St Mary and Samoa: Reflecting on September 2009

News Paper clippings from Samoa Observer, 20th September 2009

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What did I say in Samoa to the media and why did I say it?  The following reflections throw more light on my journey as I discover the depth of Orthodox Spirituality.

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A section of the people from around the world present at the first Trainers’ Training Event of the Council for World Mission (CWM) held from 18-25 September 2009

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It was such an honour, privilege and joy to participate in the Ava Ceremony at Malua Theological College.  It is a very central and important tradition that aims at promoting unity and respect among groups of people.   For more detailed information on the Ava Ceremony please click here.

It was very kind of the Samoan hosts from CCCSA to recognise me a staff of CWM then and have me as the chief guest for this ceremony. I was told after the Ava ceremony that during this important occasion they conferred the ‘Matai’ Title meaning Chief on  HG Yuhanon Meletius and myself.  Bishop Meletius was one of the resource persons at this training event and the hosts chose him as they could not confer it on me a woman alone when a Bishop was present there. I deeply respect their gesture as he was the only person from outside the CWM family and as usual the Samoan hospitality was displayed in its pristine form. It was a hard struggle for them to decide how they should honour both of us equally!  As the whole event took place in the local language, we were not aware of many things that were happening there but it was such an honour to be there to witness this great tradition.  Luckily, the previous week in American Samoa, I was present at their Ava Ceremonoy where the CWM staff Rev Philip Woods – the Executive Secretary for Mission Programme was given the honour of this Matai Title.  As I observed that well I knew what I was supposed to do when I was offered the Ava drink first.  Bishop Meletius who was given the drink after that did respond perfectly well following what I did!  It was after the ceremony that I knew how they struggled to do what they did.
The hosts wanted me to be the chief guest for this ceremony and award that Title, Matai.  However, they could not ignore the Bishop.  They sorted it by making the Bishop sit in the prime place where the chief guest should be seated and they made me sit opposite to the group that prepared the Ava (this is also a prime place).  The person who responded on behalf of me sat down in front of me and the Ava roots were kept near him.  The Chief from the host who presides over this ceremony sat opposite to the Bishop.  A lot of traditional conversation went on between the chief from the host group and the person who represented me. The Ava drink is served according to the rank in which they wish to honour and that was served to me first but gave the prime place to the Bishop.

I was informed after the inaugural worship that I would be meeting with the media people for a short interveiew after the Ava Ceremony and I was perfectly fine with it as I knew they would ask me about this event and CWM.  However, they surprised me asking one question after I had responded to all the expected questions, saying, ‘What is your opinion on the image of St Mary appearing on John Williams’ building?’.  Although I had a very personal story in relation to this, I did not want to share it especially with the media.  I am glad I did not do it as I do not know in what shape it would have come out.  As media always does, they have twisted and tweaked much of the information here even bout the event! I told them that for me personally it is very significant and I see it as a sign of protection and a call for repentence, to do the right things, to switch over to the right side – that was the week, the Samoa decided to do the road switch from left ot right and I used that to extend that roadswitch even to our lives.  When I preached this the following Sunday in the Church that I went to, I was told that the Transport minister who effected this change was in that Church and was extremly happy to hear my message of switching over from left to Right in our lives too!  I told the media that irrespective of the denominations that we all came from (Samoa is a Christian Country), we believe that St Mary is the mother of Jesus and Jesus is our God.  So being mother of God, her appearance is definitely very significant.  However, the media reported as you see above.  What I said was also relayed on the Samoan National TV frequently and people from the nearby Islands were also coming to see this image of Saint Mary.  When they relayed the inaugural event of this Training on the National TV, one Malayalee family from Samoa came to Malua Theological College looking out for Meletius Thirumeni (Bishop).  They were also particular that he visits their home for dinner.  He was very kind to take the entire Indian delegation for a very sumptuous Indian dinner in Samoa which was deeply appreciated especially by a delegate from Tamil Nadu who was a Vegetarian.

