Samoan congregation instills ties to culture
For members of Spokane's American Samoan community and church, maintaining the language and the cultural traditions keep connection to immediate and extended family living in the U.S. and American Samoa.
Isa'ako Mata'utia, pastor of the First Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, which meets at Country Homes Christian Church, described the importance of those ties for Samoans living in the islands and living in every state, particularly on the West Coast.
There are more Samoans in the U.S.—100,000— than in the islands—about 66,000.
"Living here, we don't miss Samoan culture, because we carry our culture with us and practice it wherever we go," he said. "The church helps, giving us Samoan community here and connecting us with home."
For example, the Samoan tradition of faalavelava continues even in the United States. It is about everyone pitching in to bless the family, particularly for a wedding or a funeral.
"We come together to help one another. We also have a blessing for someone who leaves Samoa to come to the U.S., hoping they will bring blessing for the future of the family in Samoa," he said.
Many Samoans move to the U.S. for education, military service or sports. Often family members who work abroad send money to family on the islands.
American Samoa, established as an unincorporated U.S. territory in 1904, consists of five main islands and two coral atolls in the South Pacific, southeast of the independent state of Samoa and north of Tonga. American Samoa has a governor.
"We kept our land and our society with villages run by chiefs who head extended families," Isa'ako explained.
American Samoans, although born in a U.S. territory, are considered "nationals" with the right to reside in all parts of the U.S. without immigration regulations, but they have to apply to be U.S. citizens, as Isa'ako has done, to vote in U.S. elections and to work in some jobs. If they are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote for the governor of American Samoa.
In contrast, persons born in other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico are citizens at birth and can vote in federal, state and local elections when they move to one of the 50 states.
Isa'ako said Christian missionaries had a positive impact on Samoan life and culture. Before they came in the 1830s from the London Missionary Society, Samoan culture lived by strict rules with severe consequences for wrongdoing. Like "an eye for an eye."
If rules were broken, the whole family might be punished, for example by providing food for the village of the victim or having the family's chief sit in front of the victim's family's house to beg for forgiveness. If the family did not accept his plea, they would punish the chief in front of everyone, he said.
"Christianity brought forgiveness, second chances and loving one another," he said. "So now there is forgiveness, and there are jury trials."
Worship in Spokane is in both Samoan and English, because most Samoans are bilingual.
Isa'ako said it's important for the children in the seven families of 60 people related to the church to speak Samoan at home and in the church, because those are the only two places for them to learn Samoan.
"Children are in school and with friends all day speaking English. They are receptive and understand Samoan, but many find it hard to speak," he said, noting the importance of learning Samoan so they can accept leadership when they are older and become the "chiefs" in their families.
"To return to Samoa, it's important to know the language and culture," he said.
Traditional dancing, singing and skits help teach language, culture, respect and Bible stories. On the second Sunday of October, called White Sunday, children, wearing white, lead worship, performing skits and reciting Bible verses.
The church performs fa'a-evagelia, evangelical and spiritual dancing and plays to teach Christian values, in addition to doing community performances on occasion.
"We understand better by seeing actions rather than just by listening," said Isa'ako. "The only way we can really teach others is through our actions that show how we work together. For people to understand, we need to put our values into action."
"We bring our children to church to teach them by showing them how to relate, so they can teach others when they are older," he said.
"Many things are hard to change—like disease, hate and global warming. As people of faith, we can pray that God will help bring changes," he said, adding, "I believe in faith and work, so we need to do our part to put our faith into action."
Isa'ako explained that there are different levels in the language—everyday language and the chief's language used by elders to convey proverbs and deep understandings of life.
The Samoan language, he added, has many ways to say "thank you." In Samoan, "please" and "thank you" are key words, conveying respect and appreciation, and expressing that the people are grounded in respectful relationships of adults to adults, adults to children, children to adults and children to children.
Isa'ako's father completed studies at the Kanana Fou Theological Seminary (KFTS), in Pago Pago, which trains clergy for the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa (CCCAS). Then he was pastor at a church in the village of Tafuna, where Isa'ako and his siblings graduated from high school and went on to careers. His father is now a minister in Masausi.
After Isa'ako graduated in 1999, he studied criminal justice at the American Samoa Community College, graduating in 2002 and serving several years as a police officer.
"None of my siblings entered ministry, but I felt called to ministry and went to KFTS, graduating with a diploma in theology in 2010 and a bachelor of divinity in 2011," said Isa'ako, who then moved to Vancouver, Wash., to begin a master of divinity at Multnomah Seminary in Portland.
Graduating in 2014, he moved to Airway Heights to live with his brother, who was stationed at the Spokane Military Entrance Processing Station.
"I applied to the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa (CCCAS) Conference to be a missionary minister and found that Samoan people in Spokane were seeking a pastor. We started the church here in 2016," he said.
As a missionary minister with the CCCAS, he is also affiliated in the U.S. with the CCCAS Conference, a partner with both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which work together in Global Ministries.
Sharing a building with Country Homes Christian Church means that after the Disciples worship is over by 11:30 a.m., the Samoan worship begins at 1 p.m. and they can arrange to use the building any day.
"We had many events before the pandemic, but since then we have only had the service online," Isa'ako said. "Many members grew up in the U.S. in military families and are westernized, but before the pandemic we met to dance. Now we can't do that yet, even though most are vaccinated.
"We are trying to grow and reach out to involve more of the Samoans in the community," he said.
Because the congregation includes students who have attended or graduated from Whitworth, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities, members have participated in their Pacific-Asian Heritage Days.
Isa'ako has worked during the week for a brother's construction company in Seattle. Recently he began another job. He is in Seattle during the week and home weekends.
The church pays him a missionary allowance. His wife, Lanuola Gidlow Mata'utia, also works as a caregiver with The Arc of Spokane. They have five children aged from two to 16, and two of his sisters live with them.
Isa'ako said he is called to help his community, especially youth, focus on the ways that the Gospel's spiritual understandings and Samoan cultural understanding of respect go hand in hand.
"My mission is not only to bring together our people in Spokane to worship and give glory to God, but also to build the community as family to help one another," Isa'ako said.
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