Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sabbatical Day 14

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Worship at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church at Sogakope

Prelude - Breakfast on the Pier
The dining pier in background,
the hospitality manager
prepares to feed some ducks
with bread from the fridge
visible on the pier.
Breakfast at the Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm, just as at the Coconut Grove in Elmina, is served at an open-air dining space. Unlike the Coconut Grove, however, the Holy Trinity's dining area has a television mounted on a bracket just inside the entryway and, while we were there, piping CNN news or the Federations Cup. Also unlike the Coconut Grove, breakfast was always pre-assembled and waiting for us under cover.

On the Saturday we arrived we had not yet had breakfast, so the hospitality manager asked us what we would like, perhaps a full English breakfast. We said yes then, and on Sunday and Monday also, sensing by then that we really did not have very many options. The Holy Trinity full English breakfast would include a two-egg omelet seasoned with what appeared to be scallion and bell pepper. This was served beside baked beans and what passed for sausages but looked like hot dogs that had been scored for effect. As I write this now, some weeks later, I seem to recall there being a small serving of sauteed mushrooms also.  A side plate included a selection of fresh mango and orange slices, sometimes papaya or watermelon.

Additionally on the main plate would be two perfect slices of white bread, slightly stale, as if stiff bread was somehow the same thing as toast. Driving about we would almost always see at street corners women selling the kind of loaves from which these slices had been cut - long and rectangular (or square if you looked at them edge-on) and with a faint yellow crust in clear plastic, stacked in piles impossibly deep either at the roadside or in massive basins on the women's heads. The Holy Trinity had a refrigerator situated on the pier between tables overlooking the river and facing the television. Its top shelves were populated by loaf after loaf of the stuff. I only ever saw it served for breakfast until this morning, so why they needed so much was a bit of a mystery.

Nestle breakfast beverages
Then, there was the matter of the coffee. The day we arrived we had been greeted by an office worker who asked whether we would perhaps like an espresso or cappuccino after such a torturous night and subsequently long morning on the road from Tema. Coco and I gratefully accepted, and Gwen was provided hot cocoa, from a machine that seemed very similar to the coffee machine that had greeted us at our hotel in Paris. It took a while for the beverages to arrive, though arrive they did and happily. Strangely enough, we learned that the pause was due to the fact that the machine had not been turned on until we arrived. This morning, as we passed through the lobby on our way to breakfast, I asked whether we might again enjoy a cup of cappuccino. After a similarly long period, it was served - again, I presume, because they had not turned on the machine before I made the request. Once we were on the pier and seated, we discovered that our table was supplied with a plate full of Nescafe packets and a pot of hot water. A small pot of semi-skimmed milk was there also and a bowl with sachets of sugar. From this moment forward in Ghana, this sufficed as coffee.

Each morning but this one, we would have breakfast as a family alone on the pier. This morning, however, a rather important looking man appeared. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar, slacks, and loafers. Attending him were two members of the staff. Once he had been seated, at the table on the other side of the refrigerator from us, the first staff member exited after a quiet exchange of words. As soon as the first was gone, the second - a man who did not appear to be Ghanaian but, rather, Indian or Sri Lankan as I observed his skin tone and hair texture - produced from behind his back a small tray with items for shaving on it. There was a soap for making foam and a brush for mixing and applying it, as well as a straight razor and a towel. He placed the towel over the other man's shoulders, mixed the foam, and applied it to his head and face. He then proceeded to shave the important looking man. When he was done, he wiped the remaining foam with the towel until the man was gleaming and stood aside at comparative ease. In a moment, the first staff member appeared with the important looking man's breakfast.