That evening I went to see this image of St Mary on John Williams’ building with a small group.  I was totally stunned to see this awesome image.  I could hardly contain myself.  It appeared to me as if now St Mary was talking to me saying, “You have not come alone, I am here with you and I have come with the baby in my arms.  Don’t be disillusioned.  Do your work well, I am with you…”.  This was all amazing but I did not want to share with anyone my experience.  Slowly in the following days, I shared with a few people.  First of all with the elders of CCCSA apologising for what I said to the media as I knew that none of them believed in St Mary but I had not thought it would make the headlines in the National News Paper!  They were very kind and polite and asked me not to worry as they were happy that Catholic Samoans considered this to be very important.  Then towards the end of this training event, I shared it with Bishop Meletius who always guides me in the right path.  He was happy but also warned me saying, “I have given an address in one of the Churches in Kumbazha (Kerala in India) just before coming to Samoa in connection with St Mary’s Festival.  Please hear it as and when you get time.  It is good that we are in close communion with the Saints – ask them to pray for us and we pray for them but avoid making them class IV workers asking them to move files from table to table.  They are more than that and we have to give them the due respect…”.  I am sure this is an important reminder for all of us who try to be in close communion with the Saints.  We should not bring down their image, status, role and importance. I remember the timely advice of Bishop Meletius and remain grateful to him for that.

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A group of the participants at the special Felicitations held in Apia

I am reflecting on the above news clippings after seven years exactly as this was reported on 20th September 2009 in Samoa Observer.  I am very grateful to Rev Faitoaga for getting me these pictures after many years.  The reason for me to reflect on these pictures is because I have a very personal story to share.  I have shared it with individuals and a few groups of people both within the CWM and my Church apart from my friends and relatives.  Everyone who heard asked me to write it down and make it available for many more to read. Even, the European Region that gathered for the Window on the World in 2010 surprised me by asking, ‘Why did you NOT share it with us earlier or why did you not share it through Inside Out the official CWM Magazine?’. I was surprised at that as I was very reluctant to share it with them as I knew all of them belonged to traditions that did not recognise St Mary as the Orthodox and the Catholics do.   Somehow, I was not very keen to put it in writing.  However, every person who has heard this story wanted me to write it and I am finally doing it and want to share it at least after 7 years.

Where can I start?

Having joined the Orthodox Church by marriage, I was finding it difficult even to make the sign of the cross initially. Understanding communion of Saints, praying for the departed and standing for long hours in the Church were even harder.  Although in the creed I was used to saying ‘… we believe in the communion of Saints…’, it did mean anything more special to me being born and born up in a Lutheran tradition . In the early years of our marriage, while living in Bangalore, I even remember turning the picture of St Mary upside down on top of a shelf as we occupied a new rented house.  The Catholic Owner had kept that picture in the living room.  I did not want to remove it as I knew the owner had a lot of sentiments but neither did I wish to display it.

Childhood experiences

Going back a little more down the memory lane, during the time I was four to eight years old, a short, fragile, dark man who had his head covered, dressed shabbily with dirty torn clothes passed by our house evrynight around 7.30pm.  He was unable to walk properly and had a stick in his hand, a picture of St Mary hanging from his neck.  This picture was framed with two candle sticks in front and  a cash box beside it.  This man had a rosary in his hand which I thought was just a bead.  We will know when he is still on the side road as we would hear him singing in a frail voice, ‘Ave, Ave, Ave Maria…’ I never knew then that these words meant Hail, Hail Hail Mary. We would run into our house saying, ‘Ave Maria’ has come.  If we did not eat properly, elders would threaten us children saying, ‘Ave Maria will catch you and go if you don’t eat’.  We would eat or sleep or do anything and stay quiet until his singing fades into thin air and we know he has gone past our road and sure to come the next evening.  Some people would put some coins into the box and some will even wait for him to bless them.  We heard stories about him that he was a very wicked man and abused St Mary but he became a good person and would not utter anything other than chanting ‘Ave Maria’. For us as children, he continued to appear wicked and scary and so the even that picture he carried was scary.

