Glorious morning rays were breaking over the not-quite-purple east as we walked along the shore of the Bay of Islands early on Easter Sunday. As senior missionaries whose families are far away, we had no Easter baskets to fill nor dyed eggs to hide, and because it was the first Sunday of the month and thus our regular day to fast, we had no breakfast to prepare or consume. No general sessions of Hui Tau 2021 had been planned for Easter morning; rather, out-of-town guests were invited to attend a sacrament meeting held in any of the twenty wards and branches of the two Northland stakes. After looking over the possibilities, Michael suggested that our group attend the Moerewa Ward, whose worship service would begin at 10:00 in a meetinghouse less than half an hour away from where we were staying in Paihia. Another reason to choose Moerewa was that the meeting would be conducted in English rather than te reo Māori.
We learned later that regular attendance at Moerewa Ward is about twenty, so members were ecstatic when hui tau visitors began to fill the little chapel, easily quadrupling their numbers. Just before the meeting started Michael noticed that no one was at the piano, so he caught the chorister’s eye, pantomimed playing a keyboard, and then pointed to himself. When she responded with an enthusiastic nod, he left his seat in the third pew and relocated to the piano bench just in time to accompany the opening hymn: a spirited rendition of He Is Risen.
The Latter-day Saint sacrament services held on the first Sunday of each month typically are “fast and testimony” meetings, at which Church members assemble toward the end of a 24-hour fast to pray, sing, and bear witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ and God’s love for his children. No speakers are assigned for a testimony meeting; instead, members of the congregation are invited to stand and share extemporaneous professions of faith and testify of the blessings that come when we try to live by the principles Jesus taught.
Bishop R was conducting the service and thus was the first to offer his testimony. A man of warmth, humility, and good humor, he established a wonderful spirit for the remainder of the meeting as he told us how grateful he was for the atoning sacrifice of the Savior. The bishop was followed by several long-time members of the ward, including his wife, who came forward wearing a crocheted beanie and proceeded to say how blessed she felt to be able to attend church while undergoing chemotherapy even though she had to keep her distance from everyone. We were impressed by her unaffected demeanor and especially her cheerful attitude in the face of such a challenge. “I know the Lord is with me,” she said.
Many of the visitors in the congregation had come from Tauranga (a city about 250 miles/420 km away). When a few of them rose to share their testimonies, we learned that they were excited to see a member of their own ward serving in Moerewa as a full-time missionary. The missionaries from the Pacific Church History Centre were represented at the microphone by Vic, who not only bore witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also shared a sweet story about Bishop R’s dedication and patience. Years ago, when the bishop was a student at the Church College of New Zealand, he had been injured while helping Vic load heavy set pieces for a performing group onto a truck, but had continued working without complaint until the job was done. “You are blessed to have such a man as the leader of your ward,” Vic said. We felt blessed to be able to attend such an inspiring meeting.
Having been spiritually fortified by the worship service, we felt ready to spend the rest of the day working for the Lord—and the Church History Department. Hui Tau 2021 resumed at 1:00 p.m. at the Kaikohe Stake Centre of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the Church History missionaries would be expected to record eighteen separate “workshop” sessions running concurrently through the afternoon in four different rooms.
The Kaikohe Stake Centre is a medium-size meetinghouse in which the capacity of the chapel is probably about 300. Chairs for another 300-400 can be set up in the ”Cultural Hall” (the Latter-day Saints’ lofty euphemism for a gym with a small stage at one end), located immediately behind the chapel. The two other rooms in which Hui Tau sessions were held each can accommodate about 60; adding the capacity of the other classrooms and offices in the building brings the total for safe occupancy to somewhere around 1000.
Now recall that more than 3000 people had registered for this historic event. We estimated that at least that many had come to watch the kapa haka performances on Saturday, and it soon became apparent that the majority of them wanted to attend the Sunday sessions as well. Seats were still available in each room when the first workshop presentations began, but as people who had been picnicking in the parking lot finished their lunches and came inside, the seats quickly filled up. More people began congregating in the halls around the doors to the session rooms, trying to hear if not see what was going on inside. The corridors were further clogged by texting teens, who lined the walls like arterial plaque. After the first session break, event organizers announced that traffic in all hallways should henceforth move only in an anticlockwise direction, but not everyone got the message. Packs of unsupervised children chasing each other around the building continued to squeeze through any opening they could find.
