A Legacy of Faithfulness

by Ane Ponifasio

Ane serves with Lifechurch, Manurewa and the Christian Community Churches of New Zealand.

The Samoan Open Brethren Assembly was first established in Auckland in the late 1970s by several pioneer elders and families who migrated from Samoa, through the mission work of brethren missionaries from New Zealand, who planted the main church in Lelata Apia in the 1950s and 1960s.

When my parents Ene and Lilia Sagala brought our family to New Zealand in the early 1980s, we joined with the Samoan fellowship that met at Eden Chapel, now Eden Community Church in Auckland. It was a thriving church, which developed into ten church plants in Auckland, one in Christchurch and two in Wellington – a total of 13 Samoan churches currently in New Zealand.

From this group, some people migrated to Australia and planted 15 Samoan churches in Australia: in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. In the last five years, seven new churches have been planted in Samoa. It’s important to note, that within these Samoan assemblies there are now three to four generations of families. In addition, there are new church plants among other ethnic communities and new leadership, showing maturity and fruit as a result of God’s blessing.

History of Samoa

Samoa is the heart of Polynesia, a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a population of around 200,000, officially declared a Christian nation at 98% Christian. The gospel arrived in Samoa in 1830 through missionaries sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS), which established the Congregational Christian Church in Samoa, which is the largest denomination. Samoa’s culture, values and traditions are very much founded on the principles taught in the Bible; the people are religious and hold the Christian faith in high regard.

Samoan church leaders were mobilised as missionaries and were sent to take the gospel to the different islands of Polynesia, then Melanesia and Micronesia. Many were martyred on those islands.

During the early 20th century, Samoa was colonised by Germany, the USA and a joint British and New Zealand colonial administration, until Western Samoa became an independent state in 1962, while Eastern Samoa remained a territory of the USA.

A high number of Samoans migrate to New Zealand, Australia and the USA, particularly to Hawaii, to seek a better education and work opportunities. There are more Samoan people abroad than there are actually in Samoa. Samoans are known for their warmth, family values, hospitality and a good sense of humour. Australian and New Zealand rugby union and rugby league teams are often successful because of their Samoan players.

Working Together Across Cultures

By 2023, a total of nine new churches were planted in Fiji as a result of the work of the Australian Samoan churches, as well as a church plant in India and others in Uganda and West Papua.

In the 1980s and 90s a lot of effort was invested to connect relationally with our local New Zealand churches, especially in Auckland with our Samoan assemblies. However, this has not been consistent over the years where there has been a breakdown in the connection and communication. Some cross-cultural, mission-minded couples reached out to build relationships and invest their time, resources and finances to help the Samoan churches, not only in Samoa but also in New Zealand.

Samoan church leaders were mobilised as missionaries and were sent to take the gospel to the different islands of Polynesia, then Melanesia and Micronesia. Many were martyred on those islands.

There was the sharing of resources, in the use of buildings and elders visiting to equip other churches through preaching and teaching. A Samoan language branch of a college in South Auckland was established where we had Kiwi churches supporting full-time workers in Samoa. We’ll never forget the alofa (love and kindness) and investment of time, and the sowing and watering of seeds through the work of the generations that have gone before us.

Folk from various fellowships reached out and spent time visiting the Samoan churches, and others invested in building projects. However, many of these connections were not maintained. People lost touch due to various circumstances. In some cases, new church leaders and elders were appointed, in others there was a change of vision for the church, and for some, the language barrier proved too great or things drifted as older leaders passed on to glory, retired or migrated to Australia. These circumstances meant relationships waned and some churches drifted into isolation and independence.

Change is Necessary for Growth

My dad, Ene Sagala, was instrumental in facilitating change. In the late 1980s, he was convicted by the Lord to boldly step out of the church where he was an elder, to plant a church in Mangere, South Auckland. His desire was to provide a spiritual home to gather the many Samoan migrants in the area who were not in church, as well as our family of seven, who were catching two buses from Mangere to attend the church in Mount Eden on Sunday mornings. The move was not well supported by the Samoan brethren at the time. However, with much faith and conviction our family started a new church plant in our family home in Mangere, which later moved into a building as the Mangere Bible Chapel.

It was hard being autonomous and being a Samoan church. We needed courage to make changes, introduce a new vision and new direction, develop the eldership and give opportunities to the younger generation to lead. We faced some tough decisions and prayerfully trusted God for solutions and a good outcome.

Some relationships didn’t work out, we needed friends and fathers in the faith, we felt lonely and isolated. But after a while and much prayer, the Spirit of the Lord encouraged us to stay and make changes, to be strong, pray for the Spirit of God to bring a fresh revival and renewal. We experienced unity afresh, humility and repentance. God can administer healing, hope and grace. He can bring His life into our churches again.

One of the issues is to boldly confront sin, acknowledge pride in our hearts and bring these to light before the Lord and present them at the cross. We celebrated 21 years since we answered that call to stay at Life Church Manurewa and give thanks that God has been faithful.

A Way Forward

Most of the Samoan churches still uphold the values and traditions of our brethren heritage: the breaking of bread, the centrality of the gospel message, the high regard for teaching of the Scriptures, the autonomy of the local church fellowship and other distinctions. We face the same issues as other churches in the movement, like young people moving to mega churches and other denominations that are less conservative. Only three of the Samoan brethren churches in Auckland have their own building. Most hire community buildings or school halls for their meetings and some share their local brethren church buildings for their services.

We praise God for blessing His work over more than 50 years among the Samoan assemblies. We honour and acknowledge the missionaries, our forefathers, elders and families who pioneered and paved the way for generations still to come. It is our hope and prayer that we will again see the flourishing of relationships between Samoan brethren and other churches within the wider movement. It is a process that requires time invested, patience, understanding of cultural differences and mutual respect.

Auckland is one of the most diverse cities and has the biggest Polynesian population in the world with many opportunities for sharing the gospel across cultures. Working together and learning from each other will surely help us as we seek to see more people of all nations turn to trust in Jesus.

Adapted from an article first published in Rongopai, the magazine of the Christian Community Churches of New Zealand Trust – Volume 13. www.cccnz.nz

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