We did see statues and pictures of St Mary in the nearby Catholic Churches and it was all idolatory and forbidden to stand before them and pray.  So coming into the Orthodox Church and seeing many pictures of Saints was not that very welcoming and praying to St Mary saying, ‘Peace be unto to Mary, full of Grace…’ never came out of my heart for a long time.  However, I kept my father’s instruction before I got married saying, “Remember you will be in another tradition which is will be very strange and different.  Observe everything and learn.  Don’t try to change anything.  Just remember that this Church has existed for nearly 2000 years…”.  So I learnt the prayer soon and said it from my mind more than my heart as I did not want to be observed by others as a person who will lead others astray.  I was not very comfortable but it was alright to pray closing my eyes but not to stand before any picture.  I also learnt to make the sign of the cross (the first thing I learnt just before our wedding!).

The change came in slowly but steadily

Initially after marriage, going to Church on a Sunday was a nightmare for me.  I did not know the language (Malayalam) and I was not used to the smell of incense (which was again something bad as the Hindus used it and the Muslims too used) and I had not seen Christians using it.  The sound of bells was again more a nuisance and distracting the little bit of the music I enjoyed.  I did not understand anything except a few words that were similar in Tamil.  I would return with a heavy head ache and feel desperate.

As I was pregnant in the first year, Achen would not insist that I go to Church and I felt bad  to stay away.  I remembered my college days in United Theological College (UTC) where we would not go to our home Church when we had to go to the Church that we were assigned as students which was fine for my father.  However, once when I had my  final exams the next day, I decided to bunk my home Church and then attend the Evening Service in the College.  After the exam, when I went home that week, the first question my father asked me was, ‘Why didn’t you come to attend the service on Sunday?’.  I knew I was in trouble and cannot say I stayed back to study.  Telling lies once in a way to escape was fine as I know how particular he was when it came to family prayers, attending Church services etc., so I decided to tell one little lie, “I was sick and could not come”.  His instant response was, “Queenie, I would be happy to know that my daughter was sick, but she came to Church and died there than to know that she stayed back!”.  That was too strong for me to ever forget. So, I would make it a point to go even if it was a real head ache the entire afternoon with the bells and the incense.  Sometimes Achen would go early and ask me to come late so that I need not strain myself with the early preganacy difficulties.  That was a great relief then but when we returned home, he would ask me, ‘when did you come?’ and I would respond, “When the Curtains opened, I was there”.  We had the service in the UTC Hall.  The stage remained a stage for me and so the curtains were just ‘curtains’ opening and closing as for any other function.  He then asked, ‘but it opens and closes many times, when did you come then?’ I had no clue as I did not understand anything…. One of the things that appealed to me most and very meaningful was children being included to receive Holy Qurbana (Holy Communion).  I loved that and was all excited to take our little son asa two month old baby for communion after his Baptism and Chrismation.  It was eye opener to know that the Sacrament of baptism gets completed only with partaking the Holy Qurbana!  As a child, I had longed very much to be included in the Holy Communion Service and to partake of it but we were excluded until at least 12 or 13 years of age.  It was such extremely satisfying for me to take my baby and not deprive him of this great blessing.  That is where I was in the first year of our marriage!

Luckily, within a year,  Achen (my husband) was ordained and given a Church in Singapore.  We had English service on alternate Sundays.  It relieved me a lot as I could understand much of it although incense and bells were still bothering me.  Having a baby allowed me to  go a little late to avoid the Malayalam Preparatory service.  However, I was very particular to attend the Sandhya prarthana every week with our son.  That is what actually helped me to like the Sunday service too.  I liked the Malayalam liturgy and slowly learnt the songs too.  Once I learnt some of them and could participate, it was spiritually uplifting.  One day, during the Holy Qurbana (Eucharist), an old Aunty whom I liked very much, started showing me the lines in the Malayalam Book.  I thought to myself, how could she do that since she knows that I do not know the language?  Instantly, I also thought, it is possible for me to learn this language and if I learn the language, it will be easier for me to learn the liturgy.  There was more that I did not know and wished to learn.  So, slowly I took an effort to learn Malayalam and succeeded.

