The Price of Honesty

Over the years I’ve been privileged, on occasions, to live with local families while visiting Fiji and Samoa. This has led to memorable, enriching experiences, far removed from those of the tourists staying at the resorts.

Of course, staying with someone usually comes with expectations, for example, Sunday church attendance. It’s compulsory – no ifs, no buts.

My first Pacific church experience was in the mid-90s, when I was invited by Leva, a former Samoan student of mine, to attend his father-in-law’s church in Henderson. He assured me that the service would be ‘special’.

I’d met up with Leva a few years before, during the first of my many visits to Samoa. He’d accorded me the legendary Samoan hospitality. We’d agreed to catch up next time he was in Auckland.

‘Special’ turned out to be an understatement. ‘Moving’ was a better description.The entire service was conducted by children. The large congregation was all in white – except me. No-one had seen fit to warn me what to wear.

Singly, or in groups, the children told the Old Testament saga of the ‘lost tribes of Israel’. What a story. Meanwhile the congregation watched spellbound.

After what seemed like a couple of hours, there was what I took to be a long overdue intermission. Silly me. With barely a pause, a man rose to his feet, moved to the nave of the church, and spoke with great seriousness from a lecturn.

Despite my lack of facility with the Samoan language, I kept hearing what appeared to be names and numbers. It was quite mystifying.

Eventually, I plucked up courage to ask the young man next to me what was going on. ‘Oh, that’s just the church secretary reporting on what each family has paid by way of tithing this week’.

I was shocked. I’d been a regular, if reluctant, attendee at a Presbyterian church during my youth, where Sunday donations and tithes were regarded as private information.

Given this, the disclosure of parishioners’ donations, to the over-full congregation at Leva’s church, was a cultural experience I was not prepared for.

Reflecting on it later, I was very judgmental. To this day, I still am.

I once challenged a Samoan lawyer to find me any passage in the Bible that requires such a practice. He couldn’t find one.

To me as an ‘ignorant palagi’, it’s a form of cultural oppression. I need to tread carefully. Perhaps it’s yet another legacy of the dreaded missionaries’ zealotry?

Defenders of the practice tell me there’s no pressure on families – that they contribute what they can.  I’m not so sure. I sense there is, on occasions at least, real pressure to see who can contribute the most – even if it means going without what non-Pacific folk like me would regard as essentials of daily life for a few days.

That said, it’s a standard aspect of every South Pacific church service I have ever attended. And, it ain’t about to change soon!

Then there are the Pacific sermons and Bible readings, some interminably long. Even if one can’t understand the language, the delivery can be quite anxiety-provoking. Talk about ‘hell fire and damnation’. Just watch the expressions on the locals.

On one occasion, while staying in a village in a remote part of Fiji, I was asked to give a reading in the local Methodist church. I was apprehensive, to say the least.

Reluctantly I agreed, provided I could choose the reading. Not having been a church attender for some years, that proved quite a challenge.

I decided it had to be something from the New Testament. That would mark a change from the villagers’ usual diet of fiery Old Testament readings.

After some indecision I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. I remembered what my father had written in my Bible at the time of my confirmation – ‘you reap what you sow’. (Oh, how that passage has haunted me during the ups and downs of my adult life.)

Then my subversive nature got the better of me. Rather than just a reading from the Bible, I decided to use the quotation as the basis for a short mini-sermon.

Dressing for the occasion was quite a challenge for a youthful backpacker. Fortunately, my hosts had some spare ‘church clothes’. Dressed in an ill-fitting white shirt, a battered tie decades old, and a lavalava, I approached the pulpit. Warm smiles from the congregation eased my nerves. I sensed I might well have been the first kavalagi (ie, English person), to be accorded the honour. Given my appearance at the time – long hair and an unkempt beard – I may even have had something of a biblical appearance to some.

Remembering that the villagers depended on their plantations, I used the analogy of a farmer carefully choosing the seeds to plant; planting in the best possible soil; weeding the plants; watering them etc. Given they had greater knowledge and skill when it came to growing crops, those who could understand my remarks, must have listened with wry amusement.

Quickly I moved on, in the simplest way possible, to the possible consequences of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions. Given my propensity for making the latter, it was all a bit rich coming from me, but I wasn’t about to let on.

I spoke in Pacific minister-style – forceful, confident, with eyes fixed on the small congregation. My only light touch was to try desperately to keep ‘a smile on my dial’.

Everyone listened attentively. My hosts just beamed. Perhaps I’d missed my true vocation. Afterwards I was the guest of honour at the meke – the church members’ Sunday feast.

Years later, I had an unusual request at another Fijian village. Could I record a video of the village priest’s last mass? Apparently he was returning to his seminary, before being sent to another remote outpost in the global Catholic empire.

‘Sorry, I couldn’t possibly do that’, I said with conviction. Unfortunately, my devout hosts wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Eventually I gave in, having been assured that the priest had given the videoing his blessing.

The day of the mass dawned. In our Sunday best – brightly-coloured tropical attire this time – we headed for the church, hidden away some distance from the main road.

We were barely out of the car when one of my hosts shouted – ‘There he is.’ Out of the dense tropical vegetation emerged a figure all in white.

Talk about stereotyping. It was like walking on to the set of the highly popular Anglo/Irish tv comedy of a few decades back, ‘Father Ted’.

Pot-bellied, ruddy-faced, with a large bulbous nose, and eyes that had that ‘one too many’ look; my hosts’ priest looked a true-blooded Irishman, through and through. He was also a man in a hurry.

‘Father, Father’, implored my host, ‘this is our good friend, Tim McBride, from New Zealand. He’s the man whose going to take the video of your final mass with us’.

Momentarily, he stopped. ‘McBride, did you say, why you must be one of us’. He gave me a broad smile and stretched out his hand.

How to respond to his warm act of greeting? Very obvious – ‘yes, father, a fellow Christian’, or something like that.

Did I respond that way? No. Don’t ask me why.

Instead I felt obliged to do the confessional – ‘Sorry, father, I’m descended from a Northern Ireland Protestant family.’

Immediately he withdrew his hand. His look of disgust was quite overpowering. It was as if he had just shaken hands with a leper.

He immediately turned on his heels and was off without further a word.

Despite the rebuff, I somehow completed my videoing. Whether the priest ever received a copy to take back to Ireland, I have no idea.

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Tim McBride

Human rights author and commentator