On Christmas morning, I’m among the first five people to arrive at the Cook Islands Christian Church nearest to our Rarotonga villa. More than a dozen of us Canadians wanted to attend the 10 a.m. service, and we’ve only got one tiny rental car between us, so the car’s gracious owner has already left to pick up the next group.
We ask to sit in the back of the church, but the usher, resplendent in a black suit, and gold and white, floral Polynesian shirt, says those rows are reserved for the choirs, so we move towards the middle pews. Over the next 45 minutes, people begin to filter in, some arriving individually, others in large family groups, everyone greeting each other with warm hugs and handclasps. Little kids run up and down the aisles, and crawl between people’s feet. Teens flick through their phones, pausing to point at the screens and talk to each other behind their hands. The women are wearing flower crowns, or elaborate Sunday-go-to-meeting hats. Many people are sitting together with others who have dresses or shirts made from the same color of brightly printed material: purple shades to our right; yellow, brown, and white behind us; gold and orange to our left.
Just before 10 a.m., a man tolls the churchyard bell, and a few minutes later, the preacher appears high in the pulpit. He greets us in Cook Islands Maori, and the first song is beamed on a screen to his left. The group dressed in purple jumps to its feet, and launches into the most enthusiastic, a cappella singing I’ve ever heard ring out within the walls of a church. The rest of us scramble to our feet, all eyes and a number of camera lenses on the singers.
The oral tradition dominates this church community: there are no hymnaries, or prayer books, or printed orders of services. The preacher delivers a few more words of praise and prayer, and then we’re standing again, this time led by a group whose bass voices pound like Polynesian drums:
After this paean of joy, the preacher switches to English, welcoming all visitors and wishing us a Merry Christmas. ” We’re so happy to have you with us. Tell all your friends to come to the Cook Islands too!” he says, to laughter throughout the church. “We hope you enjoy the singing, because, later, we’re going to invite you to entertain us!”
After a brief Christmas message in Maori, the more formal part of the service is over, and each choir is invited to the front of the narthex to entertain. A youth group, robust in red, takes a gospel approach to praise:
Another choir combines English, Maori and (wait for it) Jose Feliciano flair:
Then, as promised, it’s our turn at the front. Urged on by the Rarotonga congregation members, and the familiar words of “Silent Night” shining on the front wall, we sing together: Cook Islanders, Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and a smattering of Europeans. My husband squeezes my hand, and I get a mango-sized lump in my throat. I’m almost 10000 kilometres away from Edmonton, but somehow, I’m home for Christmas.