Nancy was chagrined to learn that trying to obtain donation agreement forms from every performer on Saturday’s program had prevented Jo-Ena and Diane from seeing any of the performances themselves, so she offered to help them collect signatures from the presenters on Sunday. Jo-Ena assigned her to the sessions for youth held in the Cultural Hall, which included some dynamic presentations (mostly in English) from Elder B and his wife, who spoke about putting on the armor of God—an appropriate topic for a man who makes his living as a police officer—and from a young athlete who has not let a prosthetic leg slow him down. Nancy’s other duty (self-appointed) was to keep the hollow wooden doors at the back of the gym from slamming shut with a resounding bang every time a restless teenager passed through them. Unlike the doors in more modern Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, neither was equipped with a hydraulic closer, so they were subject to the wind sweeping through other doors that had been propped open to provide ventilation. Despite her best efforts to prevent the noise, anyone who listens to the audio recordings for hui tau sessions held in the gym are sure to be startled by what may sound like firecrackers.
Meanwhile, Michael was monitoring sessions in the chapel so he could be ready to assist Rangi with her 2:00 p.m. presentation. The first speaker ran over his allotted time, a situation we expected because he tends to regard time constraints the same way Rangi does. Fortunately, on this day he took only 10 extra minutes instead of the 30-40 he has been known to spill over on other occasions. As soon as he closed, Michael made for the rostrum so he could hook up the laptop from which he would run Rangi’s PowerPoint presentation. Rangi and Vic were right behind him, and 5 minutes later they were ready to start.
Michael knew that Vic was planning to take a few minutes at the beginning of Rangi’s session to introduce his wife and share a story of his own, but he assumed it would not be necessary to preview Vic’s remarks and help him trim them as carefully as he had helped Rangi trim hers. That turned out to be a false assumption. Thus, when Rangi was able to take the mic about 20 minutes later, it became necessary for Michael not only to keep her tightly on script, but also to quietly suggest additional cuts as the presentation progressed.
If you’ve never had the privilege of experiencing Rangi in presentation mode, you need to know that before she became a well-known collector of Māori–Latter-day Saint history, Rangi was a well-known Māori recording artist. During the 1960s she was the lead singer of The Shevelles, New Zealand’s equivalent of The Supremes, and—like Diana Ross—she later went on to a successful solo career, performing in clubs all over New Zealand and Australia. So Rangi is a terrific entertainer, and the bigger the crowd, the better she is. At Hui Tau 2021, with over 500 people packed into the Kaikohe chapel to hear her, Rangi was magnificent. She had the audience chuckling as she told about dragging her adult son Phillip along on her tenth or twelfth trip to the U.S. to collect whatever historical materials former missionaries to New Zealand might offer her.
“Mum,” he had asked, “why do you keep spending so much money on these trips? You and Dad could have bought a nicer house. You could have bought a nicer car. Why do you keep doing this?”
“Come with me, and you’ll see,” said Rangi. And so Phillip reluctantly agreed to accompany his mother on her next trip.
“Okay, where do you want to go?” Phillip had asked after they picked up a rental car at the Los Angeles airport.
“I don’t know yet,” she told him. When he started to protest, she cut him off. “Just shut up and drive,” she said. “The Spirit will lead us where we need to go.” And it did.
In this instance, the Spirit directed them toward the Los Angeles Temple, where a woman walked up to Rangi and said, “Are you the one I just read about in the Ensign who’s compiling a history of the Church in New Zealand?” When Rangi answered in the affirmative, the woman said, “My husband’s grand-uncle served a mission in New Zealand in 1896, and we have a recording of him speaking about his missionary experiences. Would you like a copy of that tape?”
That was only the first of many Spirit-led, “coincidental” encounters Rangi and Phillip had during their trip, which eventually yielded five suitcases’ worth of old photographs, journals, and precious artifacts that the families of former missionaries decided to donate to Rangi’s growing New Zealand Church history collection. Rangi had the hui tau audience in tears as she explained that Phillip’s skepticism melted away after he saw how eagerly people shared their stories and memorabilia with her, and how moved others were when they learned new things about their own ancestors from the stories and photos Rangi was then able to share.
