By my third Sunday living “in country” (Peace Corps parlance) I was noticing a few cultural adjustments. For one, I’d started feeling guilty about toilet paper. I had not yet converted to the bucket-and-hand method favored by my family, however. I was regularly picking every last piece of flesh off chicken bones, having noticed that every time we ate chicken there was one less resident in our backyard coop. I’d suddenly become very conscientious about dental hygiene. And I’d become hyperconscious of using plastic, given that “pile and burn” was the preferred disposal method.
By my third Sunday I was also recognizing more Waray-Waray [the local dialect] words during the morning mass. More. Not most. And I understood next to nothing. Then again, I never really understood much of anything during English-language church services, either. But I tried my darndest to participate. Which was a little reminiscent of “Mr. Bean Goes to Church” [audio clip].
I’d grown up going to church. Sundays, Wednesday evenings, and most holidays had been lived inside the meeting hall of the nondenominational group my parents attended in Southern California. I remember fondly the “Love Feast” potlucks we had during Christmas and Easter and Halloween (traditional religious celebrations, according to the church, were worldly and idolatrous). With two or three guitars as accompaniment, we would sit in a big circle and sing songs like “God Eternal Has a Purpose” or “The Divine Reality”. And though I stopped attending in high school, the self-abnegating, ascetic worldview espoused by the church left its mark on me.
It was probably why churchgoing was one of my simple pleasures when I moved to Oxford after college. The cloistered gothic facades, the chiseled stone interiors, the Anglican decorum, the close harmonies of Oxford University boys choirs–all of it reeked of the centuries’ endurance of religion and spoke of something bigger than the self. Even if you weren’t religious it soothed the spiritual itch that’s part the human condition.
There was exactly zero gothic stone in the small village of Baras. In fact, attending a rural Filipino chapel was about as far from lofty Oxford as you could get. It was an eclectic synthesis of bare concrete walls, polished tile altar, wooden rafters, corrugated aluminum roofing, a gaudy crucified Jesus statue complete with bloody appendages, and my personal favorite, a framed Jesus print reminiscent of a movie poster for Star Wars: A New Hope.
I watched members of the community stream in before the service. Given that 85% of Filipinos identify as Catholic, local chapels are well attended. The people wore jeans and t-shirts, they hung their umbrellas on the wrought-iron latticework that framed the open-air walls, they genuflected, they scooted down the pews till their hips touched yours, they sang along with the bass-heavy keyboard in perfect church choir unison.
And it reminded me in some strange and tropical way of my childhood church, and of that bible verse I’d since forgotten, the one about wherever two or three people are gathered in the name of the Lord, there God is. It reminded me that regardless of Oxford stone or California stucco or Visayan concrete, people seek and find communion and I found myself reciting the Lord’s prayer in syllables I rarely or barely understood, communing nonetheless.