Immediately after the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Rutland Street elder Lincoln Rout attended a gathering of pastors and church leaders. During the meeting Baptist leader Murray Robertson encouraged leaders in the west of Christchurch to connect with leaders on the east—where quake damage was the greatest, and the communities hit the hardest.
“As I looked across the room it occurred to me that I knew of assemblies out east, and their leaders typically wouldn’t have been present at any of these meetings,” says Lincoln, “after the meeting I looked up Brethren.org and just went through the list, calling each one. I rang the number for Ekalesia Au Uso Kerisiano Samoa (EAUKS), said hello and asked how the church was.”
At that stage the EAUKSS church building was doing fine, but many from the assembly were without power, and were staying with Pastor Faafetai Vaoga. “I asked if they could use some supplies to keep everyone well-fed, so those of us from Rutland Street helped out by taking them some meat and some chilly bins to keep everything cold.”
Pastor Faafetai says it was the beginning of their unique, God-ordained partnership, “God had put Mark Broughton on our journey to assist us with necessities and continuing God’s work. We were also very fortunate to have been blessed with Lincoln and Rutland Street Church at this time as well—the beginning of a great family.”
Then, just before Christmas, another big aftershock hit and damaged the EAUKS church building—making it unusable: “At that stage we had one big combined service together,” says Lincoln, “and EAUKS began meeting at Rutland Street every Sunday afternoon after we’d finished our service. Sometimes people would travel across town several times to transport their whole family to church.”
This began the tradition of the two congregations gathering together once a month for a combined service—something they continue to do, even now that EAUKS has moved back to Linwood for regular Sunday worship.
Coming together has encouraged people to look forward to where God will take them, says Pastor Faafetai: “The effect on the people is amazing, they just want to experience the new challenge. On Sunday worship we respect each other's way of worship and we have to go with the flow. Although hard at times—when it comes to dancing and different types of music—both sides are learning from each other. Worshipping with Rutland Street Church really make us feel welcomed, allowing us to be free with our culture, which I believe is what makes our worship time together work well.”
Lincoln says the greatest impact has often been for others looking on: “We have become a much more multicultural church since beginning our partnership with EAUKS. Since that time, we’ve had people from India, China, Korea… and many others join us. When people see the warmth we have towards EAUKS they conclude they’re welcome too. We’d like to think we were always welcoming, but there was nothing to indicate that in the past.”
Lincoln says there here have been other changes too:
“The most obvious thing for Rutland Street—a happily conservative Open Brethren church, typical South Islanders—has been a change in emotional expression. Reserved emotions are just not the Samoan way, and we’ve learnt that it’s fine to be excited about church on Sunday! We’ve changed as a church to honour God in a more extroverted way.
“Now, at the end of a sermon the audience will clap, this is an outward expression of the Samoan heart honouring God for his word declared. There is also a willingness to show appreciation and enthusiasm.”
Meeting together has helped ground the global nature of Christ’s Church in reality and relationship, says Lincoln: “There’s been more conversation in terms of multiculturalism, mission and the gospel. I’ve been reflecting on Scripture differently, seeing it through another mindset. The Western mindset of the gospel typically sees ‘guilt and innocence’, while an Eastern mindset sees ‘shame and honour’. I wouldn’t have had the interest to look at it this way if it wasn’t for walking alongside our Samoan brothers and sisters.”
There has also been a partnership in outreach, says Pastor Faafetai, “Outreach is something that we work together on; raising money for good causes and people in need. Rutland Street has always come to our aid since the earthquakes and continue to do so—whether it’s church events, supplying equipment and just making the time to help us out in the community giving to those who are in need.”
Crossing cultures means navigating language and cultural differences. Lincoln says that over time the different congregations have adjusted, “if we were going to do anything differently, I think Rutland Street could have asked more questions to try and uncover cultural no-nos. For example, our combined service is always followed by a lunch; one of the elders picked up a broom and was cleaning, and I picked up a tea towel… We were firmly discouraged by some unhappy women from EAUKS—cleaning up was not the place for the elders! We hadn’t considered their view of how to honour people and show respect in that context—and that it might be different from ours. Our EAUKS brothers and sisters have been so gracious with our blunders.”
It is an understanding that God is at the heart of this family that has enabled people to work through differences, says Pastor Faafetai. “Language is difficult, but we believe God is with us and anything is possible. We are touched to have folks greet in Samoan and really give our culture a chance and once again making us feel very welcomed. Having both churches really give each other’s culture a good shot is both hilarious and a blessing.”
Combined services include everyone singing songs in both languages, and screens featuring the Bible in English and Samoan. Where possible, leaders have communicated face-to-face or via text messages—limiting the difficulty of phone conversations.
When the relationship has hit cultural barriers, one of the things both sides commit to is hearing and listening to those who are unhappy, then addressing the problem immediately. “We choose not to sweat the small stuff and to just get on and look for the good God has in this,” says Lincoln.
And it has been good!
Pastor Faafetai says: “I believe, that if God did not have his hand over this partnership, this partnership would have been over before it started. It’s truly a miracle for us to have been blessed with Rutland Street Church—their time, resources and caring hearts have made this journey together an experience so great. All we can say is ‘faafetai, faafetai lava (thank you) to Rutland Street Church and, most importantly, our Heavenly Father.’”
Lincoln says: “God has blessed us greatly with our EAUKS family and the partnership we share. We feel very clearly that God had brought us together to be a help and a blessing to each other, that allows us to think and look for the good.”
Story by Sophia Sinclair.