Take Me To Church: Sunday in Rarotonga
"How do you say it?”
“RRRRarrrrotonga.” The little boy stood on the gravestone and rolled his "r"s like a Spanish conquistador.
We were sitting outside the church. Everyone was in their Sunday best- the women wore coconut rito hats laden with flowers and the kids in the choir, white button-down shirts. We squeezed Sia into a floral frock we’d been carrying since San Diego. Even Michael zipped the bottom legs onto his convertible pants! We'd heard church on Rarotonga was one of the most happening things to do and the music was transportive. So we went.
"Rrrraaaarootonga!" the boy said again. He was pronouncing this island, his home, the capital of the Cook Islands. A tiny speck on the map, somewhere between French Polynesia and American Samoa but close enough to New Zealand that islanders held a Kiwi passport.
I'd dragged Sia outside, because, well, babies, but I could still hear the sermon being delivered- both in Rarotongan and English.
I sighed. The more connected we become, the more our uniqueness washes away. A funny thought, coming from a person who flew thousands of miles to get here and would share the experience on social media later. Ha.
A group of kids had fluttered around us like fireflies, wondering what the conversation was about. How old was the baby, what is her name, where are we from? they asked. I answered and they continued to play tag, leaping from grave to grave.
Inside, the chorus struck into an imene tuki, or as Cook Islanders called it, the "hymn of grunts." It thundered out of the church, a call & response between the women and men. It sounded like a Maori haka and I pictured the singers inside thrusting their tongues out, the way the All Blacks did before a game. The words were sung in their native Rarotongan, but there was a gospel element to it.
Christianity had a tight hold on the Cook Islands. Come to think of it, Christianity had a hold on most of the islands.
We’d seen it in Vanuatu, where locals still thanked the missionaries for bringing the taro plant so they wouldn't turn to cannibalism. In Tonga, where it was illegal to work on Sundays, and on Moorea with its whitewashed old churches.
But how can you pray to a god who wiped out 95% of your population?!
Reading the history of the South Pacific pissed me off, made me want to shake my fist at the sky about the injustice of it all. Names like Cook, Wallis, Bougainville brought alcohol and disease along with their ships and civilized clothing. Who gave them the right? Even our precious Gauguin, found everywhere from Tahitian cruise lines to college dorm rooms, was a drunken, deplorable scoundrel. Such an asshole!
But the joke, of course, was on me.
Travel gives a lot of gifts, but the ones I held closest to my heart have been, for better or for worse, the moments that have left me feeling conflicted, hopeless, or absolutely useless. Like today.
I had to laugh at myself.
Who was I to judge what anyone did or didn't do? For each positive there was a direct negative. Like an atom which needs protons and electrons, one cannot exist without the other. Kids came from the U.S. on college mission trips trying to convert islanders to their beliefs, as if their god was somehow more civilized. But offshore, fleets of Chinese fishing boats negotiated infrastructure deals for long-lining rights and stripping the sea of its marine life.
Which was worse?
My head was swirling.
One thing I have learned is you can't change the entire world, but you can change yourself. Be compassionate, question everything. Be curious. As my good friend Briz always said, "check yourself before you wreck yourself."
Did religion save? Did religion destroy? Or did it keep us tied together, tied to the same floatation device as we dog-paddled our way through life? Did it really matter if someone prayed to a witch doctor or a white guy with a man bun or an alien on a shooting star, as long as they were happy?
But by the sound of the music inside, they certainly were.
But we were happy too, outside, playing on the gravestones.
My grandmother was deeply spiritual. She always said, "Darling, love the flowers and the trees and the bees." I miss her. She never was able to meet my daughter, but I know she was here with me now. I took her words and projected them past the horizon, up to the craggy rocks of this tiny island in the middle of the sea.
I turned to the kids who fluttered around Sia like butterflies. This, here outside, was church enough for me.