This Saturday morning service starts out the same as any Sunday service. The worship portion has already started and the music is pouring out of every opening of the small building. Somehow, I’m late again; I never seem to get to church early. (This is no different than when I attend church back home so I’m not sure why I’m surprised.)
Women, men and children, dressed in their “Sunday best,” quietly make their way to the open seats. This is the only thing quiet about the service. If you have ever attended a Haitian church, you are familiar with the one volume setting at which the speakers are set. Maximum. As the worship leader is at the pulpit, singing at the top of her lungs - all songs numbers, titles, and lyrics memorized - arms raised and swaying with the rhythm, I look around at the congregants. It’s a diverse age group and more often than not, all are singing without reservation. I smile at how quickly everyone can switch from Kreyol to French and back to Kreyol songs without a lag in the beats. Though I have my Chants D’Espérance songbook loaded on my phone, she calls the songs so quickly I can’t keep up. I just clap along.
This Saturday service is a monthly routine to those attending, but for me, there is a buzz of anticipation, as today is La Sentsèn and I will receive communion. For the Protestant churches in Haiti, La Sentsèn is Kreyol for The Sacrament. They use this term to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Church’s communion service.
About an hour later, we have moved to the preaching portion of the day. One of the pastors comes up to preach. My Kreyol is rudimentary at best but I know enough key words and body language to pull out most of the context. He is preaching about how Jezi Kri (Jesus Christ) died for our sins on the cross - for our salvation. There is such a sense of urgency to his words and prayers, I wonder if this is how Paul and Peter sounded to their congregations. Next, the pastè (pastor) comes to the pulpit to emphatically tell us about the importance of coming to receive the elements with a pure heart. This special occasion should not be taken lightly.
The deacons and pastors are getting the bread and wine ready while the preaching is happening. In Haitian churches, they do not wait quietly for the person speaking to complete their part and then move onto the next segment. There is an ebb and flow. People are still coming in, children are wandering from bench to bench and friend to friend, some are getting up to get water to drink, setting up to sing, etc. At first, this bothered me. This is not how things happen in Western suburban churches. “How rude,” I thought. “They should wait their turn.” Now, I have come to enjoy the symbolism that God is speaking to us (loudly) while we are busying ourselves with other things. It reminds me that God is ever present in our lives.
About another hour later (time becomes irrelevant for these days), it is time to receive the bread and wine. As people line up to accept the communion, they begin to pull out little cards. The paper cards are their baptism certificates. In Haitian Protestant churches, one must be baptized before being allowed to participate in communion. Each time you receive the sacraments, one of the pastors will sign off on the card that you participated with them. Thankfully, Evèk Daniel (Bishop Daniel) gave me a baptism card so I am good to go!
I wait my turn anxiously. It’s been over a month since I have participated in communion, and being raised as in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), this is a very important part of my church experience. As an added level of anticipation, I haven’t been able to fully participate in a church service since coming to Haiti. I can’t sing the songs (like I said, I can’t keep up), and I can’t fully understand the sermons. God doesn’t need words to show up and speak to me. However, I am yearning to connect in a familiar way with my Lord.
I hand my card over with a proud smile on my face. I take the chunk of bread handed to me and dip it into the wine. All the foreign feelings and surroundings melt around me. No longer am I visiting a church, no longer am I unsure of what is happening next, no longer am I a blan (foreigner). It is only me and God. I say to Him, “Hi, it’s been awhile.”
Once I come back to my surroundings, I notice there are bowls of all different shapes and sizes on the floor with towels and pastors standing in front of them. The bowls are filled with water. There will be a feet washing ceremony. This is a grand ceremony! Not all Haitian Protestant churches have a feet washing service in conjunction with La Sentsèn. Some churches only do it once a year. My excitement level is through the roof now. I’ve only had my feet washed once - at church camp by our Regional student leaders.
Everyone continues in line to the next open “station.” My turn has come. I sit in front of a kneeled pastor, slid off my sandals and place my feet in the pastor’s hands. He gently scoops the cool water and pours it over my feet. I can’t help but notice the stark difference between our skin colors and the size of my foot in his large hands. Then the gravity of the situation hits me. Here I am, the one who has traveled over a thousand miles to “serve” the local Haitian community - amazingly hopeful, joyful people who face daily struggles. I should be washing their feet! Not the other way around. Tears start to well up in my eyes. The presence of God in this moment is palpable. After drying my feet gently, I stand and the pastor holds my shoulders and tells me, ou te renmen. You are loved. He hugs me and the tears are flowing now. Haitians hug and hold hands with their friends and family for a longer time than we usually do in the United States. I know this, so I am enjoying the firm embrace and allow myself to be at peace with this humbling moment. It’s a hug that my soul has been craving for some time. I can physically feel the healing in my heart.
If you would have asked me, “What did you think about the service?” I would say, “I don’t have any words.” (Which obviously I do. Two pages worth to be specific.) But to sum up my La Santsèn experience, I would choose the word reconciliation. I’ve had my share of communion services over the years - some have been routine, some have been amazing. This one, this time, it was the physical examples of unconditional love coupled with humility that allowed me to realize the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice for me. For us. It is indescribable.
Michelle McKay serves as a Mission Co-worker with the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti (CONASPEH). Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS and your special gifts.