THE PRIEST

It's a cove protected by a narrow tongue of sand that juts out into the sea, as if to somehow serve as a safe haven for those who live and work here.  Once the calm waters licked wide strips of sand, now they crash into piles of empty shells of mabangas (a kind of clam common on the west coast of Africa), testimonies of hard lives of work done by countless women. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, all of them have passed on to each other the mastery in extracting the clam from the shells to sell in the markets that embrace the city. They have also all inherited poverty and the need to survive, one day after another.

 

Today, in connection with the Covid 19 pandemic, there is a lot of talk about living one day at a time, because nobody knows what tomorrow will be like. Suddenly, the world as we all knew it and were used to living in, collapsed and a kind of invisible terror struck, forcing us to look at the future differently. Nobody knows or can say where and how it will be tomorrow. But this has been the case on this beach for many years. Here, these women live one day at a time because it can be no other way, here the stories are always and invariably of lives and daily struggles for survival.

 

As if it were a balm against pain and misfortune, religion is present in every corner of this cove. Each of these women, in one way or another, seek some sort of relief, strength, and hope in one of the more than 1,000 churches of various religions that exist in Angola.

 

It is also on this beach, where faith seems to be the last thing left, that some churches proclaim their word and perform adult baptism rites in its calm waters. It was on that Saturday morning, when dark clouds were looming on the horizon foreshadowing the storm at sea, that I met Reverend Francisco and his three acolytes here. He had come to profess the word of his Church and to administer baptism to two believers.

 

With an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, he preaches to anyone who will listen, supported by accurate readings of Bible excerpts by his acolytes. Here there are no walls where words find an echo, no religious symbols to pray to, no ceremonious vestments. Here everything is incredibly simple: sky, sea, earth, and people.

 

Skillfully, Reverend Francis provokes reactions, questions, invokes. He looks for that answer, that interpretation of the Bible excerpts that require correction or that need to shed light on some doubt or darkness. He intersperses some dictation in Kimbundo and Umbundo, the two main native languages of Angola, creating empathy and building bridges essential to be accepted and effectively heard. Straightforward, forceful words alternate with analogies that open paths never before explored or imagined by the faithful. The shepherd thus leads his flock to more fertile pastures, where the light of knowledge and discovery awaits them.

 

Chords plucked from a guitar with passion and devotion by one of the acolytes accompany the Reverend's words and echo around the bay, filling the empty spaces and captivating more and more believers. They quickly become hard to resist, grow and take the lead when the Reverend wisely gives them space and encouragement.

 

Suddenly the music stops and the group plunges into a spiritual ecstasy that precedes the moment of baptism. The ritual of baptism is a moment of enormous intensity for the group who, in silence, in a contemplative immersion lulled by the words of encouragement and purification that the Reverend chants, as he lays his hand on the heads of the faithful kneeling before him. 

 

The spiritual communion between the Reverend and the believers in the water is even greater. It is a moment of enormous intensity as if they were immersed in a state of catharsis and everything around them did not exist.