Universal Church Transcends Language Barriers

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They arrive at the church carrying their own plastic chairs or blankets to spread on the ground. Some children hang over the knotty wooden beams holding up the tin roof on the open-air structure while others nestle into the warmth of their

Congregants at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya bring their own chairs to church. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
Congregants at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya bring their own chairs to church. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
mother's backs, secured by colorful fabrics known as "kangas." A backdrop of forest surrounds the church. Below, boys swim in a river where others bring ox-drawn carts to load with large barrels of water. Over the next 30 minutes people continue to appear over the hilly horizon with blue, red and green plastic chairs carried on their heads or their stooped backs. They line up the chairs into colorful "pews." Only 150 yards away, on a ledge overlooking the makeshift church, stands the cement foundation of what will one day be a brick-and-mortar church. It's taken 5 years to get this far. It will take at least another decade to complete.

As the church fills, people continue to arrive, forcing the last handful of faithful to sit outside the wooden-beam structure. A catechist arrives to lead the worship service. With no vestry, he puts his vestments over his finest clothes while the forest behind him sways in the mid-morning breeze. Women arrange the altar by covering a cobbled wooden table with a fine white cloth. They place candles and lovingly lay out the Holy Bible. The service commences with a chorus of song.

Congregants pray at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya. Members of the Church are saving money to build a brick-and-mortar church. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
Congregants pray at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya. Members of the Church are saving money to build a brick-and-mortar church. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
A drummer beating on a waist-high handmade drum leads the celebration, rhythmically tapping the stretched leather while barefoot children clap and dance in unison down the aisle, then dance in place after reaching the altar.

The service is conducted in Luo, with two readings, a homily and the Lord's Prayer. We give each other a sign of peace by shaking hands and exchanging hugs. Although the language might be foreign to me, the worship service is universal. When the offertory arrives, the congregants pull from their pockets or knotted kerchiefs coins worth 11 or 22 cents, or—for those who did particularly well during the week—a bill worth 56 cents. From where I stand I can hear the birds chattering, the rustle of trees and the boys down below splashing in the water. The congregation's voices rise in unison as the drum leads another song.

In Miranga village, the HIV prevalence hovers at 25% and most people live off of the land and what they can squeeze from an income of less than $2 a day. I am awestruck by how they find strength in devotion and how their faith feeds a wellspring of hope. Throughout my travels with Catholic Relief Services, one thing has remained constant: Even in the face of staggering loss or hardship, faith gives people the strength to continue. I saw it in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake: In a camp made up of cardboard and plastic sheeting, a visiting priest brought solace by holding services in a clearing.

A woman prays at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya. The village benefits from The Children Behind, a CRS project that helps families, children and caregivers affected by HIV and other illnesses. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
A woman prays at a Catholic Church in Miranga Village in Western Kenya. The village benefits from The Children Behind, a CRS project that helps families, children and caregivers affected by HIV and other illnesses. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS
I saw it in South Sudan where a cross carved into a tree marked the spot where hundreds displaced by violence would meet for worship. In both cases the faithful had lost all material possessions. In all of the places where I saw CRS working—handing out supplies, caring for families and children affected by HIV—CRS was a living symbol of the love the Catholic community in the United States has for brothers and sisters around the world.

I've attended worship services conducted in Luo, Malagasy, Chichewa, Creole, Dinka and Kiswahili. I've visited churches made up of no more than the sheltering branches of the village's largest tree and others that over time have grown into beautiful buildings with colorful glass windows and sturdy wooden pews. In all of these areas the Church provides critical social services such as health care, education, safe water, shelter, agriculture development, microfinance options, emergency relief and, most important: a bridge to hope and peace. When Catholics support CRS they truly transform lives.

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