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Wesley Hastings - a church of contrasts

By Julia Stuart

Wesley Methodist Church Hastings is a community asset. It is also a church of contrasts in its life and work.

Set across the road from the Opera House on the edge of Hastings central business district, the Spanish Mission-style church rose rapidly from the rubble of the 1931 Napier earthquake. It was the third church on the site in 127 years, and the Methodist congregation was committed to getting it built smartly as a witness to their commitment. Just over a year later, the foundation stones record its completion and the congregation’s gratitude “for the assistance of New Zealand Methodism in the re-erection of this church.

Recently the outside of the church was painted in colours to complement the Opera House, and inside refurbishment is almost complete with just a communion rail to be installed. This renewal is a source of great pride. The high ceiling, graceful arched windows and spacious interior is enhanced by the light colour scheme, rich red carpet and bright banners on the walls.

Today Hastings Methodists show the resilience of their forefathers. One of the larger Methodist churches in NZ until the mid-1990s, the Palagi congregation was significantly depleted by the departure of about 40 younger members at the time of the wider Church’s sexuality debate.

Twelve years later, Palagi attendance averages 25 mostly older people at the weekly Sunday service, according to lay leader Dennis Coon. “A few younger families are now starting to appear, and the Sunday school continues with five children,” Dennis says.

Wesley Hastings’ Samoan congregation began in 1976 with a few families. As the number of Pacific Island workers in the district increased, attendance has grown. The arrival of a fulltime Samoan presbyter helped boost numbers further, and in late 2004 the situation was recognized by the formation of two separate parishes.

Rev Paulo Ieli leads Wesley Samoan while Dennis, who is licensed to carry out the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism, leads Wesley Parish with lay preacher Jim Pentelow.

Both parishes have strong community connections. The Samoan choir enhanced the recent celebrations surrounding the re-opening of the Opera House and regularly takes part in civic and inter-church occasions. Groups such as the Methodist Women’s Fellowship and the Friendly Circle have community-based speakers. Residents of rest homes are visited with the occasional service and tea for residents and visitors.

The two congregations work well together. They share their church life by taking part in regular joint services on the first Sunday of the-month and for special occasions such as Maundy Thursday and the World Day of Prayer. Paolo and Dennis meet frequently and a ministry team of both congregations started meeting regularly this year. Each parish contributes pro rata to the church and plant upkeep and cooperates on projects such as painting and equipment.

Before the ministry team was formed last year, there were some power issues between the two congregations, resolved after wider consultation with church officers.

With the two leaders working together joint ministry is growing. “It’s brought new life and enhanced our heartfelt respect for each other,” Paulo says.

“We respect each others’ gifts and complementary ministry,” says Dennis. “Our goal is that we have a workable relationship, with Samoan lay preachers taking part in Palagi services. Bible study groups and meals together are on the agenda for this year.”

On Easter Sunday morning the Palagi congregation is small but undeniably welcoming. After being greeted by George and his guide dog Beckham, I am firmly removed from the back pew, and handed the appropriate books. The full pipe organ bursts into life, encouraging the choir of six into Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia! At least four different ethnicities are present, and though most of those singing are 60-plus, I see a mother and young daughter, a student and a Scottish country dancer scattered through the pews.

This contrasts with the action just an hour earlier when the Samoan congregation led, by a huge choir filled the church with an all-age congregation to welcome the risen Lord. During communion, the organist at an electronic keyboard offers variations on The Old Rugged Cross, and active but remarkably quiet toddlers circulate around the pews. A sea of white dresses, suits and hats highlights the liturgical colours of Lenten purple and Easter red. This service too is engaging and welcoming in true Methodist tradition.

However expressed, Wesley Methodist worship is alive and well and witnessing this Easter Sunday. Maybe for another 127 years.