Sunday 7th January 2014. We’ve heard about the Samoan church choirs and how wonderful they are. It’s Sunday, our only Sunday in Samoa, and we’ve missed all the morning church services because we’ve been changing hotels. During the day we ask hotel staff and taxi drivers is there a church that has an evening service? Which is the best choir? Which church should we go to? No one seems to know. One answer we are given is to try the Catholic Church but we soon establish that there is no evening service there. Finally we are told about two smaller churches down near the waterfront and that an evening service would start at about 5pm. We get a taxi to take us there but both are closed. We tell the taxi driver we would like to hear a Samoan church service, and a Samoan church choir. I think until this point everyone has assumed we would only want a service in English. Suddenly the taxi driver says he knows a place where there will be a Samoan church service, and yes, there is a choir.
In less than ten minutes we are being let out at the Apia National Gymnasium. There are people milling around outside, others wandering into the gym, and we see two buses arriving filled with more people. After chatting with a couple of women we wander in. We find ourselves in a huge gym with stadium seating high up on either side. Down on the gym floor the basketball hoops have been pushed aside, and curtains hung at the back of a small stage. The floor is filled with seating. We have no idea where we should sit. Feeling a bit shy and conspicuous we take seats near the front. Slowly more and more people enter. And at about 5.30 the service begins. The gym is about half full by now. The choir starts singing and about ten women start waving flags with Samoan words on them. Everyone is singing along.
You can see the place is starting to fill up.
The words of the songs are projected onto a big screen on either side, and look like this:
Every now and then there is a hymn in English. We sing along. As much as I can keep up I also sing along to the Samoan words. It’s fun. There’s one song where the chorus is about wiggling your butt for Jesus (or something like that) so I wiggle away. A woman from behind comes to me at the end of the song and gives me a hug. Everyone is having a good time singing their hearts out for Jesus.
More and more arrive and by the time the first hour has passed there are about one thousand people there and the place is packed to the rafters.
During the first couple of hours, in between the singing, there are four preachers, one after the other. It’s all in Samoan. It doesn’t matter. We understand enough. It’s fascinating to watch, and to feel the energy. Clearly one of the preachers is talking about tithing to the church and people are lined up at the front with the collection bags, which they then pass around the congregation.
The last of the four preachers speaks as the choir sings softly in the background. People begin to get on their knees, some completely prostrate on the floor. Slowly, softly I begin to hear people around me mouthing their prayers, gradually getting louder. Then the preacher stops talking. The choir stops singing. The private prayers continue with the volume increasing and filling the hall, everyone with their own words for God, moaning in a kind of ecstasy, mouthing or shouting words, singing out hallelujah over and over. It’s loud and passionate, uninhibited and heartfelt.
Don and I are wondering just how long this service will go on for. We don’t realize that the main act is yet to come. But before that happens a woman nearby whispers to me that the “Items” are next. The “Items” are two dance performances, the first a group of kids busting their Michael Jackson moves, the second a performance of a Polynesian style dance.
And then he arrives. The main preacher.
For about an hour he speaks of the Holy Spirit. He begins with a few sentences in English, and every now and then quotes from the bible are projected onto the screens in English, and occasionally he says a few more sentences in English, but the bulk of it is in Samoan. It doesn’t matter. He is a brilliant orator: practiced, articulate, passionate, loud then soft then loud again, a speaker who grabs and holds your attention and draws you in, absolutely riveting. Everyone is spellbound.
Then he is calling for girls and women who have not yet felt the Holy Spirit to come forward, and they gather in front of him. He invokes the Holy Spirit, calling in a most passionate way, over and over, for the spirit to fill them.
Suddenly they start falling, one woman after another, seemingly cut off at the knees by the power of spirit entering their body and consciousness. I think some are really trying to have it be so. I also think there are some who are genuinely having a transcendent experience, and feeling a very powerful and very real shift in their perception – of themselves, of ordinary reality, and of the life force that courses through them. It seems that these ones are not trying or hoping. Their belief is so strong that they are literally floored by this new perception and their minds and bodies are so utterly discombobulated that they writhe on the floor sobbing and moaning in some kind of ecstasy.
Then it is the turn of the men and we witness the same phenomenon.
