Mystery Worshipper: The Emirati Auntie
Church: St Mary's
Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Date of visit: Friday, 22 June 2007, 4:30pm
Set on the Oud Metha road, St Mary's is a large white concrete church, seating over 1,700, overlooking a courtyard and surrounded by a 10 foot white concrete wall. In 1966 the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE, donated the land on which the church stands. The present building replaces the original 1967 church. It is a tall single storey, equivalent to two or three storeys.
As with many churches here, the demographic is very wide. At the service I attended, I estimate the congregation was 60 percent Indian, 35 percent Filipino and five percent other nationalities. The church offers up to 28 masses each week in English, Arabic, French, and about a half dozen other more exotic languages. St Mary's is the longest established Christian church in Dubai, having been founded one year earlier than the nearby Anglican church. St Mary's school is immediately adjacent to the church and to my knowledge is the only Christian faith school in the Emirate.
The Oud Metha road runs through a mixed residential and commercial area, with social clubs close by catering to a variety of ethnic groups. Holy Trinity, the Anglican church, is a short walk away and makes its rooms available to a variety of Christian ministries.
The Revd Fredrick Peter D'souza OFM Cap., assistant parish priest, presided at mass.
What was the name of the service?Mass
How full was the building?
Standing room only! The church officially seats about 1,700 and there were easily another 300 worshippers standing at the ends of rows, across the back and in any other pockets of space. Children are expected to sit on parents' knees. I would guess that all in all there were more than 2,500 souls at the mass.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Nope, nada, La. We were stared at, as white women in the Emirates still commonly are, even when dressed conservatively. But since my friend (who is Lebanese) and I were the only non-Asian or Filipino persons present at this mass, the stares may have been prompted by incredulity rather than mere leering.
Was your pew comfortable?
The beech coloured wooden pews, with attached wooden kneelers of a rougher finish, were designed to seat eight but were forced to accommodate ten or more, plus children on laps. They were comparatively deep and would probably have been quite comfortable were it not for the squash factor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Despite the crowd, completely reverent, with very little noise from people entering the church. It was actually very restful. We arrived about a half hour before the mass was scheduled to start, and the church was already about half full. By 4.30 it was 147 percent full, but even then the atmosphere was hushed and large numbers of people were at prayer. Just before the service started, an image captioned "You are the Christ of God" was projected, showing someone in water reaching out to a figure in the foreground. I was sure I recognised the reference but would have appreciated an explanation anyway.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A warbling voice began a song unfamiliar to me, and seemingly to many others in the congregation. Then the priest said, "Good evening, brothers and sisters."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
All the songs, readings, prayers and responses were projected onto the front walls, either side of the altar. When words were not projected, a live video of the action at the altar was shown instead, so everyone could see.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a piano but I could neither see nor hear any other instrument.
Did anything distract you?
There might have been lots of things to distract me... if I could get over the one thing that I had been aware of since first entering the church: the overriding smell of stale perspiration! Anyone who has lived or taken holiday in this region knows that you sniff the inside of a taxi before you tell the driver where to go, so you can pick a nearer destination if you don't think you can hold out until the end. Unfortunately, that isn't so easy with church and fellow worshippers! After a while, the real stench lost its impact and a mix of spices and cheap soap took over, but it was definitely an obstacle to worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Strained and rushed" would be the best description. I got the impression lots of people wanted to worship, but few felt as though they could, for whatever reason. All the rote prayers and responses were hurtled through. Even I, who know the language, needed time to absorb the meaning of what was said, so I was concerned for those that knew the words only phonetically. Only a small minority seemed to know any of the songs. The peace was given "Indian style," with folded hands and a slight bow to everyone around you and simply "Peace."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – Sorry, Father Fred, I just didn't get it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Basically he just paraphrased the Gospel reading, asking us to examine the depth of our relationship in Christ and reminding us that our response needs to be personal, not second or third hand.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Erm... leaving the church to return to the brilliant Dubai sunshine and fresh air?
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sorry to be so repetitive... the smell. And at one point the "You are the Christ of God" picture was overlaid with a pop-up reminder to renew the Norton Antivirus subscription.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, I stood around looking lost as a stream of (smelly) bodies shuffled by looking to leave. Just when the last few passed, the tide shifted and another stream flowed in for the next service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Just another place to meet with God and fellow believers, so it doesn't deserve a 1 – but nothing more than that either.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The mass made me really glad that I have had the opportunity to explore (and question) my faith and come into a meaningful relationship with Christ; whereas I suspect many of these people come along with only a partial knowledge of their faith. Sorry to judge!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"Bells and smells" – the former having been provided by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and the latter by hordes of the great unwashed.