As we arrive at the entrance to the church for the Sunday morning service I am greeted with a kiss and given an exotic yellow flower to wear as a corsage. Other people are arriving, the women in long colourful dresses topped with “Rito” hats made from white coconut fronds which have been elaborately adorned with flowers and beads. The men, some holding chubby faced babies, are all grins and oiled hair.
For a moment I am confused, thinking that perhaps, inadvertently we have gate crashed a wedding. But, as we are ushered in I see other tourists and realise this is just they way they do it – Rarotonga style. Sitting on one of the wooden benches we watch as more and more people arrive. From babes in arms to shuffling grandmothers, nearly all of whom are dressed to impress. Finally members of the choir make their way down the isle to their seats at the front. This does look like a wedding procession as each one is dressed head to foot in white, the women all wearing magnificent hats, balanced on beautifully coiffed hair.
This mixed congregation is welcomed by the reverend in both English and Cook Island Maori, but the majority of the service is held in their native tongue. It’s beautiful to listen to, all rounded and curvy, no hard edges; a bit like the people. That we understand little of what’s said doesn’t matter, we are here for the singing not the preaching, and we are not disappointed. The service is peppered with modern “happy clappy” type songs in English and traditional Cook Island Maori hymns with 4-part harmonies. For the latter there is no accompanying music and no conductor, but everyone seems to know their part and they sing with confidence and gusto. Apart from the all-white clothes, it seems there is nothing else that differentiates the choir from the rest of the congregation. They all sing. Worshipping their Lord with loud and heartfelt song.
I am struck by the feeling that the whole building is filled with sound, and that if just one more voice, one more note were added the old white-washed building would be unable to contain the force and the roof would be torn from the rafters, flying off on a cyclone of sound.
Standing with my eyes closed, amidst this tremendous power, I allow the musical voices and unfamiliar sounds of the words to flow around and through me. The vibrations move through the floor, the air, each one of us and I feel the affect through my entire being. My body, unbidden, sways to its rhythm. I didn’t expect to be as moved as I am, but somehow it feels as if the music and the voices unite us, bringing families, friends, neighbours and strangers from other lands together in a magical weave that embraces us all.
When the singing stops I look around the building that houses this magic. It’s a simple structure, built of hand-cut coral blocks, just one storey, but with a high vaulted ceiling held in place by a network of wooden beams and arches. These are balanced on top of two sturdy lines of palm tree trunks, all painted sea-blue. There are four tall windows to the side and the plain glass gives access to the views outside, giving a sense of space and connection with the land and sea that lies just a few metres away. The sun rolls in on long warm swathes of light illuminating the mass of flowers and greenery that decorate the simple alter and dias. It speaks of simplicity and abundance.
The grey haired reverend delivers his sermon, in his native tongue, with passion. He raises his hands to heaven and his voice to the rafters to accentuate a point and then allows a long pause for it to settle and be digested in the minds and hearts of his flock. His words drift in to the background and my eyes wander to those around me. I catch some of the tourists yawning as they struggle to keep their interest and some of the regular congregation sneak a look at their mobile phones or communicate with a friend in another row with smiles, wide eyes and exaggerated lip movements. A beautiful teenager is seated in front of me and I stare for longer than I should. Her long black hair is casually pinned up, a few loose strands, having escaped, dance freely on her neck in the breeze from the window. She has a white gardenia balanced behind one ear and just behind the other lies a delicate tattoo of a lizard. It’s drawn in a sensual “S” shape suggesting to me, movement, flexibility and freedom. I wonder what significance it has to her. I wonder what her dreams are and, in this small community, how much freedom she feels she has. There’s a row of girls, probably around six or seven years of age all dressed in their Brownie uniforms. They stand and sit when they should but otherwise they seem oblivious to the words and form of the service. They are not unruly but they whisper and giggle, turn around to wave at people they know and braid each others hair. The elder sitting with them does nothing to admonish their behaviour and I liked this. It added to the feeling of acceptance in this community gathering. That even if you were foreign, if you didn’t have the same beliefs, if you wanted to giggle or wave, if you had secrets tattooed on your skin, you were welcome. Having fun and being at a religious event are not mutually exclusive.
As we walk back along the beach, with the sun reaching its highest point, I have a feeling of fullness and contentment, as though all those good vibrations have taken up residence in the cells of my body and are still reverberating their good will.