As you may have seen from yesterday's post-ending video, there are ducks - white and mallard (?) - that live at the Holy Trinity. They are very interested in the human breakfasts that happen on the pier, since, it appears, one of the reasons for having meals in that open-air, watery setting is to provide for an easy method of waste disposal. Servers empty unfinished plates over the railing of the pier and into the Volta River. These ducks are very fond of this practice. I noticed, they seemed very well acquainted with the important looking man, and made quite a fuss in the water while he was being shaved. During his breakfast, he looked over at me with a twinkle in his eye and said something in the local dialect to the first man, who went to the refrigerator and withdrew two of the loaves of bread from it. He handed one loaf to the important looking man and unwrapped his own, as the important looking man unwrapped his and stood up from his chair with his napkin still attached at his collar. This now got Gwen's attention because the waterfowl were making such a racket. Each of the men broke their loaves and chucked first one half and then the other as far as they could out into the river. A huge commotion ensued as the ducks swarmed upon sinking loaves. Laughing at the sight, the important looking man sat back down and returned to his breakfast.

Gershon arrived, a moment later, to take us to church with him. We lingered for a bit, waiting for Gwen to finish her breakfast and Coco and me to empty our coffee cups. Then, Gershon said that he learned worship had already started at the church in Sogakope. So, we exchanged waves with the man and his attendants, and off we went.

"By the way. Do you know who that was having breakfast on the pier?" I asked Gershon when we were in the van.

"No, I haven't any idea," he said. "But he seemed to recognize me."

The important looking man, dressed
more formally than when we saw him.
Pres. Akufo-Addo
I said that I had thought he might be a local chief or, perhaps, a government executive. His round features and gleaming face reminded me of President Akufo-Addo. "No, I don't think so. I don't know who he is, but I am pretty certain he isn't in government," said Gershon, and we continued on to join Sogakope's Evangelical Presbyterian Church already in progress.

The next night at dinner, the hospitality manager asked me, "Are you a pastor?"

I said, "Yes, I am. And so is Rev. Dotse who has been showing us around."

"My boss thought you might be," he said. "He thought you had the look of a pastor."

"Your boss? Dr. Anyah? How am I acquainted with him?"

"Why, you and he both had breakfast at the same time, yesterday. That was when he saw you and your friend. He said to tell you he is honored to have you stay at the Holy Trinity."

"Well, please tell him that I am sorry we had to leave in such a hurry. But we are honored as well, to be here."

We did indeed arrive about fifteen minutes after worship had begun at Sogakope's E. P. Church. Music was playing and the congregation singing as we approached the building's covered porch. Deacons stood at either side of the door to the worship space which was barred with a two-by-six plank until they saw us and removed it. The custom is to hold the crowd during the individual movements of the service, but to seat latecomers only when an informal moment arises after the opening of worship; hence, the board. Gershon said that he did not plan to ask for a place of prominence since we were late arriving, but did I want to be seated in the chancel? I said no, I agreed with him, and so one of the deacons showed us to a pew slightly more than halfway up that was empty enough to accommodate us. It had three women seated in it, who moved to the other end as first Coco, then Gwen, then I made our way in. Gershon sat next to me near the end.

Evans had dropped us off in the lot and then gone on to find parking. He appeared, a few minutes later. But by this time, our pew had taken on a couple more people at Gershon's end, so he stepped up to the next pew, where he was invited to sit between a couple of apparently eligible women who seemed delighted to have our handsome young driver crowded in the midst of them. At one point in the service, one of them even put her arm around him over the pew back, one supposed in order to make more room but maybe not.

The congregation was singing a hymn when we arrived which seemed familiar. When it ended, I remarked to Gershon that, had I been singing it back home, it would have been "Higher Ground." He said that, had I been able to sing in Ewe, I would have been singing that also.

A tall young woman stepped to the lectern and read a prayer. Gershon told me all the different purposes for which she was praying. After she said "Amen," Gershon told me that she was inviting the choirs of the church to sing. The first choir to assemble was the chancel choir - about thirty men and women, all in liturgical robes. Some of the women wore turbans, some scarves, and some wore mortar boards. I asked Gershon whether they were students. He said, "No. In the E. P. Church we try to emphasize the equality of all people regardless of gender. As a result we have many women in prominent positions in the church. You noticed that the liturgist here is a woman, and her head is uncovered. But we have not been able to shake the idea from some that, despite Paul's admonition in First Corinthians, they do not have to have their heads covered. And in every church choir I know, the women wear head coverings. If they do not arrive at church with something on their heads, we always have mortar boards available for them to put on. And so that is why they're wearing mortar boards."

