A church service like no other

*Sorry for the delay..we’ve had no internet for the week. I only have a short time to use the computer now, so here’s a short one. I’ll post more on Saturday before I leave as well as some more when I get back. Needless to say, my week here has been amazing. Camp has started and will definitely blog about it next!

 

“The Church, it is not here. But we the people, we are the church”

Last weekend me and the other volunteers visited a refugee camp in Ghana, about half an hour away. We were asked as we entered not to take any pictures out of respect. The camp serves as a place of refuge to 7,000 people who have fled from the Ivory Coast. Many arrived between May and June, however some are still arriving. Visiting the camp was definitely an emotional experience for us all. Upon entering the camp, we were led around the grounds and soon began walking through a sea of white tents, each stamped by the words UNICEF. I wish I could have seen the camp from a bird’s eye view, because I couldn’t believe so many people were living there. In each tent lived 8 people, some just one family, some combined. The money that the refugees have currently, is only the money they came with from the Ivory Coast. If they had items they wanted to sell however, they were able to go into the nearest towns and do so. We had the chance to walk and talk with some of the refugees, and heard stories that brought tears to our eyes. We were told some of the children had parents that were killed and had to flee with their mothers, some with no parents at all. One man said he has some of his kids with him, but that some were left behind. Another man said that before he had to flee, he witnessed the enemies shoot people, and burn them with gasoline, right in front of him. So many traumatic experiences. So many broken families and lost loved ones. In that moment I wish I was able to give them so much. Turns out I left the camp with them giving me an experience and memory to last a lifetime instead.

It all started when we were invited to join their church. We headed towards a school building, where we heard masses of people singing, and dancing. When we got closer, we saw not only was a church service going on, but quite a lively and upbeat one it was! There were two school buildings with mostly adults sitting in desk chairs. Between both buildings was a group of people gathered in a circle singing a church song. Though it was all in French and only one of us understood what was going on around us, we threw ourselves right into the circle dance and began clapping and moving to the beat. We were instantly greeted with smiles all around. After about 20 minutes of different song and dance, everyone sat down in the two classrooms, and prayer began. The services were run by a French speaking priest, though there was also an American man with an interpretor. We were told he was responsible for supporting this camp; he seemed like a very likeable and respectable man by the community. Being a part of this church service was so moving. Even without understanding, I was able to sense the strong spirituality and religious beliefs among these refugees. I looked around, and saw so many people with tightly closed eyes, arms in the air, faces in their hands, and teary eyes. As I looked around, I saw one man who continued to look down and wipe his eyes and nose, as tears continuously fell from his face. I thought to myself, I could only imagine what the people all around me were thinking, praying, and how important this time was for them. Who were they thinking of? What did they miss? What were their hopes? I felt really sad for them and though I am not very religious myself, it was in that moment that I closed my own teary eyes, and began to pray for these refugees- I hoped they will find whatever family members they are missing. I hoped they will eventually get a chance to go back home. And I thought positive thoughts that one day Ivory Coast will be a safe and peaceful place soon. I wasn’t able to understand at the time but later found out that at the end of the service when people were asked to make testimonies, one woman stood up and said that she fleed without knowing where her children were. She had been calling her house in the Ivory Coast, where she suspected they were living, though for a while there’s been no answer. One day recently she called, and her children picked up the phone! They were there and were safe, and she was happily able to tell them she was safe as well; they thought she had been killed.

The American priest said something to the congregation that very much stands out in my memory. He said to the people “The church, it is not here. But we the people, we are the church.” As I continue to think back on the experience, and after having visited the camp a 2nd time now, I am realizing that though these refugees have been through so much, they are making the best with the situation they have been given. It was so amazing to see such happy people dancing to prayer songs at such a sad place. The 2nd time I visited, I saw a few kids waiting to get their buckets filled with water to have a shower. While they waited, they sang a few different songs, did hand games, and laughed non-stop. It’s so inspiring to see people adapt to an environment no matter how barren it may be, and even more so, to see such a large group of people who have been through so much negative in their life, yet still have such strong faith in their religion. It really also makes you realize that it doesn’t always matter where you are, but if you have the people you love, and a strong community of family and friends, that’s all that matters. As the priest said, it is true that they were not in their own churches from the Ivory Coasts, but that it didn’t matter because they had what they needed- A strong community, positive outlooks, and faith-and that was enough.

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