God in Translation

@ David Beale/Unsplash

This is one thing I have figured out: my thought police are strictly English speakers.

I found this out by spending a week worshiping with Salvadoran Friends. Who knew that the whole way I processed God would change when I did it in Spanish? Shoot—who knew that God themself would change? Who knew that God in Spanish was someone else entirely?

Here is what worshiping with Salvadoran Friends was like:

Many weeknights, if there wasn’t anything going on at the church, we worshiped at home. We’d sit in a circle and start praying. Soon the tears would start flowing, the surrender would go deeper, and the gratitude would become bottomless. By the end we’d be finishing each other’s sentences. Worship was a shared spiral going deeper and deeper as we went around the circle in prayer. 

There was singing of praise songs everywhere: in churches, in homes. Unlike a lot of U.S. church music—typically somber, slow, and in minor keys—Salvadoran Quakers tended to sing songs that were always upbeat and lively (even if the words were rather scolding!). One guy had even taught his parrot to sing one of the most common praise songs, “Alabaré” (“I Will Worship”). The parrot added its own twist: at the end of the song, on the final rolled r of “mi Señor” (my Lord), he’d trill the “r” into a rising, crescendoing flourish—its own little avian hallelujah!

There was one little boy, an exquisitely sensitive child who felt things deeply, suffered easily, and seemed to inhabit a perpetual thin place. There was one particular praise song that never failed to move him to tears. Whenever the family gathered, they asked him to sing it because it so tendered everyone to hear him sob his way through it. The tears of a nine-year-old lead straight into the heart of surrender.

There were the altar calls for Friends about to emigrate. These were Friends who had concluded that their only future lay in emigrating to the United States, and who, once they were there, might never see their families and friends in El Salvador again. The trip was too dangerous and the border crossing too hard. They would come up to the front of the church and a semicircle would form around them to lay hands on their shoulders. A wider circle would lay hands on those shoulders, and soon there’d be a big crowd of people all sending love and prayer and well-wishes to those about to embark on this terrifying one-way journey north. This is embodied worship, worship as human telegraph, worship as God pulsing from hand to shoulder to hand to shoulder.

There was Bible study with a bunch of little kids. They were learning about Moses leading his people across the Red Sea. No metaphors here. This was the real deal—a straight-up miracle we were going to enact. The class gleefully assigned me the role of Pharaoh’s army. I am here to tell you that Pharaoh’s army got drowned all over the concrete floor, in a rather nice dress, to the exuberant delight of a dozen kids. This is worship as miracle enacted, colonizer and oppressor vanquished, God’s people triumphant.

Then there was the Promise. Every New Year, the church wrote Bible verses on slips of paper that were folded up and put in a basket. Each member of the congregation picked one out of the basket, and that was their promise from God for the year. Why was it that for me reading the Bible in English, those promises seemed to be for someone else, while in Spanish they were for me? Why was it that in English, worship was so much about me giving to God (hah!), and in Spanish, it was about God giving to me—and me actually receiving?! I still remember my promise—I claimed it with a fierce eagerness that surprised me, and used it as a bookmark for years. Lately it is even coming true! (Widen the stakes on the tent—the people are coming and your church is going to need more room!) This was worship as a promise from God, rather than a promise to God. Who was I ever kidding?

Here is the gift that worshiping with Salvadoran Friends gave me: now, when I go really deep in prayer, I lapse into Spanish. I know I am getting close to Spirit when this happens. I know my heart is being tendered, and I am about to access deep joy, or deep sorrow, or deep obedience. I am about to surrender.

I’m not going to lie—I didn’t like everything about Salvadoran worship. It was long. The sermons did not always turn me on. I didn’t necessarily share their take on the Bible passages we considered. We had significant theological and other differences. But it was startling how differently I heard words in Spanish than in English. It’s a bit like what Mary Rose O’Reilly says about Sacred Harp shape-note singing. Those old hymns have the kind of fire-and-brimstone lyrics that make a lot of contemporary Liberal Friends wince, and the words often wouldn’t get past her as prose. But put them to music, belt them out in four-part harmony, and she believes them—for exactly as long as she is singing them! So it is for me when you put the words in Spanish—they slip right past my usual defenses. I can say things—and really mean them!—that I would choke on in English.

Here’s what I learned while worshiping in Spanish with Salvadoran Friends. My left brain, my estadounidense U.S. brain, my The-Written-Word-Rules brain, my White brain, my liberal, unprogrammed, skeptical, disembodied Friend brain—in short, my English-speaking brain—turns out to have a well-armed phalanx of thought police who steer me safely away from whole realms of thought and prayer and religious experience. They steer me away from anything illogical or non-logical, such as miracles. They lead me to reject names for God that I associate with people I don’t much like. They cause me to give both uninhibited joy and tears of real repentance a wide berth. They cause me to stay in my head and experience God as ideas rather than sensations, as thoughts rather than feelings, as arguments rather than heart-knowing convictions. Most especially, my thought police steer me away from anything that looks like surrender. My thought police are all about staying in control.

Here is the gift that worshiping with Salvadoran Friends gave me: now, when I go really deep in prayer, I lapse into Spanish. I know I am getting close to Spirit when this happens. I know my heart is being tendered, and I am about to access deep joy, or deep sorrow, or deep obedience. I am about to surrender. Whispered words in Spanish disarm the thought police, and Spirit walks quietly in through the open door. Aquí estoy, mi Señor, Te espero: Here I am, my Lord, I’m waiting for you.

Kat Griffith

Kat Griffith is a member of the Winnebago Worship Group in Wisconsin. She serves as an interpreter for Northern Yearly Meeting’s ongoing relationship with El Salvador Yearly Meeting and Friends World Committee for Consultation.

1 thought on “God in Translation

  1. What a gift! Both the experience and the sharing of it. Knowing and feeling also come to me in languages other than my usual English, both in meeting and elsewhere. It’s great to be surprised by God.

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