17 February 2013

Lord, you are worthy

Sunday found us attending, for the first time in Malaysia, a Protestant worship service. Yoko has been wanting to attend church since we arrived, and I have felt bad that she has been deprived of this community, seeing as it was so essential to her life in the UK and in Japan. The local Protestant church is an Assemblies of God church: the sort of speaking in tongues, spirit-filled denomination you may have seen on news magazine shows. As we went through the doors of the sanctuary, the Kajang church did not strike me as too pentecostal, although whether someone was praying in Malay or praying in tongues might be lost on me. It was loud, but the music was remarkably similar to the syrupy music you would hear in any American Evangelical church on a Sunday—the same lyrics about how God is robed in majesty and his name is worthy, worthy, worthy above everything else.

Having, in a former life, been in charge of making people feel welcome in church, the whole experience felt like a script I had memorised years ago being recited back to me: yes, well done, you're trying to get at least two people to greet me and make me feel welcome. Yes, you'll need my name and contact information so you can send me the visitor pack and I can be contacted by the designated person. There are a number of programmes you'll want me to think about joining, depending on where you perceive me to be spiritually. I fill out the card, and if you know how often I attend church and if I have any prayer requests, you can get an idea about me, without asking something that will make me feel uncomfortable.

They put us, my little family, in a glassed balcony where the kids could play loudly and not disturb anyone. The card I had filled out was taken from me before we were sent up though, and when they announced the visitors, I was told to stand and be 'recognised' (a fascinating bit of Evangelical register that was also maintained). I stood and came to the glass window and waved, while everyone craned around applauding and smiling broadly. They then managed to take the offering from me, the limp velvet bag held out to the only guy sitting in the family room. I awkwardly fished a blue bill out of my wallet, feeling like a coward, and stuffed it in, momentarily worrying that I had given RM50 instead of RM1. We never did this, I thought self-righteously: we made sure visitors weren't pressured to give.

Point-for-point, the Evangelical experience was the same in Malaysia as it would be in the suburbs of Chicago. As I listened to the pastor talk about prosperity, I felt like I could mouth along the whole sermon. It was perfect, middle-of-the-road Western Evangelicalism; The Purpose Driven Life in cliff notes. God doesn't necessarily desire for you to be rich, but being rich isn't a problem: it's all about your heart. These sermons, both today's and those in the States, tend to avoid quoting Jesus: indeed, there was no mention of the gospels in this sermon. The pastor chose Jeremiah instead, ignoring the more radical call of Jesus, in favour of a much less interesting message: God desires for you to have shalom. Do you know what that means? It means for you to have peace, and you have peace when your welfare is taken care of. And your welfare includes, but is not limited to, your finances. They could have just piped in a video of Rick Warren in a Hawaiian shirt preaching at Saddleback in Southern California: a perfect metonymy for the American iteration of the fat white man endeavour in the East.

The girls played with the toys in this room, incongruously including a toy automatic gun like the kind we're currently trying to ban in the States. Naomi picked it up and was making gun sounds as she pointed it at us and laughed. Yoko told her to stop and Naomi said in Japanese, Why? It's just a toy. Behind her, behind the glass, a woman was leading worship, one hand clutching the microphone, the other held high as she sang, You are the father to the fatherless. Where is my notebook when I need it, I thought: written well, I could connect all of this to Chief Keef and gun violence in Chicago. All the narrative elements are there; the contrast is undeniable.
Mei volunteered to go to the children's service, but came back after ten minutes, crying. She is so courageous in the moment, but is still only three. I empathise: she is basically me. We jump first, and find ourselves in over our heads.
I had asked the usher how long the service would go: he told me that it would be two hours, but at 12:30, our children were growing restless and hungry. The pastor was talking about the different translations of prosperity in the passage, he quoted Webster and we began to pack up. There had been several mentions of visitors staying for tea, but I figured if we left before the end, it could be a clean getaway. I don't need any more zealous Christians thinking whatever it is that I'm doing is all a part of God's plan.

We did make a clean getaway, one guy stopping us on the way out, asking why we weren't staying for tea. I pointed to the children without stopping, They're hungry, I'm sorry. It was hot and the girls all drank some water before we put on their hats and headed for the city centre.

As we left the walls of the church, we were suddenly back in a world where nothing seemed familiar: the Mosque, the green one, down the road suddenly larger and more imposing. What a complex world we live in, I thought. Rick Warren fighting a proxy war with the tudong and call to prayer here in the bed towns of Kuala Lumpur. No one even can see it. And me, standing metaphorically and physically between the two at one moment before turning towards town. The contrast, as I say, is undeniable.