When Michael gave her the 5-minute warning, Rangi dutifully began to wrap up. “My time is about gone, so I’m just going to share one more story,” she said. Someone in the audience called out, “We don’t care about the time! Just keep going!” But Rangi was a “good girl” (as she likes to say) and kept the last story brief. To end her presentation, she conscripted the other full-time Church History missionaries—at least, all those who were able to leave their posts in other sessions—to join her in performing the whakawātea (closing song). We sang one of her own compositions, one verse in te reo and another in English, expressing her core belief that because people are the most important thing in the world, we must treat each other with Christlike love, kindness, and patience.
When the afternoon sessions ended at 5:00, most of our group went out to the vans so we could assemble some wraps from the roast lamb and other yummy fillings Jo-Ena had prepared to break our fast. Not wanting to attract undue attention by eating in front of hundreds of other people who may not have brought their own kai (food), Elder and Sister E decided to move our tailgate party to an empty carpark a few blocks away. Michael offered to stay in the chapel and hold seats for the rest of the group; anxiety over getting through this distinctly unrestful day of rest had robbed him of his appetite for a while, but after the group returned to the chapel about 15 minutes before the Easter devotional was scheduled to begin, he gladly accepted the tasty wrap Jo-Ena had made for him.
The devotional was much like a well-attended general session of stake conference. The combined choirs of the Kaikohe and Whangarei Stakes sang three numbers, and a trio of aging but still talented former labour missionaries contributed a fourth. The six speakers included the matron of the Hamilton Temple, who spoke succinctly but memorably about the “What, When, Where, Who, Why, and How” of the temple as renovations near completion. Her husband, the temple president, added a “Whether” to the list, asking listeners to consider whether we will be ready to make and keep sacred covenants in the temple when it eventually reopens (soon, we hope, but as President R put it, “no man knoweth the day nor the hour”). Next up were the couple who preside over the Auckland Mission; they spoke on how Māori culture harmonizes with the culture of Christ, and how this hui tau was a type of the gathering of Israel. President P reminded us that just as all were welcome to participate in this event, the Lord “inviteth all to come unto him and partake of his goodness.” Sister B, the wife of the Area Seventy, not only demonstrated her mastery of te reo, but also gave a well-researched and fascinating account of the many Polynesian spiritual traditions that are rooted in an ancestral understanding of the gospel of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elder B wrapped up, emphasizing that while we celebrate our cultural heritage (be it Māori or whatever), the culture of Jesus Christ is the one that must take precedence in our lives because it is the culture that unifies us as children of God.
After the closing song and prayer, one of the hosting stake presidents took the mic to announce that “light refreshments” would be served in the cultural hall. He emphasized “light,” but we all knew better than to expect simply punch and cookies. Event planners had the foresight to anticipate an over-capacity crowd, so rather than take up valuable floor space with the usual lineup of serving tables, they used the convention cocktail-hour model, enlisting dozens of smiling young people to mill about the hall with serving trays of tempting finger foods. Although it had been a long, busy weekend and we were keen to get back to Paihia and into bed before another full day on the road, it was delightful to mingle with others who share our faith in Christ and regard us as whanau in the gospel. Now fourteen months into our mission, we were pleased that so many faces among the thousands who attended Hui Tau 2021 have become familiar to us, and were gratified by the number of people who recognized our faces and reached out to embrace us. As badge-wearing American missionaries, we are accorded tremendous respect by Māori Latter-day Saints because of their gratitude for the missionaries who came from America in the nineteenth century to bring the restored gospel of Christ to their ancestors. But the genuine friendship and love of those with whom we have become personally acquainted is even more precious to us than their respect.
It also was gratifying to see that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once was complicit with the New Zealand government in officially suppressing Māori traditions, culture, and language, that is no longer the case. This weekend, as we experienced the extent to which many Kiwi Church members have immersed themselves in all things Māori, it became evident that the establishment of an officially sanctioned Māori-speaking ward was long overdue. We feel blessed to be able to see this renaissance occurring, and to have taken part in this historic hui tau. Whether such multistake gatherings will continue in the coming years we cannot say, but we can say “Amen” to a statement made a hundred years ago by Elder David O. McKay after he participated in Hui Tau 1921:
“Success and long life to the ‘Hui Tau’! May each succeeding one be more successful than the last! May its influence extend until it becomes a power not only to cement the love and increase the faith of the Church members, as it does even now, but also to break down barriers erected by the ignorant and vicious to impede the progress of the Church of Christ” (“Hui Tau,” Improvement Era, vol. 24 no. 9 (July 1921), pp. 170-77).