When I returned to my father’s home for my second delivery from Singapore a year, he asked me if I had learnt the liturgy and I replied saying that I have learnt all the lay response in the Holy Qurbana. He said, “That is not enough, you should  learn the priests part also”.  I knew that was a huge challenge for me.

Although I learnt to participate more as I liked the malayalam liturgy and the chanting within two years time, I still had to learn many things including the meaning of many words.  After fifteen years of our marriage, we were in London as a family.  I took up a new job with the Council for World Mission (CWM) as the Executive Secretary for Mission Education.  After 20 years, in 2007 when Achen was the vicar of St Thomas’ Indian Orthodox Church, London, we worshipped in a Church of England Parish Hall.  We had to set up the place every Saturday Evening and the fine tunings would be done on Suday morning when we would go a little earlier. Slowly, pictures of St Mary, St Thomas and St Gregorios (Parumala Thirumeni) were kept in the Hall.  By this time, I had got used to the pictures in the Church and so it did not bother me that much.  I liked the incense and the bells.  I liked everything.  However, prayers like ‘Peace be unto you Mary..’ would still come from my mind to please people who are around me and myself that I will not mislead anyone else with my bad behaviour.  It did not bother me much although I was aware that it did not come from my heart. But I could say them more easily without any guilt feeling now.  It was at such a time that one Sunday morning Achen told me, “I know that you do not believe in Saints or praying to them, but I did not bring my vallet as I amin my cassock, would you mind putting a few coins into that Box near the pictures?  I don’t want that to be empty…”.  I said it is perfectly fine with me and I will do that gladly.  So, I began to do this week after week to such a point that Achen started saying, “I can’t leave any change anywhere at home, she takes it and puts them all in that box every Sunday…”.  Many more months went by.

It was 2009 and I was preparing for one of my Trainers’ Training Events related to Mission With Children which was a new initiative at CWM.  As the Executive Secretary for Mission Education this was one of my portfolios along with Training in Mission for Young people, Gender justice, Building a Community of Women and Men in Mission, Youth in Mission, Women in Mission and others.  This was the first Trainers’ Training event.  Being fascinated and convinced of the great joy and happiness of including children as part takers of the Holy Eucharist, I wished to campaign this as an Orthodox member and share it with other Churches within the CWM.  I knew I was not capable of doing that with my limited knowledge and I wanted a person who would be able to do it well.  I wanted one of the Bishops to do it and invited HG Yuhanon Meletius as a resource person to Samoa where this event was held.  Since Achen and I knew him from our student days, as long time friends, I was very sure he would be the best person.

As I was preparing for this great event, somehow things did not fall in place well.  The then General Secretary of the Congregational Christian Church in Samoa (CCCSA) who had offered to host this event had a doubt if I was going to address Gender Justice in the name of Mission with Children.  He had his own concerns about this and let me know of it.  He was and is a very nice person but he had to express his views.  I was furious and said that if this is what he thinks, I would rather postpone the event and have it elsewhere.  He quickly realised that what he said was not fair and apologised promising every support for a successful event.  He did not want me to cancel this eevnt or have it anywhere else.  I could understand his fears as every Church is backward when it comes to Gender justice and some are worse than the others.  Samoan context was lagging behind in this aspect and he reflected that concern promptly!  This did discourage me initially and I was upset.  If I wanted to address Gender issues, i would definitely do that directly on any or eevry platform and not under any disguise.  This was the first hitch.

I was planning to bring 12 children – two from the six CWM regions around the world for this Training event, to have a session with children to know their concerns, and have them in the forefront when we plan to train ourselves for Mission with Children. We wanted them to be with the adult group for two sessions and then they could interact with children in the CCCSA and the wider community in Samoa.  This time, the European region of CWM came with an objection saying that we cannot take Chidlren as CWM does not have a Child Protection Policy! I was deeply hurt.  I tried to convince but they wrote to the General Secretary, who for the first and the last time in my tenure there asked me to change my plan.  He very politely told me that as soon as I finish drafting the Child Protection Policy for Children and put it in place, I could have another grand event for children. This once again disappointed me very much.  This was the second hitch on my way and it pained me a lot as I wanted to have children participating in this event.