"No kidding," I said.

"No, no kidding," he said.

And, I will tell you, sure enough: All but two church choirs I heard and saw which included women did indeed have every female member with her head under wrap. The two choirs that did not were contemporary music choirs whose female members, in their twenties, had forgone either scarf or mortar board. A recording of the contemporary music choir at Sogakope is included at right. You can't see them, but these women are uncovered.

During the anthem, a tall thin woman suddenly appeared in the aisle at the other end of our pew. By now, most latecomers such as ourselves had arrived, and most of the seating was taken but not all of it. Certainly, our pew was full. She nevertheless indicated to the three women at the far end that she desired to take a seat between the nearest of them and Coco. She was quite insistent, wedging her thin self into the scant space and practically sitting on my wife as a result. I scooted closer to Gershon and Gershon to the men at his right, and Coco with a look of bewilderment and frustration did her best to make room as the woman proceeded to assume as much space as she could.

When the chancel choir had finished, four more choirs were invited to sing their portions of the service - a junior women's choir, a mixed choir of young women and men, a senior women's choir, and a men's choir. In the case of the first, not only did they sing, but as they sang, the congregation came to their feet, clapping the rhythm along with the drum and tambourine. And then one of the senior women began dancing. Others stood and joined her. First, they danced in their places, then they emptied out into the aisles and danced in front of the choir. Before long, they persuaded a young couple dressed in white and seated on the front row to get up up and dance with them. Soon, more people in the pews were dancing and making their way into the aisles. For ten or fifteen minutes this went on. The dancers returned to their seats after this, although much dancing ensued during the time of offering as people brought gifts forward.

Looking to my left as I stood with my fellow pew members, I saw what I expected: Gwen overwhelmed with the volume of the song, as surreptitiously as she was able, working her hands up to her ears to dampen the sound. Seeing this too, Coco drew her close so that only one hand might be needed. When the song was over and we were seated again, Gwen seemed a bit more comfortable, but I noted to Gershon that when an opportunity presented itself we ought to see if Gwen and Coco might be able to observe the rest of the service from outside. It was heating up with all the energy and the process of the day toward noon, not to speak of the unwelcome worshiper who was practically on Coco's lap, and even with ceiling fans turning at full I knew Coco probably would need to step aside too. Gershon said that the offering, which was coming up after the men's choirs had sung, would provide such an opportunity. We would walk up with our offerings, and we could exit out the side.

The E. P. Church is not a big denomination, and it suffers from a lack of ordained ministers according to the number of churches there are to be served. This combination of circumstances results in the fact that, when an ordained minister visits a congregation, it is not unusual for him to be recognized. Here in Sogakope, if the Rev. Gershon Dotse was hoping to avoid notice he was bound to be grossly disappointed. For the pastor of the Sogakope church was a classmate of his at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra. Therefore, proceeding to the front for the sake of making an offering, Gershon was noticed. The pastor, who also arrived late for the service (He had been elsewhere for the morning, present at one of the three other churches he also has charge of.), was entering as Gershon and I were escorting Coco and Gwen out to a shade tree in a courtyard near the church. To Gwen, we offered the chance to attend Sunday School in a nearby out building, but she elected to stay with Mom in the shade. Meanwhile, Gershon and his friend were falling all over each other with joy at meeting again. It appeared that our host's return had not been much publicized. Now, it would be impossible for us to return to the row behind Evans and his bevy of interested eligibles.

The pastor insisted that we must sit up front with him. Chairs were brought, and there we sat, as the music for the offering ended and the stands for the offering were removed from the center. The liturgist announced, by Gershon's translation, that scripture would be read. As she announced the names of the readers, four rather confused looking people came forward. "Apparently, they didn't know they were expected to read," I was told, but I was also assured that, finally, I would be able to hear something in English, since the third reading of the day was to be in a biblical version other than Ewe. The confused readers persevered through their readings, even the one who was not reading in Ewe. Unfortunately for me, however, the passage was not in English but in Twi.

