Bright White Sundays

It’s Sunday morning and we’re sitting on the church paw for the third day in a row. Tomorrow will be the fourth! Of course, it’s Easter week and the strange story of a guy being nailed to a cross, lifted up in the air to die a slow and painful death, then buried in a chamber sealed with a big rock from where he reappears amongst the living and finally sails up into the heavens on a ray of light, might be reason enough to do some extra duty. I’ve never ever in my life been subdued to this nasty habit of spending Sunday mornings congregating with supposedly like minded folks and listening to the monotonous utterances of a professional representative of the divine on Earth.

For this special Easter Sunday service the Tautuans are dressed in impeccable white, just like they do every first Sunday of the month, the aptly named white Sundays. The first act of business of the day is the blessing of the donations received. Papa Saitu reads aloud the list of donors from a book in a green cover. It includes some familiar names from here, but there are also a lot of New Zealands and Australias in the long ledger. The Penrhyn communities there are said to be very tight knit, keeping to themselves and providing a steady flow of support for the homeland. In his left hand Papa Saitu holds a cloth bag, which must contain a bunch of the stuff that makes the world go round and once there are no more willing donors to he honored by vocalizing their names, Papa Rongo, the assistant minister, puts his right hand on the bag and makes the mundane checks and bills fit for the holy treasury by blessing them with a torrent of sacred words. Once the divine finances are taken care of, the service takes its usual course. Papa Rongo is not exactly a very spirited orator; most of the sermon is rather flat and acoustically monotonous. He stands behind a slightly raised pulpit in front of an elaborate altar with stairs rising on both sides towards a second pulpit up high, very much closer to the divine inspiration, but only to be used by a full fledged minister. Behind the altar are three high slots in the church wall, slender rectangular windows with pointed tops. Right at the tip of the center window hangs suspended from the dark, wooden ceiling a sculpted bird, as if flying in straight from the heaven with a godly message in his beak.

What can a mind thirsting for freedom of conditioning do while being forced to demonstrate outward content with the imposing authority and the massive business of a church? The service is held in native Maori, so it is for me above all a soothing language lesson that has my mind drink every syllable with feverish attention while everybody else seems to be dozing off into oblivion. Ora is life, kia orana, the local greeting, translates into “long may you live”, te atua stands for God or a crumb more feudal: the Lord, te moana is the sea and also its color, kitse leads you to knowledge, if you know it, mai come, hano mai come here, ono look and also the number six, hula let’s go, kona means full, and ma kona au you say at the end of the kai kai, the meal, to let others know that you’ve had it, no more space down there, meitaki maata, thank you very much! Logo stands for the word, now isn’t that one interesting! How did classy Greek find its way half way across the planet and lend meaning to such an important concept? The London Missionary Society must have something to do with it. Over two centuries ago the members of this organization were the fanatic converters, bringing a new faith to the lonesome islands of the South Pacific, according to their accounts to an enthusiastic reception. The mighty Tangaroa, chief of the Polynesian Pantheon, was hastily abandoned, traded in mounds of goodwill for this new code of ethics preaching the business of peace.

The language lesson alone though does not carry me through the hour and something of the service. My mind soon wanders off to wonder what made these ancient seafarers, the brave long-distance voyagers, the fearless explorers and settlers of the vastest stretch of ocean on this blue planet, the quarrelsome to outright fierce warriors doing battles with each other on one hundred foot war canoes, the highly skilled fishermen familiar with all the nooks and crannies of their watery world, what made those tradition burdened folks decide to worship so passionately the bearded son of the Jews, studying avidly the legends and cultural records of a desert people half way around the globe. What is the contagious might of the Christian religion that allowed it to spread like a spiritual smallpox virus very virulently eradicating forever more down to earth regional systems of credence? Did not its fatherly distant, forever unreachable and untouchable god seem utterly strange and weirdly abstract to folks who seem to have been extremely keen observers of not only their physical environment, but also the intrinsic subtleties of the human sphere? Did those bearers of the “good news” maybe come at a crucial time when the warriors had grown wary of their wars and slurped up the gospel of love and peace like liquid honey on toasted whole wheat bread because it helped them stop the stupid brutalities amongst themselves? The historical record is so sparse and the little at hand so helplessly distorted through a twisted point of view that this question will await its satisfying answer forever. For the faithful Christian folks of today their ancestors before the arrival of the enlightenment were primitive heathens more brute than the muddy pigs they are fattening up in little cages built from five pallets around the perimeter of their village.

After three more spirit enticing hymns it’s time for the “message for our English speaking friends”, a gesture of goodwill, where the minister repeats in the language of global commerce the reading of the bible verses composing the “Daily bread of today”, a selection of verses dictated by the central authority of the church in Rarotonga. Then he provides a brief summary in English of his sermon in Maori, usually emphasizing the importance of keeping and maintaining the faith in Christ, God, Jesus, the Lord, the Holy Spirit and the many other curious conceptions of this supposedly monotheistic religion. “May God bless you until the day you depart!”, Papa Rongo usually ends this section for the language impaired visitors. Just in case we should have forgotten, that day is approaching fast, and after that, I guess, we’ll have to fend for ourselves…

A couple more of the spirited, highly crafted and passionately interpreted hymns later, for which everybody rises from their worn paws, some visibly arousing from sweet slumber, a final prayer sends everybody back to the earthly realm. (Here’s one, two, three samples of what those sound like!) The sequence of the entrance to the worship is reversed. The children exit first with the two ladies who keep them in check most of the time, then the youngsters, who wear colored shirts with Japanese cartoon characters in dramatic warrior poses printed on them and manifest their pertinence to a new generation by sporting Polaroid shades sitting on their high riding noses. The female half of the adult population is next, followed and shadowed by the males, both loosely arranged according to age. The patriarchs are therefore the last to exit the church and ritually shake hands to reinforce the well-structured bonding between them. There is no hanging around after church, no place for gossip or small talk. Everybody silently walks away in direction of their homes giving just a bit more wear and tear to the weedless narrow footpaths on the light grey coral rubble, their white dresses disappearing one by one behind pastel-colored, tin-roofed concrete houses and slender coconut trees. A lonely white rooster is the last one to rush across the scenery, chasing away his inferiorly colored brides and sisters to prevent them from staining the absolute purity of the holy celebration. Those lazy hens can’t even lay enough to organize a half way decent egg hunt on the island! What kind of an Easter is that!

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