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1535: St Thomas, Islamabad, Pakistan
St Thomas, Islamabad, Pakistan
Mystery Worshipper: The Emirati Auntie.
The church: St Thomas's, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Denomination: Church of Pakistan. The Church of Pakistan was established in 1970 as a union of Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians (Church of Scotland), Methodists and Lutherans. It is a part of the Anglican Communion and is loosely affiliated with the Anglican Diocese of Manchester.
The building: A warm red coloured brick structure of indeterminable age – I would guess it dates from the 1980s. The style draws on surviving traditional Pakistani brickworking skills and local Moghul architecture. It looks slightly out of place given the monolithic concrete buildings nearby, most of which appear to suffer from a lack of care. As might be expected, there is a high wall surrounding the compound, and armed police at the gate inspect all visitors' bags, including those of the congregation. And with good reason – tensions between Christians and Muslims in the region run high.
The church: It's pretty special to be an enclave for Christ in a Muslim country that does not have the same reputation for tolerance as you might find elsewhere! The congregation tries its best to carry on with a brave face despite the political undertones and Pakistan's more recent common identity as a Muslim state. St Thomas's plays an active part in two important ministries: the Community Health Network, which provides health care for approximately 4,000 families; and the Literacy Project, which educates young children and enables them to pass admission tests for government schools.
The neighbourhood: Islamabad, laid out in the 1960s in basically a triangular shape, is the capital of Pakistan. As a relatively new city, it boasts wide streets and clearly defined zoning (i.e., distinct residential, commercial, retail, educational, etc. areas). The skyline's most prominent feature is the famous King Faisal mosque, among the largest mosques in the world and a gift from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, the mosque is open to non-Muslims (provided they are suitably dressed, male or female) and well worth a visit! But westerners should not make the mistake of thinking this is a completed, shiny, wow-factor city. State and high profile public buildings may be striking, even beautiful, and well maintained, but there are still plenty of ramshackle communities and people living in tents on random green (or even just dusty) patches of land – often just outside palatial villas belonging to the Pakistani elite. St Thomas' sits on the key road of a residential zone; even so, the visitor is unlikely to stumble across it unintentionally.
The cast: The Revd Irfan Jamil, vicar, led the service. The call to worship was given by the leader of the choir, an American lady whose name I could not ascertain.
The date & time: Sunday, 13 April 2008, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
Based on the number of seats, the building was half full, but as the seats were crammed in, the overall effect was still that of a full church. I think there were around 120 adults. Some youngsters left for Sunday school a short while into the service. Whilst the English language service was mainly, but not exclusively, attended by westerners, I noted that the earlier service, held in Urdu, was attended only by locals so far as I could see, and the church was filled to capacity, with the crowd spilling out into a courtyard area.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The officers at the door were very friendly, and the policewoman who inspected my bag and checked my camera made polite conversation, which was a pleasant surprise. As the English-speaking congregation gathered outside the church waiting for the earlier Urdu service to end, a few people welcomed me, asking what brought me to Pakistan and whose wedding I was there for, as I had adorned my hands with richly coloured patterns in henna, as is the Pakistani custom.

Was your pew comfortable?
Individually the seats were simple and not uncomfortable, but the spacing was very cramped even for me as a shorter person.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The Urdu and English services ran back to back; the gap between them was based on the time taken for one group to pour out of the main (rear) doors and the next to swarm in from the sides. Of course, there were some from both groups who took on the "salmon challenge" and went upstream instead! The bustle soon gave way to a few hushed greetings before the service started.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Praise the Lord! We welcome you to our worship this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bibles were available on a table, along with an order of service and a pew/song sheet. I noticed, though, that a number of people had brought their own Bibles, including some Pakistanis with their Urdu translations.

What musical instruments were played?
An electric piano and a pair of bongos, although when the power dropped for the second time (a frequent occurrence in Pakistan), a flute made a welcome and beautifully played addition. We had to sing at least a few verses of some of the hymns a cappella.

Did anything distract you?
Different things caught my eye at times in the service. There were some very interesting architectural features behind the altar, although unfortunately I couldn't get a photo. The cramped seating arrangement was also distracting. I heard some very strong and gifted singing voices behind me, and I enjoyed having a good nose around to try to identify them.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
One of the things I am learning about truly multicultural church communities, as opposed to ones that have token minorities, or even lots of skin colours but essentially one background, is that worship does become truly personal as between the Saviour and the saved. Here in Pakistan, there were examples of rigid backbones beside clapping hands beside raised hands beside some light boogying. Who's to know, if there was more spacing around the chairs, there wouldn't have been some swinging from the rafters, too?

St Thomas, Islamabad, Pakistan

Exactly how long was the sermon?
23 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The vicar had an easygoing style. Although he preached mainly on the book of Isaiah (his sermon was one in a series on that book), he mentioned passages from other books of the Bible as well, and it was a good mental exercise to dart back and forth among scripture.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He looked at examples of judgment and salvation, and showed us that in order to receive and benefit from salvation, we need to accept judgment. The Lord will judge individuals, communities and places, and will reward those found worthy with physical, emotional and total deliverance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing was most inspiring, even through the power outages. But even without any music at all, I felt that the true spirit of worship would have carried through. And in a strange way, it was heavenly to do the police check thing with a chatty Muslimah!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That said, the power outages were frustrating, especially when they happened as the vicar was speaking. To make matters worse, the reaction from the congregation was always the same: a chorus of "ooohs" and "grrrs". After all, I'm only an occasional visitor to Pakistan as my business takes me there, but I'm nevertheless quite familiar with the concept of "rotational loads". These people live there all the time!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I was sitting on the aisle, I had to get up to let my neighbours leave the tightly spaced pew. But even before we had stood up, one of them invited me to come outside for tea. Once out at the tea table in the courtyard, a few more people spoke to me. One person even complimented me on my singing, which was very flattering given the splendid voices I had heard in church. A young local chap named Shoaib, to whom I had been briefly introduced in advance of the service, approached and asked if I had enjoyed the service and would I come again. It was good to have the feeling I was wanted back. One of the people I spoke with turned out to be a friend of the only Christian I know in Pakistan – and she is based miles out of the capital in hill country!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Milky chai from a huge aluminum teapot, just how the locals like it. But as I am not a tea drinker, I cannot comment further.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Next time I am in Islamabad during a weekend I will definitely return to St Thomas's. Not only is the location convenient, but the mix of people and the preaching were both ideal. It also appeals to me strongly that despite the security outside, I was worshipping in a relatively "normal" venue as opposed to a heavily guarded diplomatic zone where pre-booking is preferred and passports at the gate are essential.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and also very blessed to be a Christian making my home in a more tolerant Islamic country where air conditioning is common and reliable utilities are the norm!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Singing the third verse of "O Lord my God" suddenly unaccompanied and with the Spirit moving in the church...

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
 
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