25 May 2008

The congregation of the sideshow

I have mentioned ward church in a few posts in the past, but I've never really written about it. After today, I must.

At half-past ten every Sunday morning, all the patients that want to and that aren't, for medical reasons, confined to their beds, are gathered on one of our wards for church. Now, for those of us who come from the west, this isn't church like we're used to. This isn't the sort of church you visit to hear convicting, intellectual, well-thought-out and well-referenced, culturally relevant sermons delivered by quite possibly one of the smartest men you've ever listened to (whom I still miss). This isn't the sort of church you go to for messages about always being happy, never giving up, pressing on, having only positive expectations, and claiming the pecuniary blessings of a divine being whose sole purpose in life is to make sure your SUV has enough gas. This isn't the sort of church you go to simply to have a thing to do on a Sunday morning, or to get your rock-music fix, or to pretend that a single hour covers a multitude.

Ward church is different. It's held in a hospital ward without any windows, and it spills out into hallways without any windows. It's filled with a congregation of the transient—a group of short-term volunteers from thirty-five nations, and short-term patients from the surrounding four or five.

And today, they were dancing (what am I saying? Every day, they're dancing). It struck me, from my comfortable perch in the back of the room: the guy on congas? He was a man who, just two months ago, had a massive, fungating, smelly squamous cell carcinoma growing off his left shoulder. The guy next to him? He almost died in February from a dental infection that had spread to his chest. (The two of them have become fast friends; they come every week, despite no longer being patients). And the men and the women dancing, spurring us occidental types on to louder singing? Their faces were fantastically deformed by Brobdingnagian tumors, scarred expressionless by burns, and bandaged beyond recognition. They jumped, shuffled, and shook, with their trachs, their crutches, their legs casted into immobility. They danced, amputated. They sang, voiceless. They smiled, scarred.

In the middle of all of us westerners who sheepishly ringed the edges, this was the church of the outcast, the shunned, the spurned, the grotesque. This was the congregation of the sideshow.

And it was beautiful.

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