There are over 800 languages in Papua New Guinea, perhaps as many as 850, depending on who is counting and how they count. And many of the languages have “dialects”, like soldiers who make up the language army. There may even be several languages (and certainly dialects) in one village area.

We live in Waco and there are said to be at least 400 churches here, some say 450, but it depends on who is counting. Each church has a different name, although some have similar names. The largest churches may have “daughter” churches, although, generally “mama” does not preach in them.

People of one language group are often formed into clans and subclans, groups that trace their descents to common ancestors. Clan members can recite the names of their clan members back for generations. From time to time a clan will split over some grievance: most often it is over pigs, women or land. Usually, it is jealousy of some sort. Each clan will also have one or more leaders who are responsible for interacting with outsiders or to form alliances with other clans and groups. Some clans are large and some are quite small.

The larger churches can trace their historical roots to John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or even Saint Peter. The smaller ones are not so lucky and may have had a disagreement over some point of doctrine and started their own churches. Often the divergence centers around something the pastor said or did—he baptizes differently; he ran off with the organist; he wasn’t very friendly at my uncle’s funeral; he divorced his wife; he drives a Lexus and I drive a Chevy; and so on.

Clans have certain boundaries and there is often fighting, or at least hard feelings, if the boundaries are not respected. There are usually stories, passed down through legends and traditions, which can tell where and when the boundaries were established. Boundaries may be marked by rivers, creeks, ravines, swamps, ridges, trees, or other things.

Each church in Waco is different in structure: some are very large, with imposing stained glass windows, steeples and modern technology. Others are small, some “storefront”, and lack bands of worship teams, robes and special speakers. The “mega-churches” have denominational alliances and fight religious wars, based on doctrinal differences, perhaps on the basis of whether the water is poured, sprinkled, or rubbed on a person’s head, or whether the head and body go completely under the water.

The leader of the clan is a “big man” and may have more wives, children, and gardens than other aspiring big men, and he becomes widely known outside of his own particular clan. His children have special privileges and may become well educated and follow their father as a leader. Women are kept firmly in place, raising he children and pigs and attending to the gardens.

The pastors of the churches in Waco are almost always men, although the women want their rights and have kicking up a fuss for the last few years. They reportedly don’t sew or cook very well anymore and have become quite a nuisance in some churches. The children of the pastors often go to special schools and when dad gets old they may take over the church—if he stays in one church that long.

Form time to time, but often around Christmas, there are important festivities, with dancing and feasting. Gifts may be exchanged as well. Clan Christmas festivities often include a “slippery pole”, a pole that is tall and greased, with items of value (knives, clothes, money) at the top. Various men try to climb the pole for the objects—difficult because of the grease. Each clan often has their own trade-store, a small rectangular building, with assorted goods for customers to buy. The sellers and buyers are often from the same clan.

Waco churches don’t wait until Christmas, but have bingo and raffles anytime to entice members and give away articles—for a price of course. The larger churches also have Christmas (and Easter) pageants that are lifelike: camels walking down the isles, strobe lights, Jesus walking on water, angels flying above the stage, and commentators with deep voices. The lesser churches resort to pot luck suppers and the kids reciting verses about angels and shepherds. Big churches are also economically advantaged—they have stores selling the pastor’s latest book, pictures of Jesus, tapes of popular singers, DVDs that are approved for the children, books that are approved for the adults, and religious junk that is available for anyone.

Marriages take place between clans—it is not considered good to marry someone from within the same blood group, although this is known to happen. The bride goes to the village or area of the husband and, in some cases, lives in a different house than he.

Weddings in Waco are of course immense at the giant churches: lots of candles, songs, vows, speeches and wedding cakes. The smaller churches tend to have smaller weddings, although being wed is still considered proper.

Clans don’t generally intermarry, but, form friendships, alliances and trading partnerships with other clans by means of marriage. Clan weddings center on the exchange of goods between the two parties such that both benefit.

In Waco, a man and woman of the same denomination may marry; in fact this is often most suitable and delays immense wrangling over the church of choice in the future. Waco weddings focus on the exchange of wealth by the father of the bride, often leaving his family destitute.

There are other parallels, but these may serve to highlight why Waco has so many churches.