Defending the Faith

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Sunday morning in apia, and church doors are flung open along the town's streets. The sound of hearty hymn-singing swells out over the hot roads toward the harbor. Inside are wooden pews filled with women in wide-brimmed white hats and white lace dresses and men in traditional skirts, praying and fanning themselves, sometimes weeping as they sing or scribbling notes in their prayer books. After the service, the congregations disperse for Sunday lunch, leaving the streets deserted except for tourists and taxis. But the church windows are left open, ready for the next service in a few hours' time.

Such devotion resonates throughout Samoa, in the pearl-colored churches that line the roads like sentinels. This is a deeply religious country even by the standards of a region that's sometimes called the world's "Bible belt": a country where a young man in the back of a truck crosses himself when passing a church, where one of the nation's two television channels shows almost nothing but religious services, and where the national motto-Fa'avae i le Atua -means Founded on God. Most Samoans are Christians, adherents of the Congregational, Methodist or Catholic churches, but increasingly other, newer faiths are expanding their flocks.

The missionary path to Samoa was blazed in 1830 by the London Missionary Society-forerunner of the Congregational Church-which beat the Methodists and the Catholics to the lush group of islands and soon became the biggest denomination there. Matai, or chiefs, were among the earliest converts from the worship of ancient deities, and by 1907, about 60 Samoan missionaries had set sail to preach the new law to their neighbors.

These days evangelical missions are called "personnel exchanges," says Otele Perelini, principal of the Malua Theological College. But the missionary impulse is still there. The 157-year-old college-founded by the LMS-is the oldest continuously operating seminary in the Pacific. Seventy students pad barefoot through its graceful buildings and there's a surplus of graduates, waiting for the call to local villages or to Samoan parishes overseas. Through the minister's relationship with his congregation (a bond called feagaiga), the church exerts a powerful influence over village life, a hold for which it has been criticized-"and sometimes rightly so," says Perelini, "because of the demands it puts on people." Ministers have traditionally been supported by the villages they serve, but even some church members are now calling for an end to the requirement that parishioners, many of them poor, make donations and raise church funds. "The ministry has to give back what it can to make people's lives better," says Featuna'i Liua'ana, a teacher at Malua. "People still have the conservative mentality that if you give to the church you will be blessed."

Change is coming, too, in the shape of a new evangelical wave. Faiths like the Assemblies of God and the Mormons, who even have their own Apia-based public relations officer, are becoming more popular, and groups like the U.S.-based Word of Life Fellowship are spreading their messages of redemption. Word of Life made its first mission visit in July, using puppet shows and plays. Samoans "have a great respect for God," says New Zealand ministry director Tom McIvor, who led the mission. "But many of them have never had a personal relationship with God. We give them an opportunity to trust Jesus in a visible way." The visit was so successful he's planning a Samoa ministry.

The arrival of modern charismatic faiths has the established churches worried-not only about congregation sizes but about the effect on traditional customs, says National Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Fepai Kolia. "The Gospel has many faces now," he says. "Some of the new religions have very different teachings of the Bible and they are stopping the cultural connections of the people which unite our family and our extended families." Samoan cultural norms are powerful, and a special occasion like a marriage normally obliges other villagers to donate money and finely woven mats. But now, says Kolia, some are turning away: "They say our religion does not allow that."

In the village of Saipipi last year, a villager was forbidden by the fono, or council, in his largely Congregationalist community to build an Assemblies of God church next to the Congregational church. So he took his fight to court-and won. With at least 15 faiths now in this tiny nation, there's sure to be more jostling ahead. It's 171 years since the London Missionary Society landed its boats, but the years haven't dented the zeal of missionaries, each group claiming that it holds the key to saving Samoan souls.