Monday, November 18, 2013

Protestant in Bulgaria

My tongue chases the blood of Christ
dripping down my hand,
from His Body, cradled between my fingers.
I miss.

I scribbled those words yesterday after we took communion at the Methodist church in Dobrich. The wine had soaked in the bread faster than I could place it in my mouth. I tried to clean it up without the indignity of licking my hands like a child with melting ice cream. There was no help for it. No one noticed, most likely.

It took me months of asking and asking, quietly nudging and pushing a few questions here and there to figure out where it was and what it was. There isn't an easy way to look up churches in Bulgaria, at least not in this part of the world. It's the kind of thing where people like to distance themselves even from Orthodoxy, or at least a strong commitment to Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox church is close, a short walk away. Sundays, it fills early with older women and men each Sunday, a few younger mothers, dressed in off brand trainers, tight jeans held snug on their hips, yanking them up to cover their butt crack with one hand while holding a baby in the other arm on their hips. These latter ones look a little startled, maybe more than I do when I stand quietly in the back to smell the incense and the honey wax candles dripping into the sand basins and hoping I'm not noticed if I don't cross myself or don't go to the Deacon for a holy oil cross drawn on my forhead for blessing. I just want to see.

My more familiar setting is the Methodist church in town. We sing songs in Bulgarian that started out as American praise and worship pieces, mostly from the early 90s. I can see myself in the Watkinsville sanctuary, standing on the pew with my arm around Dad or Mom's neck. "You came from heaven to earth/ to show the way". I'm meeting people slowly, looked after each week by a few students and their families who attend there and the British expats. There is translation into English through a headset that I pull in and out of my ears as needed. My goal: be able to listen to most of the sermon without the headphones.

We took communion this week. We walk up to the front and we take a piece of bread, dip it in the cup, take and eat. We go up two rows at a time. The pastor says a blessing in Bulgarian, something along the lines of "The Spirit of God is with you." He makes eye contact with me when he finishes and says a shortened version in English, halting, slow, verbs missing, which is how I know what the longer blessing might mean.

The pastor says that communion is part of being the "Catholic church" and that includes, he adds, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Protestants. It's a way of uncreasing the lines between the groups. I can't take communion in an Orthodox church, but I like to think of my presence in a small Methodist gathering counting towards being part of that too.

"This makes you part of the people you are with," he encourages us. It's a part of an identify that feels fragile or even more starkly translucent here in Bulgaria. Being evangelical means next to nothing. Being Christian an uncertain term. The process of self identification is in flux for all of us Americans here. My language happens to be framed in religious faith.

It is grounding to find the ways I can be a part, to not feel so flimsy or ghost like in Bulgaria. Salsa and dancing. Cooking Bulgarian meals. Taking part in a worship service. Communion. Incarnational is the word the translator uses for whatever the pastor is saying about its importance. Physical. Solid.

It slides down my hand and I quickly chew it in my mouth to prevent further mess.

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