As the readings continued, more chairs were added to the chancel, and now people who looked like dignitaries were seated with us - a middle aged man in robes of kente cloth, an older woman decked in pale blue whom another man presented almost ceremoniously with a paperback book that had his picture on the back of it.

Now, the preacher - a lay member of the congregation - arose. And, although his sermon was surprisingly brief (perhaps ten minutes) and although he infused his message with much humor, and although Gershon said that he thought for sure there would be some translation provided, the Spirit's guidance was offered in Ewe only. "I will tell you later what he said," Gershon promised.

The service drew to an end. Community announcements were made, including an invitation, as I understood it, for people to remain for a talk by an inspirational author who was present. The pastor was introduced by the liturgist, and he then introduced "Osofo Gershon 'Doochay'" to the congregation, who immediately applauded with much enthusiasm. Osofo means "Pastor"; Doo-chay, it turns out, is how Gershon's surname (Dotse) is actually pronounced. Gershon, in turn, invited me to join him and introduced me, "Osofo David Denoon." This elicited a surprisingly widespread intake of breath and subsequent "Aaaah!" and a fair amount of murmuring. Gershon and the pastor both explained to me at the same time that there is a very popular minister in the E. P. Church with the same last name as mine. Now it was my turn to gasp and say, "Aah." I said that I had not known I had relatives in Ghana but that I would be interested to know him and find out whether we are in fact related. Then, I turned to the church and with Gershon's help (translating) told them the purpose of my visit - renewal and a bit of adventure. Everyone seemed very approving of my interest in adventuring, especially in Sogakope. Gershon then excused us, and we bade a hasty exit as the pastor introduced the speaker.

Meanwhile, out under the shade tree, Coco and Gwen had been amused by a little girl who was playing near them. She was maybe three years old and, after much wandering around the grounds but refusing to attend Sunday School, she had become much enamored of a pile of rubble just on the other side of my family. Mother and daughter, it turned out, were seated just beyond the worksite where a new parsonage was being constructed in the church compound. So, the stuff in this pile were odds and ends from the building. Eventually the allure of the rubble wore off, and Coco caught her attention. Or, it would probably be more precise to say, Coco's relative pallor caught her attention. Coco says that, while in conversation with Evans who had managed to give the slip to the women in his pew, she suddenly became aware of a presence beside her. It was the little girl, staring at her arm with her mouth gaping. "Hello," Coco said gently.

The girl now looked up at her face, still reflecting a fearsome awe. As she did so, Coco turned her right arm over to reveal the still more pale underside of it and stroked it with the fingers of her left hand. The girl seemed genuinely alarmed, possibly wondering what affliction would cause her to become so pale and her hair to straighten. Evans at first tried to explain that Coco was from a far away country where many people are her color, but he was speaking in Twi rather than the local Ewe. So his explanation made no sense to her.

By this time, the girl had been in my family's vicinity for almost an hour, and no one had come to check on her. Coco wondered aloud whether her parents might be in the sanctuary but didn't know how to call for them. Evans tried to ask around about the girl, but no one seemed to know who her parents might be. At the same time, no one appeared worried, either, especially not the little girl... except about Coco's frightful lack of melanin! I, of course, want to be able to say that Christian community can include everybody, enough to rest assured that belonging will be a quality ascribed to all among you on any given day. Still, it would have been nice to find her parents or older siblings or somebody who knew her, just to ease our consciences from having driven off at the end of worship.

Gwen would spend the rest of this day with her new friend Jennifer. Jennifer would take her around the grounds, showing her the stables and the snack bar (which includes a wet bar that not surprisingly overlooks a threatening-looking crocodile enclosure!). Jennifer even served her an orange Fanta - Gwen's staple beverage during our time away.

Gershon offered to take me to an evening service at Sogakope's E. P. Church but, upon finding out from his friend that the night would just be a lay-led music service, elected instead to take advantage of the pastor's hospitality and grant me a quiet evening.

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