This article was published in the Capital Journal.
May 9 was Ascension Day, a celebration that for the most part goes unnoticed in the United States. In Lesotho, though, it necessitates a national holiday, so that, as I’ve been told, “people can go to church.”
Lesotho is predominantly a Christian nation, at 80 percent, and many of Basotho’s religious traditions were acquired from British missionaries. Like in many African nations, religion is weaved in every aspect of life, from prayers at school to gospel music in taxis.
Although raised Catholic and candid about my faith, the Basotho’s straightforward approach to religion surprised me. Coming from the United States where there are laws to separate church and state, I was taken aback when a public governmental meeting started with a prayer. I soon realized every meeting must begin and end that way.
There are other pieces of religion stapled into Basotho’s daily life. A newly organized church meets in the back room of a shop, which also acts as a bar, near my house and I can hear its praiseful songs well into the Sunday afternoon. Every ailment– from the death of a child to a broken toe – is reassured with, “God will provide.” Homes are decorated with pictures of Jesus and many Basotho, of varying denominations, wear rosaries.
The secondary school where I teach is associated with the Lesotho Evangelical Church, which means students have to attend services once a month and the morning assembly includes a hymn, scripture reading and the “Our Father.” All students take religion and many of my students’ essays include something about Jesus or God, no matter the topic.
When I first came to village, many asked me to attend church with them. Volunteers who had been in Lesotho longer told us not to go as they are long, three to four hours, and once you go you will always be expected to go. I decided I would go one time, and I did attend a Catholic service with my host family that I didn’t understand a word of, and then politely declined other times, citing the language barrier.
As I started to realize that my Sesotho would never be good enough for real interaction, I tried to find other ways to integrate. Church seemed like an easy solution. For a few months, I put on my nicer clothes and went to a small church in my village. Since I couldn’t understand any of the sermons, I read my Bible and listened to the music, creating my own type of worship. My presence was definitely known and the faces of old women lit up as they grabbed my hands while greeting me. My students smiled and gestured to me when it was time to stand or deliver the offering.
Now my Sundays are busy with meetings and study groups, so I don’t attend church as often, but those few times I did go meant something to my community. It doesn’t matter that I can’t speak their language or dress funny, but I am making an effort to know their culture, and faith is at the center.
So when a stranger says to me, “May God bless you,” I say it back. It’s not always about religion; sometimes it’s about respecting culture and that is one of the greatest gifts I can offer.