When visiting European countries, visitors often tour ancient cathedrals. They marvel at the architecture and ornamentation of these enduring houses of worship. Although educational, visiting these historic edifices can be as cold and impersonal as the stone from which they are built.
While vacationing abroad, I have been privileged to attend worship services at humble local churches. These low-key encounters were often the high note of my trip.
On the plane to Cuba, we met a United Church lay preacher from Manitoba. She found a Presbyterian house church in Varadero where we were welcomed for Sunday worship. The small congregation met in the pastor’s house and proudly introduced us to an octogenarian grandmother who was the only pre-revolutionary member. Many of the hymns we sang were familiar to us, although the four Canadians sang in English while the eight Cubans sang in Spanish. My husband’s high school Latin allowed him to identify The Lord’s Prayer when it was spoken. Meeting and worshipping with “real” Cubans was the highlight of our vacation.
After my husband died, I travelled with a group of friends to a spring event at the Girl Guides World Centre in Mexico. One of the tours we selected was attending Easter Sunday mass at a nearby church. We browsed the outdoor market that had been set up outside the church gates especially for that day. There was every kind of food imaginable for sale, including a donkey’s head! We marvelled at the mural made entirely of seeds (a universal symbol of fertility). Inside the church we were greeted with smiles and nods by the local people gathered to worship.
Many aspects of the church service were familiar to us, but there were some cultural differences. Girl Guides of Canada had told us to wear a hat on church, but an usher politely asked us to remove our hats as a sign of respect. Instead of music from an organ or piano, a trio of trumpeters played songs of praise accompanied by traditional drumming. Easter is the keystone celebration of the Christian year. We were privileged to celebrate that special day with local Mexicans.
Newfoundland is not a foreign country, of course, but it felt very far from home when we were stranded there for a week because of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001. Even now, my stomach churns when I remember that stressful time.
My husband and I had completed an enjoyable week touring up and down Newfoundland. We enjoyed meeting local people in our bed-and-breakfast accommodations. We stopped for a beer at a local hotel and chatted with the locals. Everywhere people were enthusiastically welcoming. We were on our way home and in our airplane seats awaiting takeoff when an ashen-faced steward announced, “This flight is cancelled; all flights are cancelled.” No one, including the flight crew, knew why flights were grounded. We found out by watching endless CNN coverage of the collapse of the twin towers in New York City. The three and a half hour time difference made it difficult to contact our teenage children and our work colleagues in Saskatchewan. An intense Atlantic storm kept the airport closed after other North American centres were returning to normal travel. On the Sunday after the 9-11 tragedy we attended the morning service at the downtown United Church in St. John’s. It was a sparse, elderly congregation but we discovered their warmth and humanity during the coffee hour. This church group (along with other church folk) had been providing hot meals to the hundreds of international travellers who were camped in the city’s sports stadium. Besides the solace of a familiar worship service, we were nurtured by the immediate friendship of these Newfoundlanders.
After the service, we walked through the harbour area, hoping to find a restaurant. We didn’t know that St. John’s strictly observed “the Lord’s Day”. Without a cell phone, we wondered how we were going to find transportation to our airport hotel. We chatted with a couple who were just getting into their car and asked if they would call us a taxi. They did so much better than that. They toured us around the city and deposited us at our lodging. Along the way we learned that the wife was running for city council and this had been their first free time together for several weeks. And they gave their precious time to us! I have great memories of famous locations, historic buildings and fabulous entertainments enjoyed during my travels. But some of the most heartwarming memories are of the ordinary people I have met … often in a church.