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Discovering the Pacific sitting in a church pew

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    Roman Catholics worship at Assumption Church on Majuro.

There’s one sure-fire way for a Pacific traveler to get to know the local community. Go to church.

No matter where you are in the Pacific, a church service will provide the outsider with an understanding of the community’s culture, values and traditions. And in the islands, congregations welcome visitors as if they were long-lost relatives. This holds true regardless of where you are traveling, whether it is Suva or Saipan, Manu’a or Majuro.

On Majuro Atoll, capital of the Marshall Islands, there’s no shortage of church services to attend. The mainstay denominations are the Protestant’s Congregational Church and the Roman Catholic Church. But there are also a host of other Christian churches, many of which have evangelical congregations that are growing in popularity.

Pacific churches are also known for the beauty of their choirs, and that is certainly the case in the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese can be quiet and reserved with strangers, and a visitor to this atoll nation could think that the islanders are reserved in the extreme. But give the Marshallese an opportunity to sing, and they become one of the most outgoing people in the Pacific.

It is 10 a.m. on Sunday, and the congregation at the Assemblies of God church in Delab, on Majuro, is rocking. The colorfully dressed church members are standing, stomping feet and waving hands above their heads. Everyone is singing, and a band near the altar is driving a fast-tempo beat. And this is just the beginning of the Sunday service.

The service is more restrained down the road at the Roman Catholic mission’s Assumption Church. There, the hymns are sung with equal fervor and beauty, but the mass doesn’t include a band with electric guitars and a drummer. Still, the pews are filled with the faithful, and the service reminds the visitor that the Catholic service is both familiar and comforting, no matter the language spoken or the location of the church.

On Majuro atoll, which is about 2,300 miles south-southwest of Honolulu, churches also play a key role in education. The Roman Catholic Church’s Assumption School is one of only three U.S.-accredited high schools on the atoll, which is the capital of the Marshall Islands, and the only church-affiliated school that meets U.S. education standards.

There are a host of other schools affiliated with churches throughout Majuro. In fact, the Marshall Islands has a high number of such schools, even compared to other Pacific nations, where churches also play a leading role in national and community life.

Indeed, religion is one of the dominating factors of life in the islands. Pacific Islanders are active churchgoers, and on some islands it isn’t unusual to have services throughout the week and to expect congregation members to attend multiple services on a Sunday. Pastors generally preach a more fundamental Christian theology. And there are still signs that remind one of the days on Majuro when congregations wore white to Sunday services. Today there’s a sea of color in the pews, but in many churches men still sit on one side of the aisle and women on the other side, just as it was decades ago.

Every Pacific island has its own strong religious traditions. On the island of Kosrae, part of the neighboring Federated States of Micronesia, some congregations used to practice public confessions during services. It made for some interesting gossip and no doubt helped to keep church attendance up on that strongly Protestant island.

Fiji’s dominant Methodist Church used to have an annual conference, whose highlight was a competition of church choirs from across that 300-island nation. I can remember my first year in Fiji, when I worked as a newspaper editor in the capital of Suva, and the joy of hearing the bus loads of choirs before they passed me on the streets. The churches would charter buses, which in those days had open sides, and the choirs would practice on their way in to Suva from the outlying villages.

The Samoas have some of the strongest church traditions in the Pacific, and in both American Samoa and independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), most churchgoers still wear white when they attend Sunday services. At those churches, all women wear fancy white hats and the men are usually in white jackets with a matching white lava-lava wrap.

A drive from Samoa’s Faleolo International Airport into the capital of Apia reminds a visitor of the power of churches in that country. It seems that every fourth or fifth structure is a church along the beautiful drive into Apia. The same is true on Majuro, where churches are commonplace along the 30-mile road that connects the community of Rita at one end of the atoll with village of Laura at the other end.

Outsiders are sometimes critical of the influence of Western missionaries in the Pacific Islands. But I’ve yet to meet an islander who complains about Christian traditions and values, which have been incorporated into daily lives with enthusiasm. In nearly every island across the Pacific, Christian traditions and theology mesh seamlessly into indigenous concepts of culture and values.

So it is no surprise that in the Marshall Islands, people take their religion seriously. At the Assemblies of God church on Majuro, for example, tithing by the congregation has meant the huge church is cooled by nine giant air conditioners, and the floor is covered with shiny white tiles. Some men wear coats and ties to the service, and the president of the nation is a member of the congregation. The Marshall Islands church has sent its members to meetings in Hawaii, where there’s a large expatriate Marshallese community.

At the Roman Catholic Assumption Church, a new multistory classroom building for its school was built with donations. Work on the new building began before all the funds were in hand, a sign in part of the church’s confidence that its parishioners would find a way to fund the completion of the building. It was indeed completed and serves the well-regarded Assumption School.

For visitors to the Marshall Islands, the Christmas holiday is the most interesting time to attend a local church service. Nearly every church goes all out during the holiday to welcome the festive season. In many Protestant churches, there’s a tradition of groups of congregation members entering the service singing and energetically dancing and swaying.

Members practice long hours, and the holiday services can run for hours. Oh, did I mention the food?


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