Okpo-okpo grammar in the church

If you talk to a person in the language he doesn’t understand how will he know what you mean? You might as well be talking to an empty room.                          1 Cor.14:9
This is exactly what is happening in churches and what this article is trying to address. I don’t hesitate to condemn it.
In another section of the bible it says,
You should defend those who cannot help themselves. Yes speak up  for the poor and needy and see that they get justice, Prov. 31: 8.
You do not stop at speaking up for them you see to it that they get justice.
This topic has been contemplated for this column for a long time. Last Sunday, a close relation of mine drew my attention to it. He felt so bad that the church is going over to the use of foreign language (English). People go to Church and understand no word of what is said.  The point is what the church goers go through over the years which the holy book gave stern warning against in the bible passages above. Why do people not heed to them? What is the need for blowing hot grammar for people who do not understand them in the church? My relation pointing this out  thinks that the local language is adequate for spreading the gospel and for conducting services in the church. The people giving the impression it is not are wrong. He doesn’t think there is need for a separate English language service in any church anywhere in Igbo land. That would only be called for if we want to be 100% English speaking in the long run. If not he thinks the local language is the best and should be used.
I met one certain woman. She is ringed round by vicissitudes of life as far as I can judge. She is not a widow which is the yardstick for measuring suffering women. She is worse than a widow. She is an orphan for the past 62 years. Her last parent, her mother, died when she was 7. Now she is 69. Since then she has been fending for herself. She has no husband and naturally no child. She has always lived alone in isolation in the two-room house left by her parents.
‘Since then I have never missed any Sunday service, except when I am not well. I have gone to service every Sunday; and stayed till the end,’ he told me.
How many years now?
‘I don’t know. Check it yourself. I did not go to any school.’
‘My father did not have money to pay for me. I have been at home all that time. I have not been to any township.’
You’ve not been to even Owerri?
What she attended was the baptismal and confirmation classes. Those were the only 4-walls of a classroom she knew. For that, all the responses and choruses in the church are known to her by memory. She can recite the English ones, but she doesn’t know what they are saying. Nobody has told her. Even in confirmation classes and church meetings, nobody has taken the trouble to tell them what they mean. I join them to sing them. But they’ve never made sense. Magdalene cannot read or write, be it Igbo or English, her years of church attendance not withstanding.
An aspect of her life she told about moved me: The language with which they are addressed in church. She can be credited with some retentive memory. She is intelligent too. She is not foolish.
‘I have never understood a thing since they started using Okwu Bekee in  church. It was not like that during the time of my parents. Things changed rapidly since the end of the war. CMS church became English church in our village. Even when they call us for meetings, they talk to us in the foreign language. If we ask questions they reply in English as if it is unavoidable for them to speak English. We would be trying to get what they mean. But we leave the place blank. They don’t care. The worst is during prayers and sermons. The bible reading is in the foreign language. ‘What, by the way, is Amen? What is Alleluia, which we say all the time?’ If all other things are said in English what of these ones which are foreign? Just tell us what they mean.
‘If I see where they do it in our language, the one I can understand, I will be going there. Do you know anywhere like that?’
What marks out a big church, a big priest and a big layman when he conducts the service or plays a role in the service is the English he speaks – okpo-okpo grammar. Whether or not it is understood is un-important.
The church will not care if it lost members who are poor and do not understand English. They don’t mean much financially for the upkeep of the church. This is the economic basis for doing away with the local language. But I shudder to think what the fate of the church and the gospel would have been without the decision to have an Igbo bible translation in circulation. We also have the Ekpere-na-Abu following suit. The foundational work done with them is unquantifiable.
To communicate in any language requires a special skill on the part of both the speaker and the hearer. They must be trained to speak and hear the language. This type of skill does not exist for the English language in this part of the world. The clergy using a foreign language in church is facing different categories of hearers at the same time. This adversely affects his delivery. The message is received with difficulty, if at all. The wastage in time and resources is total, at least considerable.
There are those who don’t know anything at all of the language; those who don’t like it, those who do resist the language; those who are half-baked in the knowledge, those who despise all other speakers because they cannot measure up; they see what others do with the language as wrong. How about people like Magdalene. They are in their millions. How much will be achieved in terms of their education and enlightenment if the language they understood were to be used.
Learning a foreign language is formidable, as we recall from years of combat with grammar and translations in school. Yet infants begin at birth. They communicate at 18 months and speak the language of their birth fluently before they go to school. They never battle translations and grammar along the way. The church should have exploited the language potentialities of infants in spreading the gospel. The colonial church did that more than the present church is doing and it’s affecting the church badly. It is losing members, though there is no church distinguishing itself in the use of the local language.
One would have thought that the church would be the place where language erupts and solidifies. A child’s and an adult’s natural language develops in speech- soaked, emersion environment free of tedious translations and explanations of grammar such as the church offers.
The church today is a place to go and hit ones head on the language-wall and go home bleeding. It’s not fair. The church has an obligation to serve people the word of God in digestible language form. English makes it indigestible. If it is a seed, it is the type that finds it difficult to germinate because the soil it falls on to is not fertile or was not prepare for it. It does not receive it; a lot of things choke it and it fails to sprout. The local language will better plant the seed and enrich it to become a blossoming crop that will produce bountiful harvest.

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