Worshipping in the Beauty of Holiness
This issue of inSpire features stories of Princeton Seminary alumni/ae and students in mission across the world. Because worship of God is central to how Christians of all nations and cultures express their faith, for this inSpire Interactive, we invited readers to share an experience of worship in which they have participated in a culture or nation other than their own. We received responses from graduates of all decades, degree programs, and geographies.
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We go forth in mission as ambassadors of the gospel. Whether we like it or not, we also go as ambassadors of our culture. Some of us have issues with being ambassadors from the U.S.A., especially given our country’s recent military exploits throughout the world. At times I’ve felt uncomfortable traveling to other lands, as if wearing the emblem of empire on my shoulders like a Roman soldier from days of yore. In light of the “ugly American” syndrome, an unexpected gift I received on a mission trip was reconstructed patriotism.
In June 2002 a youth-adult mission team from Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (Asheville, North Carolina) was hosted by its sister congregation in Coatepeque, Guatemala. While in Guatemala, our North Carolina mission team intended to observe the Fourth of July like any other day. Given our country’s shameful treatment of Guatemalans, we didn’t plan on celebrating Independence Day in their backyard.
Yet they planned a wonderful celebration for us! A special meal for dinner with a star-spangled cake. A worship service that gave thanks to God for both countries. One of our team processed in with the flag of Guatemala. One of their members processed in with “Old Glory.” Right there in the sanctuary. It was a glory-filled occasion indeed.
We were no longer ashamed to be Americans in that place. Through my own tears, I could see tears of pride in the eyes of my fifteen-year-old son. My son felt alienated from this country because of how our government has behaved in recent years. Yet it was okay to be patriotic on this night, and in this way. It was a gift of friendship, not an emblem of empire. When the worship service was over, we all piled out into the courtyard to light sparklers and—of all things—Roman candles!
Adapted from Mission Trips That Matter: Embodied Faith for the Sake of the World, by Don C. Richter (Upper Room Books, 2008).
Don C. Richter (M.Div., 1981; Ph.D., 1992)
In the early 1990s I led a mixed group of church members and Rotarians to work outside of Leogane, Haiti. Sunday morning found twenty of us worshipping in an open brick church with about 400 Haitians all seated on simple, backless benches. The service was in Creole, except for my homily, which was translated. When the pastor invited the congregation into a time of prayers of the people, all of the congregants stood up, turned around to face their bench, and knelt down. When the pastor began praying, they did too...out loud, with great fervor! Hearing all the Creole voices lifted in extemporaneous prayer and feeling the wind blowing through the open bricks gave me a new appreciation for what Pentecost must have been like! The look of shock on the face of a non-churchgoing Rotarian friend was priceless.
Guy D. Griffith (M.Div., 1986)
A most memorable service of worship occurred in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than a thousand people gathered in a church building with wooden planks stretched over support timbers for pews. Four different choirs danced and sang joyful music to begin the service. The service was all in Swahili and my translator provided sufficient words for me to join in the praise to Almighty God.
The service moved with excitement and joy. The two-and-one-half hours passed rapidly as the leaders preached a forty-five minute sermon, took three offerings, and celebrated the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was not a typical United Methodist worship service conducted in Northwest Texas or New Mexico, but it was a service where I found myself in the presence of God, challenged to follow Jesus Christ, and assured that nothing could ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Max Whitfield (D.Min., 1983)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I am a member of a tradition (Church of Christ) that uses exclusively a cappella music in worship, and in the United States we usually sing our songs in four-part harmony, which is often quite beautiful. When a friend and I visited Guatemala a few years ago, we sought out a Church of Christ in Antigua. Running late to the Sunday morning worship service, we were startled to hear the congregation singing—very loudly—from all the way down the street. It turns out they worship in a store-front location with an open garage door in the front. This church didn’t use any harmony, but they did sing a cappella, and at the top of their lungs. Worshipping with them was startlingly different, and surprisingly beautiful and powerful.