Then it was time for me to fly to Samoa for this event in September 2009, I was shattered.  I knew Samoa was nearly at the end of the WORLD.  Flying over the Atlantic to Los Angeles and then to Apia (Capital city of Samoa) over the Pacific for long hours was a nightmare indeed.  This was the only event that I hesitated to go so much.  So, on 6th September, a Sunday, as I went into the room where the pictures of the three saints were kept (to put some coins and pray as usual), my sight caught hold of St Mary’s picture.  I looked at her and started crying and blabbering, ” You know how much I am troubled.  I am not happy to take even one step forward in this journey due to the problems I have had so far in organising it the way I wished to do and the fear of flying alone for so many hours over these oceans.  Anyway, I will not take even a step behind, I will go but I want one thing from you… I want you to come to Samoa and I want you to come with the child in your hands.  No one in this world will understand the importance of Mission with Children more than you do as you have the child in your arms always.  Please come, I want at least one child to come… You come with the child….  I am going”.  I blabbered and wept.  Then I also bemoaned my personal circumstances back at home where my younger sister in law was fighting for her life.  I  said I submit her into God’s hands.  I felt so much relieved.  After the Holy Eucharist, I went home happily.

My  Experience of St Mary in Samoa

I flew from London to Los Angeles on 8th September and left from there along with another colleague from CWM to Apia.  We gained time as we crossed the International date line and the then Samaoa timing.  We reached Samoa on 9th and left from there to American Samoa for another Conference of CWM.

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On 17th September, I returned to Samoa from American Samoa in this small aircraft for the one week MWC Trainers Training Event.  It was a journey where I did not know if we were in the air or on the surface of the ocean as we could see the water splashing on the windows!  Rev Ian Hooker who was another resource person in this Training event and I travelled from American Samoa and it was a very short flight of about half an hour.

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               We were very warmly welcomed on arrival at the airport in Samoa

 

As I landed in Samoa, I knew that my sister in law was no more.  When I saw Zsuzsanna, the programme Assistant working with me in the Mission Education unit, I burst out crying.  When she asked me how my sister in law was, I said, she is no more.  She asked me how I received this news – by phone, email or text message and I said none of these but I am sure she is no more.  She offered to call home and find out but I said, I dont want to do it that evening as I am sure I would get the death news only and I was not prepared to hear that.  She asked me to go and rest in m room and she would meet, greet the participants and bring my dinner to my room.  I said that I cannot do that as it is my programme.  I will postpone my moaning.  I need about 15-20 minutes to go to my room to just cry a bit and then just  wash my face to join the group.

So, I went late into the dinning Hall of Malua Theological College where this event was going to take place.  Many of the participants had arrived and they were all at different tables. There was one table with just two people and I joined them.  I did not talk much but just enquired about their journey and a little more about them.  As we began to have dinner, I heard the Mission Secretary of CCCSA saying, ‘That place is crowded as the image of St Mary has appeared on the wall.  People are going to see that and pray there…’.  As soon as I heard this, I had goose bumps but I did not ask anything more.  I knew the image of Saint Mary has appeared somewhere in Samoa and that was enough for me.  I knew St Mary has really heard my prayers and is assuring me now.

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The image of St Mary that appeared on John Williams’ Building in Apia, Samoa

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Samoan Catholics gathered to pray in hours after the image appeared!

