in the limelight began. “At least you know there’s one part of the program that won’t go too long,” he encouraged the girls. Cameroonians are noteworthy for their ability to make long speeches on the spur of the moment. One of their key components is a great deal of repetition.

A choir led the processional to start the celebration with the solemnly-attired Reverend Eyakwe Joseph bringing up the rear. Next the honoured guests were invited to the “high table” with excessively flowery language and plenty of superlatives from the emcees, Gillian and TP. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s hilarious this handsome young man goes by the name “t-p”?) As friends of the man of the hour AND people with white skin to show off, Mike, Dan and Lisa were invited to the “high table” while the girls and I were seated in the second row of the “clergy” tent.

The choir sang again, songs tailored for the event, declaring its purpose, telling about Joe and honouring him. While they sang, anyone who particularly enjoyed the music could dance up to them and either throw money at the conductor, or hold it to his forehand and let it drop to his feet.

The chairman of the event — an honourary position and opportunity for more speechmaking — took it. A whole raft of speakers were called, including the hastily prepared Dan Friesen. The food at last was served after 5 o’clock (forgive me for dwelling on my stomach, but other than a handful of popcorn, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast at 7 that morning and it had been a long hot day of sermons and speeches).

We wolfed down our portions then escaped, for we had an errand to accomplish before returning home and we wanted to be on the road before dark which falls completely by 7:00. The reason all the girls (and possibly me!) were along was that we needed to be measured for our outfits for a wedding we will be involved in come January. Oh boy, a repeat of this kind of day, only this time we’ll be on display!


lasselanta said…
> "Bon Appetit, O Christ"

> 100s of years of Mennonite inhibitions

> "Does Dan know he's the keynote speaker?"

Still laughing... thanks for transporting me for a few minutes back to "that world"...

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