Ever since Solomon built the first temple, places of worship have been important landmarks. The design enthusiast within me has long appreciated liturgical architecture. Some of my favorite structures are churches: St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Most sacred buildings of the Western world are intricately designed, opulent, grandiose structures. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the religious architecture of Africa. I haven’t yet figured out why, but Africa has never excelled to the architectural standards of Europe, Asia, or America.
African Liturgical Construction
Church buildings in East Africa are all of a similar model. If they came as customizable standards from a development company, the product description would read:
New and Improved Protestant Church Model
Long, rectilinear box. Four mud brick walls with irregular and intermittent punched openings to provide light and airflow. Honoring simplicity, this design has just one entry door by which everyone will come and go.
New model includes a tin metal roof to make the atmosphere extra warm and cozy. More than merely a sauna, this roof will make church an oven. Congregants will bake to a crisp. Nonetheless, the celebration happening inside will be so captivating that none can resist entering this cooker.
Aesthetically speaking, the color scheme is an unembellished, endless sea of brown which allows each congregation to add a personal flair, adorning the drabness with the bright colors of their clothing.
Bonus: For a limited time, this layout comes fully furnished with rough-sawn wooden benches and pulpit.
Perhaps poverty is the reason for Africa’s rudimentary building design.
But maybe its not.
Maybe construction is basic and spartan because they realize that church is less about building size, acoustics, or furnishings and more about unity among believers. From what I’ve observed, there are only two major Christian churches here: Catholic and Protestant. Other than that, little distinction exists between denominations. You attend the church to which you can travel easily.
Church begins when the pastor and choir arrive. Church ends when the congregation has exhausted their voices from singing and shouting, “Hallelujah! Amen”.
You think pews are uncomfortable? Try sitting on a backless, wooden, unstable bench for five hours.
The place has nothing extravagant about it, yet the atmosphere was far from bare.
A Cornucopia of Contributions
The tithes and offerings given by this impoverished people nearly brought me to tears. On a reed mat near the front of the sanctuary, alongside a woven money basket were various items which had been offered to the Lord during service, ranging from fabric to a live chicken to beans.
Oh, how rich these people were in their giving. May I never forget that visual display which redefined my limited understanding of an offering.
During the message I gazed out the windows, marveling at the beauty of this landscape. To my left, the shores of Lake Tanganyika. To my right, the great hills and mountains.
After service, the pastor and elders present me with a gift on behalf of the congregation, expressing their thankfulness for my presence.
Honestly, I still don’t know what, exactly the gift is.
My host family told me we’ll eat it.
I told them they’ll eat it. I’m not putting that thing within 2 feet of my mouth! Okay, I didn’t say it quite like that, but that’s how it went down in my mind.
So, any guesses as to what it might be? I’ll give you a few clues:
- its roughly 16″l x 10″w x 8″d
- it weighs about 6 kilos
- shape is amorphic, but reminiscent of a baby seal with a large appendage in front
- color is brown, skin is coarse and covered with…hair?