When attending church I am always looking to connect with another member of the congregation but often find myself projecting my emotions onto the innocence of children. Children are blank canvases on which adults can paint the gaudiest sentimental portraits and I often seek solace in their vulnerability in the hope that it mirrors my own. Everything seems new to a child and every week a church is another new experience for myself. Arriving at Mount Bethel on the Kingsland Road I was ignorant as to the history of the large brown brick church complex and the cultural history of Christ Apostolic Church, so in some respects my initial impressions were as innocent as that of a child.
To my naive eyes the CAC seemed a highly privileged congregation in comparison to the other Western African evangelists of east London but I was yet to learn that the building’s grandeur was a product of over thirty years of hard work and determination. I had yet to read how the CAC UK branch had been founded in January 1974 by (church declared apostle) Ayo Omideyi in a Finsbury Park bedsit. From these humble beginnings the congregation moved to 52 Priory Street before they rented Campsbourne Baptist Church in 1976 until the congregation grew in size and wealth so that they could own their own building on Haringey Road and finally buy, renovate and refurbish Mount Bethel on Kingsland Road in 1980. The building and refurbishment is very impressive and was not fully completed till 1989, pictures of the renovation can be found on the website (http://www.cacbethel.org/). My other blind spot was that the church founder Apostle Ayo Omideyi had died earlier in the week. Throughout the service the congregation spoke of their love for “Papa,” (who I now realise was Omideyi) and his enormous power, so powerful that I mistook their memorial testimonies as prayers for salvation to The Almighty. Only after the service did I learn the reason for the very long emotional outpouring of the congregation. Not that the service was all doom and gloom, it did feature the amazing Bethel Gospel Choir, some less amazing karaoke African hymn singing and a lot of dancing. Only during the testimonies was I alienated by the intensity of the hysteria (that I now know to be grief) and took refuge in the unimpressed, uninterested and unamused children of the congregation. Some of the children even took refuge in me.
Walking down the central aisle of the large nave that separated the congregation into male and female it was startling to see the left hand side filled with rows of women stretching to the back of the building and the right hand side containing about 8 rows of predominantly young boys and the occasional male chaperone. Maybe it was the constant prayers for “Papa” but the congregation was clearly missing father figures and two sweetly spiritless boys’ sick of the predominantly female singing celebrations took an interest in me. Tired and doe eyed they moved close fast, travelling three rows by the end of one hymn with the prime purpose to stare at the young white intruder. The innocence of their inquisitive looks was caught in the depths of their eyes but they carried an apprehension to talk to me directly. Not wanting to break any etiquette or code I continued to attempt to partake in the service. They stared at me as I sung, stared at me as I danced, stared at me listening, stared at me staring. The most magical moment was during the final prayer in which with my head down I opened my eyes only to be peek a booed by my young tormentors. The tables had been turned. Bored with their own Sunday worship the two had taken voyeuristic interest in the uninvited documentarian. For once my connection with the children of the congregation was not built on my own projections but common and mutual intrigue with each other born out of boredom with the service. Ironic that their constant observation led me to try harder in prayer, singing and getting closer to God in comparison to them distancing and distracting themselves from their families, friends and God. Not all children are caught in a general malaise towards God some really go for it and therefore they are a little less interested in me, especially the young men who have father figures who forever hang over their shoulders.
My shadows were dressed in replica England football shirts and appeared parentless within the male contingent and with no Sunday school they had made the church their playground. In comparison an extremely smartly dress boy stood forever at the front, suited and booted in his lavish Sunday best he was the only replica of the father who stood over him. Dressed in a black pin striped waist coat to match his jacket and trousers the boy was overly adorned and had to remove his three pieces as his dancing grew more erratic. When the boy ran the risk of getting over excited his father would offer his hand to hold, so he could guide the youngster to a more stable and accepted rhythm and channel his high spirits in the correct manner. The older generation bonding without the use of bible but through dance had created a more primal, physical and ethereal legacy of which only the initiated would understand. Oddly the boy’s celebration was not without criticism as during end of a hymn and the start of a testimony the boy had some trouble with silencing his tambourine. The general glares and mimed shshing produced such a collective invisible punch that the child’s expression was like he had been slapped across the face. Like me he seemed hurt by the hypocrisy that one minute he had been told to wobble and wail with all the spirit in his soul and next minute he had been told to stay still and shut up. Soon that anger turned on itself and the boy looked guilty as the group had decided he was, the episode was a tough lesson in religious education. Only the innocence of a baby can be forgiven for such disruptive behaviour but in the context of the congregation’s joyous singing of you could hardly hear them cry.
The male contingent of the congregation was a flock of young boys with a few old shepherds but on the other side of the congregation was a sea of women with babies strapped to their bellies, breasts, bottoms and anything that hangs out. Women out wailed, whooped and worshipped their offspring who seemed muted by the noise their mothers generated. At one point two ladies contested the lyrics to a Cameroonian traditional song and almost came to blows for the ownership of a lone microphone, in this all female face off one lady had an oblivious baby strapped to her back peacefully disinterested during the entire argument. Eventually the pastor had to calm both women down by saying in English but in the thickest West African accent “Behave.” The congregation treated the altercation like a scene from a panto, laughing at the drama and mockingly taking sides but I was more fascinated by the baby who seemed to not notice the fuss. Quiet, during an all chanting Christian conga across the nave, silent, as the women competed for a microphone during a karaoke hymn sing along and asleep during the loud but incoherent sermon. All my inability to engage fully with the service seemed to be reflected in the small bundle of boredom attached to the loud lady’s back.
It got me wondering when does a child begin to realise the morality of Christianity? Surely if you’re born into a church going family the religious dogma and strange celebrations will be your first impression! I can’t help but imagine that you would be scared of God throughout your childhood until you were able to reach your own adult understanding of Christianity, even then when your faith has matured your religion would still hold the secret to your nightmares. The fire and brimstone, the crucifixion, the concept of hell are the nightmares of adults but they are seeded within us as children. I felt I was encouraged to be discouraged away from religion; my father particularly did not want me to suffer the conscience-stricken he felt Christianity instilled within him as a child. Children will never be the key to understanding religion but they will always be a way of connecting with the congregation, my ignorance gaining acceptance through their innocence.