Scott Haile (M.Div./M.A., 2005; Th.M., 2006)
Prai Paha, a tiny rural village on the remote island of Sumba, Indonesia, invited me to perform eighty-five baptisms, twelve weddings, and twenty confirmations. The names were scribbled on pieces of paper for me with great care, but it was excruciating to pronounce some of them (though I had memorized the rest of the baptismal formula in the local dialect). An elder from our U.S. congregation recorded me on video as I spoke with a Sumbanese man and his daughter. The man told me she was having trouble with her eyes and wanted me to pray. The elder later asked me, “Did he speak English?” “Not a word,” I said. “How did you know what he was saying?” To this day, I have no idea. Actually, I do.
Noel Anderson (M.Div., 1985)
Born and raised in a Christian family, with regular worship as the centerpiece of family time, it is not a big leap for me to have broadened my practices in the past fifteen years to encompass Buddhism. Having lived in Asia for years and participated in worship/meditation practice in Buddhist and Hindu temples, my Christian practices have been greatly enriched by Buddhist sitting and walking meditation. As my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has often said, stay within your root tradition, and incorporate worship practices from other traditions as well. In Asia, this is easily done where Buddhism is the dominant faith. So, even as worship of God is central to how Christians express their faith, blending mindfulness meditation is a means of following the Psalmist’s lead to “be still and know...”
David J. Powell (M.Div., 1970)
East Granby, Connecticut
Crosscultural worship and experiences have shaped who I am and have been a critical part of my education. Living and studying at the University of Allahabad in India during my junior year in college helped me begin to understand who I am as a Westerner. Serving as a pastor in the West Virginia Mountain Project after seminary opened my eyes to who I am as a middle-class American. Serving as an interim pastor in a predominantly African American congregation in the late 1960s taught me who I am as a white person. Serving with a series of women pastors as colleagues in an inner-city congregation instructed me powerfully who I am as a male. Worshipping with GLBT friends in a variety of settings has helped me see the ramifications of my heterosexuality. I thank God for these formative experiences in my life.
Ron Roberts (M.Div., 1959)
In 2000 I went to Malawi, Africa, for the first time. One Sunday, I was asked to preach at a church outside of Mzuzu. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by the women’s guild, in uniform, singing. During worship, both in English and Timbuku, children wandered from adult to adult, finding comfort in the laps of whoever would lift them up. The offering was the most joyous part of the service, with worshippers filing forward singing and dancing and dropping coins and bills in metal bowls, leaving produce and eggs around the table. And this happened four times! What a witness: people who had so little giving joyfully to the work of Christ’s church. I have no idea what my sermon was about, and I’m sure they don’t remember the lady preacher’s words either! Their joyful hospitality and generosity preached the gospel more than any of my words ever could.
Elizabeth Boone McLean (M.Div., 1991)
In 1993 I led a group of twelve students from Jamestown College on a mission trip to the tiny village of Peb ‘il Pam in Guatemala. While we were there, a girl who lived in the hut next to us was killed when she was kicked by a horse. We grieved with her family as we made a pilgrimage with her casket the following day to the closest village with a church. A lay priest led the service in their native tongue of Jacalteco. He occasionally spoke in Spanish those same texts in John 14 I have so often read at funerals. As we sat on the floor of that tiny church with brothers and sisters with whom we shared no common language (none of them spoke Spanish), with differences in economic level, race, and geography, we experienced the one unity that really matters—our oneness in Jesus Christ.
Deena Candler (M.Div., 1981)
In 1988 I traveled to the U.S.S.R. on a trip sponsored by the Network of Biblical Storytellers. We worshipped on a Sunday in a packed Lutheran church in Riga, Latvia. Glasnost had been in place for a short time, and the restlessness that would soon lead to the breakaway of the Baltic republics had begun. The pastor of that Lutheran congregation was involved in the secession movement, and was under surveillance by the KGB, especially after he boldly advertised that an American group was coming!
There were seventeen baptisms in that worship service. At one point the ushers removed two men who were suspected KGB agents. But the high point was when one of our group recited Matthew 5–7 from memory as the sermon. Hearing such words as “Do not resist an evildoer…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” knowing that the congregation was filled with those who were familiar with such oppression firsthand, was one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life.
