For more than four decades now, the month of May has featured celebrations of the culture and contributions that Asian and Pacific islanders have made to North America. This issue of Adventist Review recognizes the contributions of Adventists of Asian and Pacific Island heritage to the development and success of Adventism in the United States.—Editors
Meshach Soli, a young Samoan-American pastor from southern California, was invited to give a presentation at the North American Division’s 2017 eHuddle meetings in Florida. As a Pacific Islander pastor, he was asked to share insights about why young people, especially of his ethnic background, are leaving the church.
“So I’m over there getting ready, feeling like ‘What am I doing here? How am I supposed to present this to all these important people?’” he remembers. As intimidation grew, he prayed, “Lord, just help me get through this.”
A presenter before him touched on the cultural demographics of the church in North America. Then he got to the part where Pacific Islanders weren’t even labeled. Instead, they fell under a nameless group representing just 2 percent of North American Seventh-day Adventists. “At that point the Lord spoke to my heart and said, ‘This is why you are here,’” says Soli.
Seventh-day Adventists arrived in Samoa, October 22, 1895. Dr. and Mrs. F. E. Braucht settled in Apia, Western Samoa, and began medical missionary work. Progress was slow. By 1904, there were only eight members of the church in the country—Europeans and American missionaries. It wasn’t until 1915 that the first Samoan converts were baptized. But the church pressed on, slowly gaining members as recognition for its medical and educational institutions grew.
Pacific Islander immigration to the United States swelled in the 1960s and 1970s. Outside of Hawaii, southern California became a popular destination. “The church that I pastor [Compton Samoan, near Los Angeles] became the first organized [Pacific Islander church] in 1973,” says lead pastor Eliu Lafo. “Basically, Samoa was evangelized by missionaries coming from the United States. But United States [Samoans] were evangelized by Samoans who came from Samoa, which is interesting,” he adds. “The work here, particularly in southern California, became the birthplace of Samoan Adventism in the United States, stateside. Particularly the Compton Samoan church—this is the church that actually gave birth to many of the [Samoan] churches in the Southeastern California Conference.”
Today, there are 13 Samoan churches and one group in the North American Division, most of them clustered in the western United States.
Similar to other ethnicities, family and community are the backbone of Samoan culture. But for second-generation Samoan Adventists, there comes the extra challenge of living in a dual-cultured world. Are they American? Samoan? Samoan-American? Should worship be in Samoan or English? “Honestly, even if I wasn’t connected to the language, I liked the style of fellowship in the Samoan church,” says Soli. “The family and community aspect of the Samoan church was one of the things that really kept us together—this second generation. We were there Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then maybe Monday for choir practice, Wednesday for prayer meeting, then you’re back again on Friday.”
One of Christianity’s greatest creeds—loving one’s
neighbor—has always resonated well with Samoan converts.
One of Christianity’s greatest virtues—loving one’s neighbor—has always resonated well with Samoan converts. “How can you not help your neighbor out?” asks Soli. “The essence of community is embedded in our culture. When the Christian faith came over to the islands, there were a lot of similarities within the faith that were already there in the culture. It was easy for that transition to take place.”
Faith and family are closely linked within Samoan culture, and when Samoan Adventists make a stand for Christ, it’s rarely with a solitary mentality. “You know the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? We literally believe that. It’s just part of the DNA of who we are. Even as Adventists, embracing the Sabbath comes naturally, because part of observing the Sabbath is focused on family. It’s about community. It’s about God. It’s very hard to find a Samoan atheist,” Soli laughs.
In Samoa now, the church is also integral to the village. Soli, who last visited in 2018, remembers the local church being the most beautiful structure in the entire neighborhood, even if the homes were much simpler. The idea is that the church is God’s house, and thus God’s house should be the best house on the block. In the United States, that notion is not reflected by the church building being posh, but by the sacred place it holds for each family.
One of the biggest challenges for Samoan Adventists has to do with a cultural worldview that competes with the worldview of the church and American culture. “Ministry stateside is what you call need-based,” says Pastor Lafo. “We see a need in the community, and we perhaps tailor our ministries to meet the needs of that community. One of the challenges with Samoans is that those needs don’t really exist on the island. I’m talking about homelessness, drugs, and crime. In terms of ministry, homelessness doesn’t really exist in Samoa. So when we come to the urban context, there’s no experience with it. Also, a lot of times Samoans self-govern. If there is a problem in the village, the village chief and the village leaders and families get together to figure it out.”
In the church/culture context, the pastor can be regarded as the village leader. There’s less emphasis placed on individual Bible study and Adventism as a worldwide movement, and more weight placed on what the local pastor says. “Samoans can be very dependent on the pastor. They almost depend on the pastor to feed them spiritually,” says Soli. “I’m not going to say all of them, but a good amount of our seasoned members are dependent on the pastor to teach them the Word. Instead of this being a supplement to a personal study of the Word and devotional life, it can become a substitute, and the by-product for the next generation is that your kids aren’t going to be interested in a lot of those things to their full effect.” This, of course, can contribute to why the culture’s young people eventually walk out of church altogether.
An interesting phenomenon involves families and church ownership. Because the family bond is so strong, church attendance is affected, and Samoan churches can begin to blend into “family churches.”
“In most Samoan churches,” says Lafo, “you’ll see several families being part of a church. When you have a certain number of families, there can develop a sense of the church belonging to a family, rather than a church that belongs to God.” What can happen next, especially among second-generation Samoan Adventists, is sort of a challenging of loyalties. “I’ve heard young people who no longer go to church say they don’t because they are so rooted in the Samoan church, and so loyal to their parents and to the elders who established it, that they would rather not go to church at all than go to another church,” adds Soli.
Culture can also compete with the gospel. “A lot of times pastors and chiefs and elders start trying to interpret culture from the perspective of the gospel,” says Lafo. “Over the years it’s been the other way around. Culture seems to take precedence over the gospel. So a lot of times you get an indigenized gospel that fits the culture of a church. That can present some challenges, because, ultimately, there’s a point in which your [cultural] . . . position on a doctrine [ought to] become secondary to what God desires.”
While the Samoan work shares a common mission with other North American churches to grow its membership and keep its young people, unique challenges require out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to adapt to shifting times. But it’s encouraging to note that there’s a growing hunger for young Samoan Adventists to connect with each other through their Adventist faith.
Last summer more than 900 people attended the 2019 North American Division Samoan camp meeting in Washington State. The six-day event melded culture and faith, with more young people attending than older, causing event planners to rearrange meeting space accordingly. Pastor Soli has seen a fire for the Word of God slowly burning stronger among that group as well. “Our youth and young adults want something more. A deeper understanding of the Word,” he says. “So we try to deliver that, and we are starting to see this group of young people wanting to get into ministry. For two generations nobody answered the call. Now we’re seeing a greater number of young Polynesians, maybe in junior high or high school, saying ‘I feel called to ministry.’”
Pastor Lafo echoes this: “I see more and more young people, some with so much natural talent that it’s clear that God [alone] gifted them. These young people always have their ear to the ground about what’s going on among their people. And when you call them, they make themselves available. It leads me to believe the Samoan work is in very capable hands, as long as these young leaders and professionals continue to develop as their society changes.”
Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.