One morning I greeted a newcomer (the house of prayer is a veritable Grand Central Station of visitors) and asked if he was Maltese. He laughed, and replied, "No, I'm Dutch! My name is Up."
“It’s spelled ‘Ab’ but if you pronounce it ‘Up’ it will be correct.”
For the past two weeks I have prayed with believers from all over Europe, the US, and the UK, and Australia, Brazil, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia! What a delight to pray especially with a Saudi, and hear his insights on the spiritual landscape of a country we hear little about, other than the political messages.
Flags from all the countries bordering the Mediterranean--the focus of the prayer house--line the walls, and a huge map covers the floor (and sometimes got danced on!). A variety of musical instruments were strewn about, inviting anyone to find their inner musician as led; art supplies were brought in after a few days, when I asked for a canvas.
Styles, temperaments and faith backgrounds varied, of course. We went from silent, contemplative, soaking prayer, to the most rambunctious charismatic expressions. And including prayer walks out into the city, especially at night, when it was cooler. I mentioned the swing flags...but nothing prepared me for the Eritreans.
A group of them at the Men's Camp invited us to stay for their prayer meeting one evening, and we received permission to stay late from the authorities. That experience is the hands down most astonishing event I have ever been to, and I’ve been to some doozies.
Up to that point my total knowledge of Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritrean Christians could have fit in a tweet. And these were refugees, immigrants, or illegal aliens, depending on whatever status Malta gave them; how typical would their worship be? Is there a typical Eritrean Christian?! But several of them had attended a worship service with a number of our team, and recognized us in the camp. We were delighted to be invited.
The ‘church’—a rough, tin-roofed affair opposite the equally makeshift mosque—was no frills, and hot. I hesitated at the door as the men greeted one another; were women allowed? Oh yes, they assured me, very welcoming. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be with three of our guys, one of whom towered over most of the Eritreans. Unfortunately, two of them left to try to engage some others in a soccer match; my one remaining 'bodyguard' sat on the other side of the room from me. Oh well, I wasn’t far from the door if the going got rough…
I had time to note the bare bulbs in very old chandeliers, and a broken-shuttered window letting some cracks of gold light into the gloom. A few men sat quietly; a few others were chanting quietly to themselves, rocking back and forth. No women.
Then the doors closed and the gentle chanting and rocking ramped up a few notches. I wondered if this was the prayer meeting, and if not, how long this would go on. Just then, a man I presume was a pastor or leader began shouting out a message of some sort, pacing angrily back and forth across the front of the room. But this was no sermon: he ended after a few minutes, and the men--or most of them--stood suddenly and began pacing in the rows, or wherever they could find room. The noise level went up several more decibels. I wondered what I should be doing. I glanced over at my companion, but he had his head riveted into a Bible, and looked hunkered down for the duration. I stayed seated, riveted.
Another 10 minutes, and the shouting began. A few more men came in, and now everyone was on their feet, shouting or chanting or pacing, singing or praying at the top of their lungs. I felt like I was in a Brian Eno recording--“My Life in the Bush of Ghost” to be exact…
Can you say out of your comfort zone?!
I was sure the sound could be heard for miles. The noise level rose steadily over the next hour until it was deafening. Men were rocking, swaying, jumping, shouting, or kneeling. I noticed a couple of furtive glances in my direction. My companion still had his eyes riveted in his Bible, and I glanced at my watch. We had to be out of the camp by 8 pm...15 more minutes...
Finally, our two other companions returned from the soccer match to fetch us. They sat behind me, eyes wide, deer caught in the auditory headlights of this prayer meeting. It was time to go…we left in a din rivaling what might be heard at any large airport. I listened to it as we exited, and walked across the bridge. Would this sound be heard in heaven? Was this a fervor born of exile? Was it to compete with the Islamic community in the camp?
Our bus ride back to the 'comfort zone' was silent, as we absorbed the experience.