The next day – 18th September, all the participants had arrived and during lunch time, Meleitius Thirumeni asked the Mission Secretary, “Tamua, what are you going to do now, people from your Church will join the Catholic Church?” Instantly she replied, “No Bishop, the image of St Mary has appeared on our Church building and many of the Catholic people are here praying to St Mary”.  I just could not believe this and I asked Tamua, “Tamua, what are you saying?” and she said, “Yes Elizabeth, it has appeared on John Williams’ Building…”. This is the official building of CCCSA where their offices are located.  I was stunned.  She then went on to say “Two days ago, when I went to pick up the first two participants arriving for this Training, I saw a crowd outside John Williams’ building as I brought my car out.  They were all looking up at our building.  I thought may be something happened in the upper floor which is rented out to the electricity board. I did not bother to look up but went off to the airport.  As these two people wanted to see our office, I promised to bring them the next day.  As I was driving to the office with them, I had a phone call from the office asking me where I was.  When I told them where I was, they asked me not to proceed any further as I will not be able to enter our building.  They said that an image of St Mary has appeared on our building and many people have crowded there and the police are trying to dispel the crowds…”  She also said that the image on the front of the building is a live size and behind the building also there is a small image.  I was shocked, stunned, amazed and my heart was throbbing.  I could feel in every cell of my body that this is definitely St Mary responding to this sinner’s foolish prayers of asking her to come along with the child for the MWC Trainers’ Training event to show that she understands and supports.  However, I did not have the nerve to share my story and I kept quiet.  I thought people won’t believe me and I was also scared to share as I could not believe that St Mary would listen to my humble prayers and heed.
Tamua also told us that the appearance of St Mary had caused a lot of commotions and difficulties for CCCSA officials and leaders.  The media and the police had come to question them a few times about how this image appeared and if they did anything.  The moderator of the Church had told them that we don’t know anything about it.  When they were pressed more for information, they said, “We have nothing to do with that image.  We don’t know why it appeared or how it appeared.  We don’t even believe in St Mary.  Now that image has become a nuisance and is causing problems for us.  We will wash it out with a hose pipe…”.  I was worried if they will really do it.  I did not want that image to be wahed out out as it has very significant meaning for me at least but I did not have the courage to share my story with anyone.  It was so personal and I did not want to share it.

That evening Zsuzsanna went with a group of people to see the image but I did not go.  On 17th night I called home and got to know that my sister in law had passed away.  I called my sister and through our talk she confirmed that my sister in law passed away the same time I had that feeling that she was no more! I wanted a little more time for myself and I went into my room to be alone and also to prepare for the next day – my inaugural address. I asked Zsuzsanna to get a few pictures but they were not very convincing although it appeared as an image of St Mary.

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Trainees and Trainers of MWC event in Apia, Samoa in September 2009

Now you may have to go back to the beginning to see what happened on 19th when I spoke to the media.  I just wish to share this with those of you who will be interested in reading it.  I thank everyone who has heard this story from me in the past and have urged me to write about it.  I have taken years but it is here finally.  Thanking God for every opportunity where God reveals Godself through people, Saints, and very ordinary moments in life in and through everything that God has created. Let this lead us one step higher in our spiritual journey.

The elders of CCCSA did not was out this image as they wanted to do.  After a few months when I met the General Secretary of this Church and asked if they washed it out, he said, “No Elizabeth, we have put a spot light there as people come and pray all night there.”  After a year or so, I heard that many Christians irrespective of their denomination have faith in St Mary and believe that she is protecting them (especially after the big psunami that struck these Islands in 2009, soon after this event was held there).  They even said that Scientists are unable to explain why no damage is caused even with big tremors after the Psunami.

Finally, after months together, I heard Bishop Meletius’ address on St Mary where he warned and alerted people from belittling Saints as class IV servants.  Towards the end of his talk he also says, ‘I pray that people from the ends of the world will get to know and experience her in a worthy manner ‘ (this is not exact quote but an attempted translation only).  I was deeply touched with that prayer from the bottom of his heart and realised that it was not me alone who prayed that St Mary should travel all the way to Samoa with the child for my programme.  Yes this may be St Mary’s response to many peoples’ prayers.  Also this is not the only way she has responded but has done in the past and will do so in future too in many ways.

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At the parsonage after worship in a local Church where I preached on Sunday

I hear that recently John Williams’ building was demolished and a new structure has come there.  I am sure that people still remember this incident even if that building has gone. This experience ever remains so close to my heart.

Elizabeth Joy

20th September 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About elizabethjoy237

I am a research post graduate Student at King's College, London. I have served Council for World Mission (CWM) as the Executive Secretary for Mission Education from October 2002 until January 2011. I have also served the Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI) as its first Woman General Secretary from July 2000 until September 2002.
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