Rich past, challenging future for Tai Tokerau rohe
Northland holds a special place in the history of Methodism in Aotearoa. The early Wesleyan missions were based there, first at Kaeo and Whangaroa Harbour, later at Hokianga.
The Tai Tokerau rohe (district) of Te Taha Maori is heir to this tradition but like churches throughout the country it now faces the challenge of finding relevance in contemporary society. As elsewhere, Tai Tokerau congregations are older and smaller than they were in the past, and they are trying to find new ways to reach out to young people.
Mere Cassidy is the liaison person for the Tai Tokerau rohe. Mere is a minita-a-iwi, a local preacher authorised to celebrate the sacraments, baptise, and perform marriages.
She explains the rohe is divided into five regions or takiwa: 1) Dargaville and Northern Wairoa, 2) Whangarei, 3) Hokianga, 4) Pewhairangi (Bay of Islands), and 5) Whangaroa.
Minita-a-iwi in these regions conduct their own worship services, and one Sunday a month they gather together – either in Kawakawa or Rawene – for shared worship and discussions of Taha Maori business.
Mere says the role of a minita-a-iwi is quite different than a minister or lay preacher in the Tauiwi church. Not only do the minita-a-iwi have a role in the church they also have prominent positions in their communities and marae.
“They are involved with their whanau and iwi, and they take part in hui and other functions on the marae such as powhiri and tangi. Sometimes minita-a-iwi are called upon to bless new homes or chase away spirits – even by Pakeha.
“Because of their family ties minita-a-iwi don’t necessarily stick to their own area. If someone wants them to do a marriage or baptism they may travel outside their area to do it.
“Some minita-a-iwi are kaumatua who are involved in decision making on the marae, some are involved in politics. We have one or two who are now with the Maori Party. In fact some minita-a-iwi are more involved with iwi activities than they are with the hahi and we don’t see enough of them.”
Tai Tokerau rohe owns very few church buildings. Whangarei-based minita-a-iwi Winiata Morunga is the Maori adviser at Northland Polytechnic. Without a church building he holds worship services in people’s homes.
Three years ago Taha Maori took over the Methodist Church in Rawene, which the local Uniting Congregation was using as an opportunity shop. Mere lives nearby at Waima and she leads services at the Rawene church once a month. The Rawene church is also used for youth groups and it serves as the rohe’s office.
Mere and other members of the Rawene congregation also serve as chaplains at the Hokianga district hospital.
The Hokianga church also has guardianship over two properties Taha Maori holds title to. One is the Waima Mission Reserve where missionaries established a station in 1837 and the other is a farm property at the base of the sacred Te Whiria Mountain at Pakanae, near Oponone.
“Last year we rededicated the farm at Pakanae. It had run down under the previous leaseholders. Maori and Pakeha church people helped clean it up. We painted the farmhouse, removed rubbish, and rebuilt the stockyard. I did karakia and we had a big kai. Now it is in the hands of local farmer John Klaricich and it is being looked after very well.
“One of the things we are doing in Tai Tokerau is to encourage the church to return property to local communities. Once the land story has been told the church should return the property to appropriate trustees if it was gifted from the local iwi. The church has returned buildings and property to the community at Otaua, Tuhirangi, and Waima,” Mere says.
A major concern of the Tai Tokerau rohe is find ways to reach out to young people (rangatahi). Older members of the rohe remember when church was an important part of family and social life. People gathered with family after church for a meal and it was a time children saw their cousins.
Today children find traditional church services dull so Taha Maori is developing new ways to reach out to young people, often through activities outside church times. Mere says there are three rangatahi workers in Hokianga, Rachel Harrison, Ruby Winikerei, and Joce Korewha.
Among the activities they have organised was boat trip from Rawene to Mangungu on Waitangi Day. Mangungu is the site of the major mission station in the Hokianga region and more Maori leaders signed the Treaty there than actually signed it at Waitangi. The charter boat trip was a chance for rangatahi to learn more about their heritage as Methodists and New Zealanders and to have good time.
Mere says the income the rohe now receives from the farm at Pakanae means it has more resources than in the past to organise activities for young people. It intends to use them to keep them involved in the church.