|949: Star of the Sea, Bakau, The Gambia, West Africa|
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Mystery Worshipper: Profundum.
The church: Star of the Sea, Bakau, The Gambia, West Africa.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The church is an airy, modern building; single storey, with three large doors and eight windows at the front. The window design is striking. Each has a central white cross set into elaborate ironwork frames. There's another white cross, high on the roof. Inside, 12 fans are suspended from beams that span the wooden ceiling.
The cast: Father Joe was the celebrant. He was assisted by six altar boys who performed their duties with relish. They grinned happily every time it was their turn to help, then managed to look suitably solemn when performing their duties. Throughout the service, they took it in turns to disappear through a side door behind the altar, then re-appear again (after a decent pause) through a door on the opposite side. Another gentleman (un-named) gave the notices in English. This took some time, as he had to contend with an elderly, distorted sound system that only relayed one word in 10.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The building seats around 300 and was about two-thirds full at the start of the service. People continued to stroll in and it was almost full by the first reading.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As the Gambians are hospitable by nature, we were very surprised that no one welcomed us at the door, or spoke to us at all. Nobody showed us where to sit and we found that the service books had already been put out on the benches.
Was your pew comfortable?
Seating was on tiered benches, with strips of padded wood for backs and kneelers. Our bench was quite comfortable and we were glad that the air was able to circulate between the seat and back, as the temperature inside the building was around 35C. We were told later that the service usually lasts for 40 minutes, but for some reason we were there for an hour and a half.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite serious. People didn't seem to greet each other, they just came in and sat down. They were all dressed in their Sunday Best, even the teenagers. One elaborately dressed lady arrived late, took a handkerchief from her bag and carefully dusted her seat, the kneeler and the surrounding area, before she felt she could sit down. We missed seeing and hearing children, but later realised that the younger children were at a service of their own in a different part of the building. We saw them process in at the end of the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning to you all."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used one book, called Catholic Church Bakau Services and Hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
An electric organ was played. It sounded quite tinny and wasn't powerful enough to fill the church. I don't know what happens during the frequent power cuts perhaps the church has a generator? The choir of about 12 adults couldn't be heard from where we were sitting. We only knew they were the choir because we could see somebody conducting them.
Did anything distract you?
We were both distracted and fascinated by various things throughout the service. The large fans were a wonderful aid to wafting the incense around. Our seats were near the top of the church and great, fragrant clouds would come drifting in our direction. As we are not used to Catholic services, this was a treat. When the offertory was taken, somebody (the lady who had earlier dusted her seat!) put a 50 dalasi note (about £1) in the collection box, then, in a leisurely fashion, helped herself to a handful of change. Nobody else took any notice.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was subdued. It was definitely not happy-clappy, in fact, not even happy. People seemed to know the hymns, but sang them without much feeling. I found myself wondering how the singing was going at The Flaming Bible Church, a couple of streets away! Earlier, I had heard this referred to (slightly scathingly) as "a born-again church where they have singing and dancing".
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 Because of the diabolical sound system, it's difficult to say how good the preacher was. He seemed to be speaking with some passion, so I'll give him 4 for that.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When he wasn't speaking into the microphone, we could hear him faintly. I think he was talking about Peter, fishing and moving targets.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The generous use of incense was the best thing; the altar boys' smiles come a close second.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Definitely the sound system. It made the service hard going for all of us.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no hanging around allowed! The next service was running late and we were all encouraged to leave the building promptly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no after-service drinks. Something cold would have been very welcome.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 This would not be our chosen style of worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not really. We left quietly, feeling rather disillusioned.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The awful sound system.