Robert C. Smith (M.Div., 1981)
I wandered through the streets of a small Baja, California, village. Lively music filled an alleyway, luring me in, like those cartoons depicting a wafting scent to carry you further. Stepping into an old stone church, I sat on a hard, wooden pew. Parishioners, decked out in brilliant colors, began to find their way into the warm, candle-filled sanctuary. Chickens busied themselves outside the windows, scurrying to and fro, screeching and tossing feathers in sudden flurries. The familiar Catholic rite moved steadily to scripture (Transfiguration Sunday) and homily. The priest was captivating, describing the presence of Moses and Elijah as two important presences in our lives: Moses, representing the tradition, and Elijah, who takes us into God’s immediate future. Moved by the moment, I felt a oneness with those gathered who both cling to the past as a familiar anchor and yet bravely move to embrace a new future.
George Cladis (M.Div., 1980)
In 1979 I was part of a group touring India and Nepal, visiting the work of the Indian churches and our ecumenical missions in the two countries. In a remote village in Nepal where we supported a mission hospital, we joined the local Christian congregation of about a dozen people for Sunday worship. The usual elements of worship were present: hymns, prayers, scripture, sermon. What was unusual was the setting. We were on the ground level of a large house, seated in a circle on the floor of the room that was devoid of symbols or furnishings. There was no pulpit or lectern or communion table. Different parts of the service were led by different people around the circle. We were told the arrangement made it impossible for a government official who might look in to identify a leader. At that time it was illegal to proselytize or to convert to Christianity. The penalty for conversion was one year in jail.
Tom Cavicchia (M.Div., 1954)
An unforgettable moment of communion: two summers ago, worshipping at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland, a silver communion chalice was passed through the pews, engraved “1648.” As I drank from the cup, I found myself connected to saints long gone, yet somehow, in that moment, still remembered. My ancestors may have been among them.
Mary Pugh (M.Div., 1990)
During this past year I have been privileged to pastor the Victory Gospel Experience in Camp Victory, Iraq. Though predominantly African American, we had a healthy mix of European Americans, Australians, Koreans, Ugandans, and Hispanic Americans who worshipped with us. Because we had outgrown the chapel, we met in the ballroom of the Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War. It was awesome to worship Jesus Christ in a place originally designed for other purposes—a place that some of the former members of Saddam’s Army feared to enter when they visited, because they had once known it as a place that some never left. However, as we worshipped in that place, God changed our lives so that we did not leave there the same as we entered. We were continually being changed by God’s Spirit.
Peter O. Dissmore (Th.M., 2005)
In the summer of 2006, my husband, Donald, and I worked with Amity Foundation in rural Jiangsu Province of China teaching English to English teachers. One method I used was to stage a mock wedding—straight out of our Book of Common Worship. We talked about wedding practices in both our countries. I explained to them what my role was as a pastor (not an easy thing when there is no concept of religion, church, or clergy). Parts were assigned and we did a full wedding ceremony, complete with embarrassed bride. You may not think of this as “worship,” and yet this liturgy provided a basis for sharing faith and communicating across some considerable barriers. Just now I heard from my teaching assistant that she was safe from the earthquake, and that the Chinese people are rallying to the aid of others. It’s good to continue our deep care for one another.
Dianna Bell (M.Div., 1973)
In the fall of 1992, not long after the first Gulf War, I went to Turkey, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine with mission staff of the UCC. We visited missionaries and partner churches in the region. The Sunday we were in Jerusalem, I worshipped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the days preceding we had met with Iraqi refugees, with Jewish peacemakers, with Palestinian farmers, doctors, and theologians, with so many who suffered from hate and division. Holy Sepulchre is divided into many different chapels, reflective of the divisions in the Christian church. I sat in a small open chapel, with a bronze frieze of the risen Christ meeting Mary in the garden, and I heard all around me the worship of many traditions. Greek Orthodox chant melded with Coptic chant and Latin chant and Armenian chant. I understood not a word, but the blending of these divided traditions evoked the Spirit of hope in and for me in the midst of a region filled with pain. I will never forget that day.
Rochelle Stackhouse (M.Div., 1982)
New Haven, Connecticut
I have had the opportunity to worship in Kenya about a dozen times over the past several years. The Presbyterian Church of East Africa has a great and growing presence in Nairobi and in the rural areas. Churches are filled to overflowing; often worshippers are standing outside open windows, and loudspeakers play the worship service into crowded courtyards. New churches are always being built; old churches are being expanded. Whether they have walked miles in the red Kenyan dirt to get to church, or driven to church in their cars, which are newly washed by their “house help,” Kenyans arrive to church looking their best.
