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Sep 2001 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

French Church in a French City
By Kent D. Shaw

To describe me as a Francophile is a little bit of an understatement. I'm more like the premier wannabe-Frenchman in St. Louis. Possibly even the state of Missouri. So finding out that there is a French language Sunday worship was enough to make me give up the full pot of morning coffee I currently use for a Sunday ritual. I never suspected there was going to be French speaking in the city. I've heard there is a Latin mass, and I would assume there is a Bosnian service, possibly even a Spanish service. But, ironically enough, (St. Louis being a French city), French Sunday morning worship was the furthest thing from my mind.

Harmony Baptist Church The Harmony Baptist Church, located in South St. Louis, is actually servicing more than one congregation. The primary congregation is Vietnamese, but they aren't speaking French. They could be, of course, with that evil colonial past hanging all over their history. But they aren't. The French-language service starts at 12:30. Oh, and it's Haitian French, not France French, which was one thing that caught me by surprise. I was expecting a group of people smoking cigarettes to greet me and show me to a seat. Instead I found a man dressed for church handing me a program and welcoming me to his church. It was the middle of summer, and — lucky for me — after a good ten minutes in front of the mirror, I had decided against the black turtleneck, and went instead for the short sleeves and slacks.

I arrived during the opening hymn, which is always a hard time to come in. Even if I find my place in the hymnal, it doesn't mean I'm going to figure out where we are. All the voices kind of blend together, and the song becomes this kind of garbled Latin chant, even in the most Protestant of churches. Add to my confusion the assumption that everyone was singing in French, and I decided to be a spectator to these hymns. I like singing, but this time I was going to have to hold off.

The most remarkable part of this particular service was the table of fruit at the front. There were watermelons, peaches, apples, papayas, nectarines, and some other fruit I don't think I recognized. It was a literal cornucopia. And its placement made me think of it as a very unique and organic altar. I don't normally go to Baptist worship, so I don't know if this is a normal part of each Sunday or not. It was better than flowers, that's for sure. At the end of the service we were all invited to come and take a piece of the fruit home. Anyway, to my recollection, I've never been to a church where they offered the flowers for anyone in the congregation who was interested.

Now here's where I give myself away. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant. And my favorite part of any church service is the sermon. Maybe that makes me a nerd, a dork, or a momma's boy. I like singing, but I don't sing as well as I listen. This Sunday, though, I thought I was going to have a little bit of trouble with the language thing. Maybe a miracle would touch my ear, and, suddenly parler and francais would be leaping off my tongue like a little back dive.

Or maybe they would have someone stand next to the guest preacher translating everything he said into English. This was what actually happened, and it was very helpful. Not only because I heard this beautiful sermon about the Holy Spirit being like water, but also because the French was slow enough that I could hear and semi-understand the sermon in its native language. Or I could at least hear the French when spoken with a deep Haitian accent.

Kind of like what I heard at the end. Another guest minister gave the benediction, and then they announced the thing about the fruit. The whole building almost erupted. First, there was a mad rush to the fruit table. Then the band that had been there for all the music started playing some island music. And then everyone went crazy. People were dancing in the aisles. Someone grabbed the microphone and started singing. Then someone else took the microphone and started singing something else. It was this huge party, people eating, singing, all in their Sunday best. It was the type of thing you'd see in a movie. I thought maybe I'd died and gone to heaven.

Kent Shaw, a poet and writer, lives in St. Louis.

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