Talking Story about the History of Christianity in the Pacific World

The students came from many places in the Pacific world. There were pastors from Samoa and Tonga and Hawaii; missionaries from the United Church of Christ in Japan working with Japanese-speaking people in the Bay Area; a Christian lay woman from Hong Kong interested in knowing more than she learned in Sunday School; a former federal judge, a Chinese American woman from Hawaii; a Catholic Sister who came from Vietnam as a boat person and now lives in Texas; an American pastor, daughter of immigrants from China who serves a multi-cultural congregation with Japanese roots; and an African American man who finds his home in a Samoan congregation in Hawaii. My colleague Tafa Muasau, President of the Kanana Fou Theological Seminary in American Samoa and I had an enormous amount of Pacific Christian history right there in the room. We hardly missed the lack of a textbook on the subject.

While we read a number of interesting articles and documents, the insights of the class came from the circle of people in the room and their stories. We told stories about voyaging and the presence of Christ on the roads and waves and winds of life. We told stories about family, and the extended family of the church. We told stories about the tensions between love and fear where Christians so often move quickly to judgments about good and evil and noted that those judgments simply do not address the complexities of Pacific world existence. We told stories about our experiences of the power of nature, from earthquakes and tsunamis to the appearance of the SARS threatened epidemic. We told stories of boundary crossings, legal and illegal, and the ambiguity of life lived on both sides of a border.

These aspects of Pacific world experience are woven into the stories of Christians here at the ends of the earth. We heard how the fear of SARS virus threatened to divide and isolate one individual from another and the joy the church felt when they could gather again at the table. We heard how faith in God sustained a small group of Vietnamese boat people, refugees migrating to an unknown country facing an uncertain welcome. We heard the story of a Samoan high chief who practiced the Christian discipline of confession and repentance through an ancient Samoan ceremony on behalf of a younger member of the village who had wronged another family. We heard many stories about how Christianity was a transformation of an older religion rather than a conversion to something completely different.

The first Christians in the Pacific world were located in outposts of the Syrian and Persian Church of the East reaching the Pacific slope of China in the 8th century. They were followed half a millennium later by Italian, Portuguese and Spanish lay merchants and Franciscans, Augustinian, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries whose Christianity came in colonial forms. The various forms of Christianity in the Pacific world both share the colonial legacies and also show how people reshaped their adopted faith to give meaning to the new complexities of modernity. Christianity remains, overall, a minority religion in the Pacific world, one of many options.

In our class we talked about why people became and remained Christian. We often find various forms of healing in Christian communities. We find a community in the church where we are known by name and have social position and roles that the world outside does not grant to us. Most of all, despite the ways churches and nominal Christians have distorted it, we find the way of life taught by Jesus to be compelling.

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