Destination Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia.
Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, the church built by slaves and free black people.
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Tuesday, July 25, 19 h.
NS do Rosário dos Pretos
We crossed Terreiro de Jesus, on the way to Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos. This church with the long name has a prominent location, and is clearly visible thanks to the sky blue towers, providing a breathtaking view of the square. For me it was the most beautiful building. The mass was already going on, since six o’ clock. The church was very crowded, many churchgoers had to stand outside the main entrance, in order to obtain something of the mass.
Initially, I didn’t see anything too, despite my little-above-average length here in Salvador. Fortunately, some of our group apparently had some experience with this kind of problem, and pushed me forward, almost literally centimeter for centimeter. As a result, I got inside the church, only ten minutes later. Now I was able to follow the mass. The priest was a black man, according to an age-old tradition. This church was built with the hands of black slaves and free blacks, in their free time at night. It took almost a century to finish the church. By black people, for black people. I can use the word ‘negro’ here in Brazil without problems. It appears to me that ‘negro/a’ has a bit more positive sounding than ‘preto/a’. I already had some interesting discussions about this difference with some of my black friends. A big difference with Europe and the United States, where ‘negro’ is considered as a bad word, and ‘black’ is more euphemistic for them. When thinking a bit more about it, the Brazilian explanation is not that weird. The word ‘negro’ refers to the African roots, while ‘black’ refers to the skin color. In this respect, the descendents of the slaves in Northern and Southern America have big differences, for instance how they consider themselves: blacks or negroes.
Indeed, as far as I could oversee, the majority of the churchgoers must have some African blood. And also the majority of my travel companions has African blood. A dark skin color, black hair, dark eyes. Despite my white skin and European origin, I was not considered as strange or weird by them. I was considered as one of them. The churchgoers did not look up at me too. They appeared to listen with much attention to the messages and the rituals of the priest. Some of the churchgoers appeared to have become in trance, as if they had reached some way of personal communication with God. Much of the time was spent with singing. No raspy voices of pensioned people, amplified by aged sound systems in the cold, hollow space of a Dutch church. That might give you goosebumps. Here I heard warm sounds from young voices, full and full of warmth, amplified by simple speakers in this cozy church. No reverberant voice of a priest, but a warm voice that sounded friendlier to our sensitive ears.
I was trying to copy the rituals of the churchgoers. I already had experienced some of these rituals in a Baptist church, and therefore were not that new to me. The hands in the air, moving rhythmically like waves. The hands waving in the air, with the palms open, still in a rhythmic move. I was forced to follow the rhythm of my neighbors, in order to prevent that the hips would hit each other. But it was not that hard, the rhythm was simple and constant. Sometimes they shut their eyes, and it was more difficult to keep your balance during the movements. But I managed that. I managed to be one of them, in a Brazilian negro church, om a warm Tuesday night in July. We then had to grab each others hands, and we held each others hands for some minutes, as if it was a giant chain. A human chain, full of energy, full of mysticism.
More members of our group managed to enter the church. They all made the cross sign when they entered the sacred church. In Brazil it is also quite common to make cross signs when passing a church. This was quite obvious to me, during my first moments in Brazil. In contrast, Brazilians were wondering why I didn’t make the cross sign. They asked me about my religion, and I confirmed them that I am a Catholic. But why don’t you make a cross sign? I do not believe anymore? Big question marks for them. As if I were an infidel, a renegade.I quickly explained them that many traditions are no longer practiced in The Netherlands, and among those extinct traditions is making cross signs. At present, I have become more familiar with this ritual and I also make this cross sign, almost automatically. Did I convert myself? No, this is an example of adaptation to the local culture.
This mass was also meant to receive the ‘benção”, the blessing. It was almost at the end of the mass, when the priest was saying this blessing. And everyone was hugging his or her neighbor. For this, I was hugged by almost all of my group, with firm hugs. One of them, a beautiful student, hugged me longer and somewhat more intense than she hugged the others. What a heavenly feeling! And what a great feeling, to be involved with this unique group. Also the people in front of us, and behind us, were hugging us, with a mumbling of “benções pra você”, my blessings for you.
The mass came to an end. Church servants walked around with large baskets of bread that they held above their heads. The baskets contained bread for the Communion. No tiny wafers, but French bread rolls. That was new for me. Everyone took the bread and tore it in smaller pieces. Our group received some of the bread, and it was divided among us. I even received two big chunks. I gave one of my pieces to an older negro, who looked longingly at it. He expressed much gratitude, thereby showing his yellow teeth, surrounded by a big smile. I handed another piece to a negro woman, who was standing behind us, and she hadn’t received any pieced yet. I now had understood the meaning of sharing bread among each other. You share with everyone, that is the spirit of Salvador…
By Dr. Adriano Antoine Robbesom