Sudanese Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sudanese Grace, Grand Rapids
Location: Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 January 2024, 11:30am

The building

The building is an A frame with exposed wooden arches flanked by ceilinged, windowed aisles to the sides. The upper wall above the entrance is entirely glass with a wood framework. The same framework repeats above the altar with a fabric screen infill covering the organ pipes. What is unusual is that the fabric screen end is projected forward, so that the place for the choir as well as the altar are under a low, flat ceiling. There was no choir, but one could imagine that the design would naturally direct all the sound out to the sanctuary.

The church

The church was formed from Christians who escaped persecution in Sudan. An estimated 20,000 children fled from war-torn rural southern Sudan in the 1980s-1990s and are known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan. The church website says: ‘We journeyed from what is now South Sudan, stopping in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, before making Grand Rapids our home.’ The majority who belong to the church, including the pastor, were born in Sudan. Their common history influenced the entire service, from the hymns and music to the content of the sermon. The services are normally conducted entirely in the native Dinka language of the people, but the first Sunday of the month is in English, except for the hymns.

The neighborhood

The church is in a residential neighborhood surrounded by single family homes. It is set back from the road, and although the parking lot is in front, it felt quite peaceful. The property lies adjacent to a busy highway behind, but because of trees it was never a distraction.

The cast

The priest led the service throughout, as well as preaching the sermon and making the announcements. The two women celebrants, also in robes and stoles, took part as well. The one assisted with the Eucharist and later prayed a blessing. The other received the offering as well as raising a handheld cross during the hymns.

What was the name of the service?

Epiphany Service.

How full was the building?

There were only a few present when the service started, but more came as the service continued. At the end I’d say the building was at 10 per cent capacity, maybe 40-50 people. The priest mentioned others watching online from other countries.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Greetings started in the parking lot, with a friendly guy directing us in. Inside the narthex, the pastor offered a hug, which was very welcoming, and the others there shook our hands. During the service, someone in front of us tried to help us find our place in the hymnal, and during the sharing of the peace, everyone around us greeted us and thanked us for being there. At the end of the service, we were asked to stand and give our names to the congregation. The warmth of the Sudanese was striking.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were traditional wooden ones, with that level of comfort common to wooden pews. There were 4-5 hymns, as well as other times we stood, that were welcomed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was very quiet. We arrived early, and others as they arrived were quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After singing the first hymn, the pastor greeted us with, ‘Welcome to Sudanese Grace, and to those watching us live on Facebook and on Zoom and those who are here in person.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were hymnals and liturgical books in both Dinka and English.

What musical instruments were played?

They had a large carved bongo drum, an electric drum and tambourines. There were no other instruments. The tunes of the hymns were sung by the congregation, accompanied by the strong rhythm of the drums, and the effect was wonderful.

Did anything distract you?

At first the loud rhythms of the drums did, but soon they became quite welcome because you realize that this is the way the Sudanese worship. It certainly is a more lively experience that felt wonderfully organic. The cries of babies and small children made following the sermon difficult the few times they happened. Also, it was awkward at first with the hymns sung in the Dinka language, but that passed and it was a joy to listen to the voices and the drums, which felt like an offering.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The hymns, as mentioned, were carried solely by voices, drums and tambourines. The effect surprisingly was quite musical. I only knew from the music that the first hymn was ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ and sang along in English. The others were familiar to the congregation. Other than the hymns and the sermon, the entire service was scripted in programs that were handed out when we entered.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — As a person, 10; his preaching, 6; but that may be more due to having to preach in English when his usual sermon was in his native Dinka language.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

For Epiphany Sunday, the sermon began as a message on light and darkness – that the eternal light was lost in the Fall, and returned to us when Christ came. From there, it became an insistent message of the need for baptism and repentance. It was so centered on the call for both that I wondered if there were many Sudanese listening that have not been baptized.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The welcome from everybody was wonderful. It was warm and genuine. It helped with how much other things were unfamiliar. I am expecting that heaven may be like that, too, wonderfully unfamiliar but welcome.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

As compared to the warmth of the people, the singing and the message, I found the rest of the service mechanical and lacking life, as everyone involved repeated what was in the program, even the prayers. It felt like the first time rehearsing for a play. I should add that my background is not in liturgical churches, and I found myself wondering if the rigidness of the format may have allowed congregants to focus on God since the program was familiar to them.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

After the service was just as welcoming as before. The priest and the two women celebrants greeted people at the door on the way out and once again, I was embraced by the priest. The two celebrants also thanked us for coming with warm smiles, as did others in the narthex. It was quite welcoming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none that I saw. It’s possible there may have been some in the fellowship hall, but there was no announcement about it.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 — A 10 for the warmth and kindness of the people, and for the drums; and a 6 for difficulties navigating language accents and hymns sung in Dinka, and little expectation that I’ll know any more Dinka than I did the first visit.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, because despite my language deficit, there was no barrier to being together as brothers and sisters. It was a vivid reminder that although our histories and language were so different, yet we are one in Christ.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The people and the beautiful rhythm of the drums during the hymns.

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