The clock reads 9:50am and Sunday morning worship service is about to start at “Cordero De Dios”. The worship team sets up at the front of a sparsely decorated five by ten meter room on the second story of a typical 400 year old mud block building in downtown Loja, Ecuador. Mismatched paint shows that the auditorium was recently created by removing a wall dividing two smaller rooms. The name of the church is written in Spanish in gold painted Styrofoam letters taped to the front wall. Gold curtains cover one of the two windows, with a makeshift attachment holding it to the wall. Rows of 75 blue plastic chairs are crammed into the room with a narrow isle down the middle. Near the stage is a large speaker, two meters in height, which is more than sufficient to amplify the sound of five microphones, two guitars, a bass and a drum set in this small room. There is a projector connected to a desktop computer which is turned on and ready to project the lyrics of the worship songs on the wall. Everything is ready.
On the side wall of the room is a large tattered red paper heart displaying pictures of several families from the church, which is titled “The Family of God”. Slowly, some of the faces from the heart begin filing into the room. Each person who arrives greets everyone else. Sometimes the greeting takes the form of a wave from a distance, but most often it’s a cheek to cheek kiss from the women and a handshake with a pat on the back from the men.
People are dressed differently based on their positions. The pastor is the best dressed, with a black blazer and slacks. Other male leaders wear button up shirts and slacks. The rest of the men have jeans and t- shirts on. A few older women wear dresses but most of the women are dressed in slacks or even jeans. The teens all have jeans on regardless of their gender. All of the older people wear reading glasses. The choir members wear robes over their other clothes. Everyone is dressed in western attire except for an older Indian woman who is dressed in the indigenous attire of Ecuador including a black hat, a puffy purple skirt, and a grey sweater. Her hat is the only hat in the room. Skin color ranges from a light Spanish tone to a dark Indian tone. Everyone has black hair but all of the men’s hair is shorter than their ears while all of the women’s hair is longer than their shoulders. Every woman wears earrings while none of the men do. Though people are dressed differently, everyone looks well groomed for church.
At 10am, when church was scheduled to start, additional members of the worship team were still arriving and sound checks were still being done. Only six people were seated in the congregation, most of them church leaders. At 10:05am, the music team practiced a song. Then at 10:15am a deacon welcomed everyone to church, all 12 people on stage and the 17 people seated. He read a passage of scripture and invited the congregation to stand while a woman opened the service in prayer. With all still standing, the worship leader took over and again welcomed everyone to church. The first song began at 10:20am, as people continued to arrive. By the end of the second song, there were 35 people in the congregation. The people in the chairs continued to greet the new comers. Younger people looked slightly embarrassed to be arriving late. The deacon who gave the welcome now helped people find seats in the crowded room. Even though a nursery was available, some mothers kept their babies with them. One mother in the center of the church half covered herself with a coat and began nursing her baby.
The sixth and final song ended at 10:40am and 48 people sat down. The deacon returned to the podium and once again welcomed everyone to church. Meanwhile, the power point projector turned from song lyrics to a slide show of announcements. A woman walked through the center isle handing out bulletins and offering Bibles for people to use. Without an official announcement, all the children and teens exited to their Sunday school classes as the pastor walked to the podium. Before the pastor started preaching, he waved and welcomed everyone to church in what was the fourth official welcome of the morning. More people continued to arrive.
The pastor began by reading a passage of scripture, calling attention to the fact that the passage was displayed in a Bible program projected onto the wall at the front of the room. In reality, the Bible text on the wall was so small that no one could read it, but that didn’t stop the computer operator from scrolling along with the verses being read. Most people followed along in their own Bibles instead. The pastor read the sermon text from a modern translation of the Bible. On one occasion, the pastor asked a member of the congregation to read a passage of scripture aloud. The person stood and read from an old Spanish translation which includes verb tenses that are not in common usage anymore, but no one seemed to notice.
