On Sunday, my Italian-Brazilian host family took me to their church. This story will make more sense if I tell you that I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and I have attended Catholic church services exactly twice, once for my church’s Neighboring Faiths class, and the other for a good friend’s confirmation ceremony. In both cases, I was a visitor and I knew I would go back to my own faith afterwards. Not this week. On Sunday morning, I walked in and was greeted by an usher and a 20-foot-tall mosaic of the ascension of Christ. At minimum, this will be a cultural experience, I thought as I sat with my host family. People around us talked or prayed softly. The congregation was mostly older people with a few younger couples and their children. The service started with music. Everyone around me sang with strength and conviction and could pronounce the words projected on to the walls at the front of the church. I tried. I gave up. As the hymn ended, the procession of clergy and lay-leaders came up the center aisle of the church. Two girls in white robes carried candles. One person held a tall crucifix. The priest walked behind them all with a green stole draped over his shoulders and a silver cross resting on his chest.
He read a passage from the Bible in Portuguese that I understood about as well as I would have understood the original Latin. He gave a sermon that I understood bits and pieces of. “Deus está no coração, a casa, a cidade…” The people around me knew when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, how to cross themselves at the end of a prayer. They sang as though they were personally trying to serenade God, holding their hands out in front of them and closing their eyes. I loved the expressions on their faces as they lost themselves in their worship, and I envied them the ease of their certitude. I felt like a pretender. I didn’t believe the same things or know the same rituals. This was not my tradition. I was a stranger. An intruder. Without my language, without my community, I could not feel that sense of peace. The language around God was so strict and formal, the people prayed out-loud and in unison, looking down at their hands, the floor, the back of the next pew. I didn’t know the words, couldn’t understand the devotions. My church emphasizes common ethics and values more than common belief, and I never look down when I pray because I find the sky inspiring, and I believe that feeling close to the divine is more important that how that closeness is established. In my head, I bargained. If I take part in this, I’m not really cheating on my church because the two beliefs aren’t completely incompatible. It didn’t work. I couldn’t bring myself to profess something I didn’t believe in. I would have loved to be in a religious space I where I could participate fully, without any sense of objection, guilt, or reservation, where I could go and feel alive in the company of others, bound together by a sense of common purpose and values. This Catholic church was not that space.
Everyone around me stood and lined up to take communion, but as a non-Catholic I stayed in my pew and watched. I felt very much alone. Eventually, everyone returned to their seats, and the priest read out the benediction and the announcements. At the very end of the service, everyone turned and greeted their neighbors and wished them o paz in a manner so familiar and yet so different from my own tradition that I wanted to cry. As we walked out of the church into the rainy parking lot, my host family asked me what I thought about the service. “Está linda.” I told them. “Mas, eu não sou Cathólica.” They asked what I believed in, but I didn’t have the words to explain my faith or my traditions, especially not my unique twists on them. How could I explain, in my limited Portuguese, the feeling of being accepted and celebrated as an individual part of a larger world? How could I explain that I call my ministers by their first names, and that congregants are encouraged to form their own relationships with the divine? How could I explain that sometimes I don’t need a church to find God, that having a full heart and soul makes me feel alive and closer to God than any clergyman or hierarchy? The concepts are complicated enough in English. “Minha religião não é muito comum no Brasil.” I responded in battered Portuguese, wishing I could find the right words, the right space. I missed the warmth of my faith community dearly, wanted nothing more than to talk to God as a friend rather than as someone to be feared. As my host father pulled the truck out of the parking lot he turned around and smiled at me. “Muitas religiões, mas é o mesmo Deus.” He said “É tudo bem.” I nodded. “Eu entendo.”
At minimum, this will be a cultural experience, I thought, but one day it could feel like home.