I am not a religious person, but I love church services here in Samoa. This is our second day here, and our director, a former Peace Corps worker who married a Samoan matai (chief), took us to a local Catholic church. The vast majority of Samoans are Christian, and church is a big deal here. Most people wear white on Sundays, and close their shops for family and worship that often takes most of the day. The priest is the most important male figure in town, and is the recipient of the services and contributions of the rest of the community. Because of this, the community dedicates ample time and money to the welfare of the church.
We explored Apia a bit yesterday after our flight arrived, and the newest churches are impressive. The largest Catholic church was built in 2014, after much of the city was decimated by a 2012 cyclone. This church is beautiful inside now: wood slats make up the ceiling, and form geometric patterns with each other. The floors are a light pink tile, adding to the brightness to the rich wood of the ceiling and the colorful frescoes of grape bunches (of all things). My favorite part of this particular church is a rotunda at the top, which features various Catholic saints doing whatever saints like to do, and important Samoan chiefs sitting among them and conferring. I think that this painting reflects a lot of the Samoan mentality toward religion and their existence in general—while they venerate and extoll their religion, they also know the importance of their own identity.
A story that we were told in class the other day also reflects this. Missionaries who had come to Samoa, and imparted lessons from the Bible to the chiefs and villagers. One of these “lessons” was that all people could trace themselves back to Jesus Christ and the Holy Land. At this point, the Samoans interrupted. The teachings of the Bible were good, they said, but that part was wrong. Perhaps the rest of the world came from the Holy Land, but the Samoans came from Samoa.
Similar reactions have occurred when historians “teach” Samoans about human migration from Polynesia to the Pacific—it’s simply not true, they say. The pride that Samoans take in their identity is both overt and tenacious, and, although you might see it in any aspect of daily life, I found it striking today at church.
Only the choir sings the mass, and, as the priest sings a verse, he is answered in a beautiful four-part harmony. Voices raise in song and echo off the wooden ceiling of the church, in a melody that one would almost expect in a European cathedral, but which is much to bright for the darkness and solemnity a cathedral would bring.
As the offertory is played, baskets are passed amongst the congregation, as one family distributes leis made of frangipani blossoms to high-ranking elders. A statue of the Virgin Mary has her own lei, and a row of older women dressed in white receive more. Our director also receives a lei, and exchanges kisses with the woman who gives it to her. The sweet smell of flowers mingles with the darkness of the incense, carried around the church by the gentle breeze of people’s fans.
This portrayal of a Samoan church service is somewhat romanticized—it is incredibly hot and humid in the church, and feeling the sweat dripping down my back does not necessarily make me feel spiritual. However, it provides a picture of an essential part of the Samoan life, and one that I hope I will experience more of in the future.