Next thing everyone who can is standing and moving out of the way and there is a great mêlée as all the chairs are folded and moved to the sides so the floor of the gym is clear. The elders of the church line up in two lines, facing each other and directly in front of the preacher up on the stage, about fifty in each line. They are forming a “tunnel” for the Holy Spirit to flow through, and the preacher is calling on the Holy Spirit, and in great loud breaths is blowing it down through the tunnel of people. Slowly everyone in the congregation walks through this tunnel and is touched by every one of the elders as they go along. We too join the line, by this time thoroughly welcomed into the fold. At the end when everyone has walked through the tunnel the choir begins singing long and loud about the Holy Spirit, the fire of the Holy Spirit, and everyone joins in singing and dancing and shouting Fire! Fire! More people fall to the floor.
And then it is over. Four hours of singing dancing praying surrendering to something other than ordinary life.
Several times throughout the service people come up to speak to me and always they ask what church we belong to and what religion we are. I reply that we are homeless wanderers, and that in every country we go to we seek out the places of worship. As for my religion I answer that it is love and peace. My answers seem well received though perhaps cause some puzzlement.
I think there has been, and continues to be, much harm and suffering caused by religion. All religions. I also see that since the beginning of time human beings have intuitively reached out for something that their hearts tell them is a deeper truth than the suffering of ordinary life. I have no time for religions based on fear, but apart from that I’m all for whatever makes you feel good, about yourself, about your life, about your relationships with other people. And this was four hours of feel good. Neither Don nor I had ever experienced anything like it.
As everyone was moving towards the doors, many people came up to us to say hello, to shake our hands, to hug us, completely welcoming us into their community. Eventually we left the building with the crowd and walked along the road for a while chatting with a group of younger churchgoers about the service and what their membership of the congregation means to them. No pun intended, everyone was in high spirits. Then we took a taxi to our hotel knowing we had by sheer luck stumbled into something uniquely Samoan, and amazingly joyous. Don and I have a spiritual perspective on life, but we are not Christian, and we are not religious. Either way, by the end of the evening we felt good.
The next day we found out that this non-denominational congregation meets every Sunday at the National Gymnasium, renaming it simply The Worship Centre.
Nearly one hundred percent of Samoans are Christian and more than a dozen denominations are represented, however I can’t imagine those who follow the Catholic, or Mormon, or Seventh Day Adventist faiths behaving with the wild uninhibited behavior we’d witnessed at The Worship Centre. There is societal pressure in the villages to tithe to the church, to worship at the established church in the village, and little room for the choice to not worship at all.
According to Fa’a Samoa Samoan indigenous religion consisted of a complex polytheistic religion that incorporated both human and non-human gods. . . . The ironic part of their religion was that the war goddess Nafanua had prophesized that there would be a new religion to come to the land that would take over. She said that this new religion would wipe out the gods and an entire new religion would be brought onto the Samoan people. Thus when the missionaries arrived in 1830, having been preceded by a few Samoans who had converted to Christianity when visiting other South Pacific islands, Samoan society was ready to embrace the new religion. Christianity has been the dominant creed ever since. The indigenous religion has gone underground but is still practiced in some ways, though spoken of only in whispers. Apparently the pre-Christian belief in ancestor-spirits, numinous beings that have an influence over daily life, is still quite prevalent though not spoken of openly. Traditional expression still survives in other areas such as singing, dancing, and tattooing.
We went to a traditional dance performance called a Fia Fia at one of the hotels. All the performers were employees of the hotel, and at the same time had created a show of traditional dancing and music. The dances tell the stories of everyday life.
We were captivated by their infectious enthusiasiasm. It was joyous and fun and thoroughly entertaining.
And then came the highlight of the evening: the Samoan Fire Knife Dance. The Knife Dance goes back thousands of years as a demonstration of young warriors’ prowess with their weapons, and as a fierce pre-war preparation ritual. Fire was added in 1946 when a Samoan knife dancer in San Francisco became aware of a Hindu fire-eater. He wrapped some towels around his knives, borrowed some fuel and the fire knife dance was created. It is a staple of Polynesian performances throughout the South Pacific, and a World Championships is held yearly in Hawaii. It was definitely the most exciting part of the evening.
And so ended our sojourn in the delightful island nation of Samoa. On December 12th we flew to Fiji for some more Polynesian magic.
Next post: ‘Behind the scenes at Adventures in Wonderland’, to be followed by some stories of Fiji.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.