Sunday, May 5, 2013

Birds in Church

A story from my experience at a literacy workshop in Saidor, PNG last year (read more here).

... not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it….So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
Matthew 10:29, 31

Black-backed birds darted above me, hopping between rafters like trapeze artists, chattering with their mouths full, flitting past a mural of a frozen Holy Spirit trying to perch on Jesus’ shoulder.  It was Sunday morning, and they were building their nests in church.

I uncrossed my ankles, twisting my neck toward the window as I tried to peel my muscles from the hardwood backless benches without elbowing the girl nearly pressed into my side. Stretching in a crowded church is like playing Tetris. I glanced across the aisle. At least, it’s that way on the women’s side. The men’s benches were flecked with only few boys and old men.

It was August 2012, and I was on staff at a 5-week literacy course for rural teachers of the Rai Coast of Madang province, which was known for its 20+ vibrant languages (none with translated Scriptures) and low education levels (see blog posts here and here). No pastor here, I peered around the congregation. And no Bibles either—except mine.

One of the elderly men, barefoot and long-sleeved, creaked to his feet and shuffled to the front of the church. “Christianity is like banking,” he announced, using Tok Pisin, PNG’s vague and unwieldy trade language. “Doing good deeds puts money in the bank. Doing bad deeds is withdrawing from your account.” My leg was numb, asleep, and I ground my heel into the floor—wake up! “Christianity is good news!” His voice grew louder, as if desperate for volume to communicate Truth when the Scriptures were incomprehensible—“When the end comes, you better have a positive balance if you want to go to heaven!” His fist smashed into the pulpit like a door slamming shut.

What?! Fire shot up my leg as feeling returned in explosive fireworks, and I gasped, sucked air between gritted teeth. The echo shattered through the rafters, scattering the birds, but the woman in front of me just nodded and a mange-bitten dog beneath the bench slapped his tail.

“Stand up and let us pray.” I couldn’t move. Together, he and the women around me, eyes downcast, whispered petitions of help and protection, but I only looked up—above his murmuring head was hung a wooden crucifix, a dying man’s arms spread in a payment that we could never make. He is weeping.

So am I.

Suddenly, with one voice, the flock of church birds begin to chirp, sing, cry in a growing crescendo until  they are screeching, screaming, shouting with the enthusiasm of a revival tent meeting, and I can no longer hear the man at the pulpit. Amidst the din, the women whisper amen and I watch them, one by one, rise, turn, and walk toward the door and lift yet another burden to their shoulders. Just try harder today. Do better. That’s what God wants.

But above me and the crucifix, the birds rejoice in their own language, wings dark against the stained glass, pink, blue, green, gold louvers now cracked and broken, giving forbidden entrance to a flock of sparrows. They don’t worry about falling here.

I watch, one by one, the slumped backs of the women leaving the sanctuary, holding children, touching holy water to forehead, shoulders, the faithful trying to heed His call, deaf to His unintelligible words: how much more valuable are you...