Monday, January 12, 2009

Cultural Exploration 4: Church

Samoa is a tremendously religious country, and Sunday is a big day with church and all. Since I arrived in Samoa, I’ve attended 3 churches: White Sunday at the non- denomina- tional Peace Chapel here in Apia, 9 Sundays (although I missed one because I was feverish) at the Congregationalist church in Fausaga, and a couple Sundays at a Catholic church here in Apia. Each gives a different experience, but some central themes (besides Jesus) run through each.

Peace Chapel

The Peace Chapel was a pleasant place to spend a Sunday. We went for White Sunday, which is a day when children are celebrated and often given performances at church. So the Reverend got up at the beginning, said a few words, and then the children’s play took up the entire service. In that sense, I’m not sure that we got the full Peace Chapel experience. There was very little music for the congregation to participate in, there was no sermon or homily, there was no structure to the service.

That said, a number of things could be divined from the experience. There were more Palagis, white people, in the congregation than at the Congregationalist church or the Catholic church. I don’t think this is necessarily good or bad, but it did make for a slightly more diverse congregation. Dress at the church was slightly more formal than business casual (i.e. neckties), but there may have been increased formality on account of the White Sunday holiday.

All in all, the people at the Peace Chapel were very welcoming, and our one experience there was dogmatically gentle.

Congregationalist Church

My observations about the Congregationalist church in Fausaga are skewed by the fact that services were held almost exclusively in Samoan, and I could understand very little. The one time that the Faife’au, Reverend, spliced some English into his sermon, it had to do with “When was your finest moment?” At one point, he quoted Winston Churchill. I’m not sure if he quotes Churchill and others on a regular basis, or if part of that homily was influenced by our presence.

In any case, Congregationalist services seemed to be pretty devout. There was an opening song and an opening prayer. Prayers would last a long time, and the congregation would keep their heads bowed for the entire duration. After another song, the Faife’au would instruct the congregation to open their bibles to a particular passage. He would read a verse, and the congregation would read the next verse. This back and forth went on until the entire passage was read. Depending on the Sunday, there’d be between 1 and 3 passages. Then a sermon. Then a prayer. Then I’d get lost. Praying and singing, praying and singing, until it was over.

There was also an afternoon service, which seemed more informal. The structure of this service did not seem as methodical. On the first Sunday of the month, a communion of bread (crackers similar to Animal Crackers) and wine (red fruit punch) was served.

Congregationalists tend to dress up a lot for church. Men wear white shirts and ies, lavalavas, and a necktie. Women wear white Easter dresses and fancy white Easter-style hats. I thought this level of formality might have been because our host village seemed to be right in the middle of the Samoan Bible Belt, but there is a Congregationalist church near my place here in Apia, and the Easter dresses are worn here too.

Catholic Mass

I have been to the English mass at the Catholic church in Apia. It seems like the English mass may be a bit more lax and informal than the Samoan masses, although I’m not completely sure. From what I’ve seen of the Samoan masses, there are more neckties and more white clothing.

One of the best parts of being Catholic is that attending an English mass here in Samoa is pretty darn similar to attending mass in the United States. The order is the same. Many of the songs are the same. Everywhere on Earth reads the same readings on the same day. It’s a bit like going to a baseball game at a different stadium; everything is done a bit differently (They do that godawful Tomahawk Chop in Atlanta, Anaheim has that stupid Rally Monkey, Oakland has those meaningless flags out in the bleachers, AT&T Park is beautiful, etc.), but you can follow along relatively easily because it’s the same sport no matter where you go.

The priest’s homily was definitely canned yesterday. He began by talking about how the winter thistle doesn’t blossom until the snow begins to melt. Really? And you thought this would be relevant to your tropical Samoan congregation in the middle of summer for why?

All of these churches talk about money a lot more than is talked about in The States. At the Congregationalist church, they would go down the roster and announce each person’s name and how much they put into the collection basket that particular week. The Catholic church prints the collection for each particular neighborhood surrounding the church in the weekly bulletin. It’s kinda sketch.

The Faife’au and/or Priest is very very respected within the community. Tithing is taken very seriously. If a family slaughters a pig for dinner, they take some of it to the Faife’au. For the traditional Sunday brunch, or Toona’i, something is almost always brought to the house of the Faife’au. The Faife’au is often one of the more affluent members of the community.

Finally, Samoa is one of the few locations in the world (I forget how many there are, and I don’t have Wikipedia handy) that has a Baha’i temple. That local Baha’i worship spot in your town is most likely not a temple. I think maybe there are only 7. Someone look it up and let me know. In any case, I definitely want to make a trip up there at some point. It’s just up the hill from me, and by just up the hill, I mean an incredibly sweaty bike ride.

Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: Bugs. Yeah. Get ready for that one.

Also, I have included an addendum at the bottom of the Walking Down the Street blog from Friday. I forgot to talk about shouts from Samoan kids.

Hope things are well. Church pictures below.

White Sunday at the Peace Chapel.

Children's choir at the Congregationalist church in Fausaga.

Congregationalists in Apia.

(Pardon me while I talk a little shop with the Catholics...) They don't sing the Responsorial Psalm at the church here in Apia, but they do an introductory rite for the Liturgy of the Word, which is kinda strange. To further the baseball analogy, it's a bit like stopping after the second out in the bottom of the second inning to drag the field instead of doing it after the third inning. Just odd.

They project the song lyrics on the wall with an overhead projector. Similar to mass at Berkeley.

They have 10 altar boys at each mass. And let me emphasize boys. No girls allowed. They do the weird clapping thing. I'm not a fan.


Anonymous said...


I've had trouble posting. Not sure why. But I do check daily for your posts. Very fun to read. I am enjoying the cultural exploration writings. The church one was especially enjoyable. Speaking of church, did you hear we're getting a new bishop?

Ok...keep writing! It's so fun to see the world through your eyes.

We miss you very much. Take good care of yourself and stay safe!

chloer said...

Hi Matt,

You don't know me - this is a bit of an out of left field request but - Im currently in Australia and Im trying to get information from people that are living in Samoa. I want to teach there for about 1 to 2 years. I have alot of questions about Samoa - day to day life, the culture etc... Ive read some blogs but i have some more specific questions.
If you have time to contact me via email so I can ask you some questions I'd really appreciate it.

Regards Chloe

Anonymous said...

wikipedia says there are 8 baha'i houses of worship, the ninth soon to be built in chile, but later refers to the 7 houses multiple times. Interestingly (maybe?) the first ever baha'i house of worship is still in use in ishqabad, which is the capitol of turkmenistan. i guess you were destined for one.