Kenyan Presbyterians are committed Christians, worshipping joyously and enthusiastically. Worship is in English, Kiswahili, and tribal languages. Men and women participate, youth and elders lead worship. Tithe boxes adorn the periphery of the sanctuaries, in addition to offerings taken during the service. Lay preaching is frequent, fine, and done always without manuscripts. Hymns are accompanied by electric pianos, guitars, and drums, and voices are lifted harmoniously and jubilantly. Kenyans praise God at all times—through sermon, prayer, and music. Worship continues all morning, and is brought to the housebound all afternoon through community visitation. Kenyan Christians provide their American counterparts with a real infusion of faith.
Laurie McKnight (M.Div., 2006; Th.M., 2007)
Heuvelton, New York
While serving as interim at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, Alaska, I was sent to visit their sister Russian Orthodox congregation on the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Arctic. I stayed in the priest’s home next to the church and attended daily services, where three hours of liturgy in an ancient language, standing the entire time, began to be a bit tedious. The many visual reminders of faith, the plentiful candles and the consistent sounds of chanting and a cappella singing, all in an atmosphere of subdued lighting, suddenly came quietly and profoundly alive for me during the third day service. I was overwhelmed with an awareness of the presence of God in an ancient liturgy that is focused on prayer. A significant part of the body of Christ, the Eastern church, given a nod at best during my studies at PTS, has subsequently become part of my experience of the church catholic.
Robert Bayley (M.Div., 1973)
Tauranga, New Zealand
On World Communion Sunday at the La Cañada Presbyterian Church, we invite Christian pastors from around the world who are studying in Los Angeles to serve the Lord’s Supper in our congregation. We set up eight communion tables in the front of our sanctuary and in the chancel area. Each table has a pastor from another nation and an elder from our congregation. We have had pastors from Japan, Korea, Romania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Palestine, France, Macedonia, and Brazil join us. As the congregation comes forward to receive the sacrament, they gather in groups of twelve around each table. The pastor and elder distribute the elements to the people at their table. After everyone at the table has received the sacrament, the pastor prays in the language of his or her nation. Following the worship services, we have a luncheon with these pastors where they help us understand more about the church in their nations.
Gary Dennis (M.Div., 1972)
La Cañada, California
I have come to a village in the Cameroon rain forest. Some fifty people gather in the little thatched church: packed earth floor, planks set on logs for pews; their pride is a corrugated tin roof.
The custom is that only members in good standing take communion, so communion will be celebrated after worship. As I preach, I observe that the congregation is edging over to the right, leaving several benches bare. After the benediction I ask an elder why they moved. He points to the rafters: a cobra, seeking warmth in the night, had crawled up under the roof. “What shall we do?” I ask. “Continue,” they reply. Just after distribution of the bread, the snake decides to descend. It comes down a pole; two elders with machetes meet it and kill it. We serve the wine, and offer the prayer of thanksgiving.
Richard Rowe (M.Div., 1957)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bundled up against the snow and ice, we walked through the streets of Novgorod in the 4:00 a.m. darkness. It was a Sunday morning in late December 1990, just as Soviet Russia was thawing and the churches reopening for the first time in fifty years. Our choir from Philadelphia, on tour to sing with the Leningrad Philharmonic, had stopped in the old guild city for New Year’s. We filed into the small wooden, candlelit church and found its pews filled with the old women of the city. They had worshipped in secret in their homes during Communist days and now, this year, shuffled back to their village church. There were few men, most husbands and sons killed in the war. As the priest intoned the words of the liturgy, we Americans, many of whom had learned to hide under our desks in fear of Russian bombers during elementary school drills, softly intoned the deep chords of Rachmaninoff’s Solemn Vespers in Russian: Bogoroditsye Devo. Hail Mary, Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. And all the Marys of that church, and we, wept, at the hope incarnate even then coming into the world.
Barbara Chaapel (M.Div., 1973)
Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania