On my father’s side I am Scottish, from the Isle of Barra in the Hebrides. On my mother’s side I am Māori, from the small settlement of Waitangi just south of Te Puke. This story concerns my mother’s family.
It is common in Māori whānau to commemorate significant events by carrying the memory in the name of a child. My mother’s parents (my kuia and koro) were introduced to Christ, and the experience of being born again, by a young Brethren missionary in 1934. My kuia and koro, their entire household, and many of their wider whānau made the decision together to accept a place in the waka of Christ. My own mother was eight at the time, and the next child born was named Te Aroha Noa o te Atua.
Aroha is a noun meaning “affection, sympathy, charity, compassion, love, empathy.” (1) Noa “denotes an absence of limitations or conditions.” (2) So, Māori would immediately understand the concept of te aroha noa as love without limitation or conditions. Te Aroha Noa o te Atua means The Unbounded Love (Grace) of God. My mother’s sister is my Aunty Grace.
The church that formed
Around twenty years ago, I was with my Aunty Grace discussing whānau matters as we often did. We were sat at the memorial stone of another kuia, whose whānau had gifted the land that lay behind us for a church after a thriving congregation had grown out of my kuia and koro’s decision. The photo above is from 1949, and shows a predominantly Māori congregation. Yet, nearly fifty years after this picture was taken, and as I sat with my aunt, the little church had long been abandoned and returned to the whānau who gifted it. Many of the families in the photo have dispersed to other towns for work. For most of them, it has been pretty much impossible to be authentically Māori in denominational churches. When they go looking for the fellowship of Christ in today’s church, they don’t find a place that is comfortable for them as Māori. Some have joined churches, but they put the Māoritanga aside. Some sit on the fringe, knowing their need for communion, but not really feeling a part of the church. Others have decided that it’s just too hard, and take the tidbits of a spiritual walk that are offered in the frequent tangihanga on the marae - or if very fortunate have experienced Te Haerenga,* a marae-based journey for finding Christ in a Māori setting.
The way we do things
So, what has changed? I think critical mass has something to do with it. When you are the dominant culture in a group, then all the unsaid and unscripted parts are very familiar to you: you feel at ease. My kuia and koro were at ease because the church was predominantly Māori, and so the way things were done was familiar. Also, the church of my kuia and koro were their whānau. Every one of the Māori at that church was related to each other. I stood next to my kuia one day when watching the children leaving school (Te Matai Native School), which was next to the church. She told me how I was related to every one of those children. Given that my first two years of school were at the much larger Malfroy Primary in Rotorua, where I wasn’t related to anyone other than my immediate brothers and sisters... it frankly was mind-boggling. Such belonging!
Congregations today that are heavily Māori are very relational. People are made to feel at home, and quickly realize that it is a place that can be their home before there are any other demands on them concerning faith or behaviour. Our churches today don’t really reflect that. In general, we either don’t want to, or don’t know how to, tweak our greetings, prayers, songs, and praise to be inclusive of the ways of others. In some ways, we have almost become clubs looking after the members first and foremost. And if we’re reaching out, then it’s in a manner that dispenses kindness and mercy that we control, and it’s almost condescending. That deep sense of being whānau together is not there for Māori.
So, if you are Māori and want a church that recognizes or welcomes you in all your God-given Māori-ness, then where do you go? Nearly all my Māori whānau and friends who have experienced the Spirit of Christ have done so outside of a formal church meeting. But does it have to be like that?
Where to from here?
The wider Baptist whānau is endeavouring to be inclusive and authentic in their relationship with tangata whenua: the past three Hui have been evidence of this. My call to our Baptist congregations is to become more connected to the local Māori communities. Perhaps begin by finding out about the history of the land and people. If the local hapū have settled, read their treaty settlement legislation. You could start by looking at govt.nz/treaty-settlement-documents.
I do think it is possible to be authentically Māori and authentically Christ-anointed. There is a long history of Māori, like my kuia and koro, experiencing te aroha noa o te Atua. It’s been a journey for me to reconcile being fully Māori and fully of Christ, and the challenge for our churches is to create communities that encourage just that.
The bonus is that if we can become more authentic (loving and grace-filled) in the way we engage with Māori, we will become more authentic in the way we engage with all peoples, whatever their cultural background. Kia tau te rangimarie - let peace reign.
* Te Haerenga is supported by Ray Totorewa, David Moko, Sam Chapman, Sean Delany & others.
Story: Doug McNeil
Doug attends South West Baptist Church in Christchurch, and is a member of Te Manatū Iriiri Māori (Baptist Māori Ministries). He gets to share life with friends and whānau, which includes seven tamariki and sixteen mokopuna.
- What is the dominant culture in your church? Does your time together reflect this culture, or does it reflect all the cultures represented?
- As a church family, have you spent time together considering the unsaid and unscripted parts of your life together? Do these things make you a welcoming and inclusive place? Who could advise you about how to become more inclusive without being condescending?
- How could you become more connected to the Maori communities where you live?
1. John C. Moorfield, “Aroha,” Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary, maoridictionary.co.nz/word/414.
2. Ibid, “Noa,” maoridictionary.co.nz/word/4228.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.