The pastor involved the audience as he preached. He routinely paused and waited for the congregation to fill in words from his sermon outline in the bulletin. It was mostly the women who responded. This was consistent with what male and female roles had been during singing. The women in the audience raised their hands and swayed back and forth in worshipful dance, while the men occasionally clapped along but were generally more subdued. Once, during the sermon, a woman even interrupted the pastor to ask a clarifying question. He wasn’t flustered by the interruption but answered her question by quoting a Bible verse from memory.
At the end of his hour long sermon, the pastor reviewed his three points by asking the congregation to say the points along with him. In closing, he asked everyone to stand and pray with him. After the prayer, the pastor told everyone to greet those around them with a hug. The men gave hugs and the women give cheek to cheek kisses as before.
The deacon again took the podium and gave a short reflection on the pastor’s sermon before making announcements. Announcements included the Christmas play, a fund raiser, and a request for volunteers to clean the church building. Next, the deacon passed the microphone to two women to pray and collect the offering. Everyone again stood during the prayer. Then one woman passed an offering basket around while the other woman read more announcements from the bulletin. Several older women put money into the offering basket but asked for change. The usher left the room and returned a few minutes later with folded dollar bills to make change for those who had requested it. Meanwhile, this round of announcements concluded with a group reading of the church motto from the bulletin. The deacon took over again and made more announcements. He talked about trusting God in hard times and announced another fund raiser.
Finally, each of the three children’s Sunday school classes was invited in to say the verse they had memorized. As they finished, the kids ran to find their parents. About 40 children squished into the already crowded seats. At 11:55am, the deacon asked everyone to rise one last time for the benediction and a closing prayer. Then, everyone stacked their chairs, hugged and kissed each other goodbye, and left. Within five minutes the room was empty.
Many insights can be gleaned from my observations at this church service. Three things stood out to me about Ecuadorian culture. First, greetings are valued over punctuality. Next, Ecuadorians see themselves as poor. Finally, men and women are different but equal.
The different values placed on importance of greetings and punctuality was striking. Church started fifteen minutes late, and I don’t think that anyone even expected it to start on time. The fact that only 29 people were at church when the service started, including the worship team, and 65 people at church by the end of the service made being late the norm. The four official welcomes served to mask any tardiness. Everyone was treated equally regardless of when they arrived. In Ecuadorian culture, not greeting someone is rude, but being late is acceptable.
Another recurring theme was the attention drawn to the fact that people in the church are poor. First, people talked about being poor. Before the offering, the deacon gave a pep-talk about how times are hard right now even in the rich United States so it should be no surprise that money is tight in a poor country like Ecuador. Next, people acted poor. Instead of bringing exact change for the offering they ask for refunds. Letting it be known you couldn’t afford to give very much is not shameful. Economically, this method of making change also shows the lack of money in circulation. Finally, food is a typical element of Ecuadorian hospitality which was notably missing. The absence of coffee and snacks served to highlight the sense that the members of the church feel that they are poor and can’t afford to corporately splurge. As a church, the people seem to agree and accept that they are poor.
The way that men and women dressed and acted made gender roles hard to figure out. Almost everything in the service was repeated by both men and women. We had three sets of announcements, four official welcomes, and four public prayers. The repetition seemed almost purposefully intended to demonstrate that everyone can participate in all aspects of the service. Yet, specific guidelines for men and women’s dress were rigidly followed. Long hair and earrings are signs of femininity. Without exception, every woman had long hair and earrings while none of the men did. So, while men and women are allowed to serve in the same ways, they remain different. This is evidence that Ecuadorian Christians have a rich and complex view of men and women created equal but different in the image of God.
By examining people’s actions, their values and attitudes become apparent. However, the real value of ethnographic research is not merely discovery but the chance for application. While all of my observations about Ecuadorian culture were interesting, the information about greetings and punctuality are the most easily applicable. I need to be more patient when people are late because tardiness is the norm. I must also learn to make greeting people one of my highest priorities because failing to do so is insulting. By changing both my expectations and my behavior, I can share God’s grace through my actions in more culturally appropriate ways.