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A letter to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda on the use of gadgets in Church

Thursday 8 October 2015

By Martin Jumbam

Your Excellencies:

Thank you for raising an issue that has been for sometime now quite a thorn in the side of my faith. I am referring to what is becoming an uncontrollable use of modern gadgets in church worship. I don’t know how often I commit the sin of swearing and cursing in church each time someone’s phone goes off near me. Permit me to share some of my personal experiences with you.

A few years ago when cellphones were still a huge novelty, and only some well-to-do people had them, a gentleman sat next to me in church with one of them in hand. He must have just bought it because he would not let it rest for a minute; he would put it down next to me, then pick it up again, turn it upside down, then downside up, distracting everyone around him in the process. At one time, I turned and looked scornfully at him but he must have thought I was admiring his toy for he smiled at me, gently caressing his phone.

Kumba bread

I don’t know if you still remember how huge some of those early phones were. My children used to call those bulky things “Kumba bread”. The sizes have changed considerably within a short span of time, some of them fitting conveniently in the palm of one’s hand. As this gentleman fiddled with his “Kumba bread”, distracting and irritating some of us to a considerable degree, the damn thing suddenly started ringing. The moment could not have been worse because it was during Consecration. I recall the priest, the sacred host in his hand, his eyes lifted towards heaven, was just about to say, ‘Take this all of you and eat of it, this is ….’; then the unmentionable happened. All of us, the priest included, were caught off guard. I recalled that the priest had to stop, and take the prayer all over again. The groans and grumbles of irate Christians rose from the four corners of the church. I thought a riot would break out. “Comot with that ting!” one furious man shouted, echoing the silent thoughts of many. To make things worse, the owner did not seem to know how to turn it off and it kept ringing louder and louder as he raced out of the church with it. From that moment on, I don’t think I heard a thing the priest said, the anger of that rude interruption blinding me completely.

When the time came for ‘Our Father’, the priest took a moment to preach on forgiveness. “If you don’t forgive your brother his trespasses, will God forgive you yours?” His question went largely unanswered but it was clear to all that he was referring to my neighbor and his “Kumba bread” of a phone that had so irritatingly disrupted the Mass. The phone owner must have changed seats, or left the church altogether, because he never came back to his seat again. For my part, even going to communion with anger still crawling up my throat seemed like a sacrilege. All because of a cellphone!

Ce vieux monsieur!

Another incident occurred in my parish church in Bonamoussadi, Douala. The phone of a woman sitting in the pew ahead of me went off just as the entrance procession was starting. The crucifix was already visible at the church door when her phone started ringing. She calmly stared at it, trying to figure out who the caller was, and then started talking. I couldn’t believe that she would dare answer her phone in church. I asked her to turn it off. She talked on for a while, then turned to her neighbor, a finger pointing at me: ‘Ce vieux monsieur-ci me cherche? On va voir! (Is this old man looking for trouble with me? We shall see!).

She then stood up, her hands at akimbo, and told me that if l wanted her to tell me how and where my father first met my mother, she would. Did I know that she was a princess of whatever kingdom and that if I were from her village, l would be sweeping the street on which she walked! How could l dare question her for answering her phone? Did I buy it for her? “Un vieux monsieur comme ça!” she shouted, letting me know, in case I had forgotten, that I was already an old man. Since when did it become a crime to be old in this country? I wondered, without uttering another word.

I decided to ignore her as the procession was already at the altar. Throughout the Mass, whenever she turned round and our eyes met, which she did often, she would pout her lips and emit a hissing sound of disdain. The worse moment came during communion. I was in the queue that was gently inching its way to the priest, who was distributing communion, when l suddenly heard behind me: “et Il ose même aller à la communion!” (and he even dares to go to communion!). I was struck by her aggressiveness as she followed me right up the altar! And all because of a cellphone! After Mass, l spotted her looking around, perhaps searching for me, and l docked behind some people and rushed to my car and drove off in a haste. That woman was trouble.

iPad in hand

There is another one, a gentleman who stands right in front of us each morning at Mass? He has a tablet or an iPad in hand that is always open. He stares into it, especially during the readings, and seems to skip from one leg to the other as he reads it. You would think he was dancing. I always wonder why he can’t just shut it off and listen like the rest of us. As I wonder about his electronic tool, my mind drifts from the readings and in the end I hardly remember what they were all about. The people I see standing next to him and behind him, and who strain their necks to also see what he has on his ipad, are surely as distracted as I am. Sometimes I close my eyes so as not to look at him but then, even with eyes closed, I still wonder why he has it open, and that in itself is a distraction.

Your Excellencies, is this really a battle we can win? This technology is hitting us at such an alarming rate that we are simply overwhelmed by it. It does a lot of good, though. It has excellent Catholic sites but it also has its downside, invading our privacy and distracting us from following your preaching to us at Mass. But what can we do about it?

From God or from the evil one?

I remember in the early days when cellphones were still crawling into our hands, a group of female religious leaders came to the then Archbishop of Douala, His Eminence Christian Cardinal Tumi, to express dismay at the rate of intrusion of that device into their congregations. They were not sure what to make of it and wondered whether it was a good thing for their Sisters to be allowed to carry cellphones. They said some of them already had them and the poor Superiors were not always sure who had bought them for the girls nor for what purpose. It was a matter of grave concern for them and so they came to listen to their bishop and get his views on it.

I remember that the Cardinal, in his usual humorous way, told them they were more familiar with those modern toys than he was, but that they should give it a little more time and see whether it was something from the evil one or from God. If it was from God, he said with ‘Gamallielian’ wisdom, it would survive and the Church would certainly benefit from it as well. Should that happen, he said, they would see that their concern was baseless. I am sure that if any of those Reverend Mothers were to see any of their Sisters today without a phone, they would buy her one, indispensable as it has come to be in our midst today.

The question, your Excellencies, seems to be how to keep the numerous gadgets in the hands of Christians out of church. I wonder how that can be done. Let us pray to the Holy Spirit to show us the light. Amen.

Your humble Christian, Martin Jumbam

See online: A letter to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda on the use of gadgets in Church