Simone Angel in Belize

Hallelujah, it's hammer time

What a wonderful, unusual experience I had last night. Our Belizean babysitter is a preacher's daughter, and together with her parents she has been following some kind of Bible study for the past year (set up by American missionaries). Her graduation was last night. People in Belize love graduations! In Holland, where I'm from, we only do big graduations after university. I mean, there is a ceremony after high school too, but it's nothing too extravagant, and we definitely don't wear robes or funny hats that we toss into the air. That's only for university graduates. Well, not so in Belize. Here they do graduation ceremonies at preschools. The funny robes and hats come out for the primary school graduation, for high school graduation, for college graduation, and, as it turns out, for Bible-study graduation.

Our babysitter was excited about the upcoming ceremony and wanted me to come to church to watch it. I reluctantly agreed. See, I'm not particularly religious. I believe in God and in the teachings of Jesus, I just don't believe in organized religion. As far as I'm concerned, they are all manmade, and none is therefore without human imperfection (we all get the wrong end of the stick sometimes, so I'm sure the same goes with divinely inspired writings and their interpretations).

And, no offense intended, I am particularly wary of North American missionaries. Belize is full of them. They come in hordes, preaching, converting, and performing charity work (often building houses, fences, and playgrounds while the locals watch from their porches). I admire the charity projects, but I'm not too keen on all this shouting about the devil and God's wrath. And that's what the missionaries often do. Christian fundamentalism is a foreign concept to Europeans such as us, but it travels straight down south from the States to Central America.

So, together with my seven-month-old baby and our resort's security guard (I didn't fancy driving through the jungle by myself at night), I went to church. And, boy, did I enjoy it! It wasn't at all what I had anticipated, but it was one of the most fascinating things I have seen for a long time. There was no preaching going on, just lots of booming Hispanic Christian music, beautiful singing, and frantic dancing.

It reminded me of my MTV days, when I used to spend time at raves (illegal house parties where kids took ecstasy tablets, drank gallons of water, danced for 12 hours straight, and hugged strangers and told them they loved them). Just like the ravers did back in the '90s, these churchgoers were working themselves up into a frenzy. Waving their hands in the air, singing at the top of their lungs, swaying, shaking, jumping...brilliant! The only thing that struck me as peculiar was that people were ushered to the front of the church once they started their wild dancing, and they would be held or followed by another church member, probably to ensure that they wouldn't fall over. The women were acting like they couldn't control their own bodies (was Freud right after all? Are women simply hysterical?). The men would also dance wildly, but they were in much less danger of falling over, evidently. I mean, a church member would still hover near them, but never touch them.

I was so tempted to join the dancers at the front and do my MC Hammer, but I realized that that would be perceived as rather inappropriate, so I suppressed my urges (very Christian, don't you think?) and stuck to swaying in the air with my flabbergasted baby in my arms (he was as dumbstruck by the whole experience as I was).

I guess I should have realized that I was in the wrong church, because our babysitter was nowhere to be seen. Still, I was enjoying this bizarre display of worship, this celebration of life (especially once people began to use whistles and the BPM was steadily being raised), when suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my babysitter's brother, bringing me the bad news; the graduation was in the church around the corner.

I was sad to leave the ravers and became even sadder when I saw how boring the church of the graduation was. There he was, the North American missionary with a Spanish translator, talking about Jesus and the devil and the devil and Jesus. But when I looked over, I saw our beloved babysitter, beaming, with her funny blue robe and graduation hat. And so I stayed in this boring old "white man's church" (why is the religion that gets exported by "the white man" invariably dull?).

I took photographs of the graduation, allowed my baby to be passed around from person to person -- people from Central America love babies -- and listened to people rambling on in Spanish on stage. I had no idea what was being said, just as I had no idea what had been going on in the other church. Still, I was happy for the girl who brings so much joy to my baby boy and me, as she was so proud and beautiful that evening. And seeing all these faithful, in both churches, made for a wonderfully diverse night.

I don't see myself making this a regular occasion; I disagree with too much that's being said in church. But experiencing a glimpse of Central American worship was something I will never forget.


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