Tuawaru o Noema: celebrating the founding of the Ratana faith

On the 8th of November 1918, the Tuawaru o Noema, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, a local farmer, was on the porch of his house on the exposed and lonely plains south of Whanganui when a cloud came from the coast:

Wiremu noticed a cloud formation hovering and moving above the sea heading in his direction. It rose high above the sand hills and came through Waipu Lake, and stopped over the top of the old Ratana railway station for a short moment. Then it began to move slowly in its entire wrath and power witness only by the chosen few men of God; this anointing was about to empower a humble farmer. The cloud coasted slowly towards Wiremu its appearance on the outside was dark, the centre flickered in white and the rear of the cloud was a blaze of fire.

Ratana was cast to the ground in fear and trepidation, and the Wairua Tapu spoke to him:

Kia tau anō te rangimarie: kaua hei wehi, ko Ahau tēnei te Wairua Tapu. Kua raunatia e Ahau te ao ki te rapa turangawaewae Mōku.

Be at peace, fear not, I am the Holy Spirit. I have traveled around the world to find the people upon whom I can stand upright.

Kitea mai e Ahau kei Aotearoa nei ko koe ko te iwi Māori; Ripeneta! Horoia koe me tō whānau kia ma me te hukarere kia harakore me te kukupa”.

I have come back to Aotearoa to choose you, the Māori people. Repent! Cleanse yourself and your family as white as snow as sinless as the wood pigeon”.

E Ratana, kua meatia koe hei Mangai Mōku ki te mata o te whenua. Whakakotahitia te iwi Māori ki raro ki a Ihoa O Ngā Mano, he aroha hoki tēnei nā Ihoa ki a koutou.

Ratana, I appoint you as the mouthpiece of God for the Multitudes of this land. Unite the Māori People, turning them to Jehovah of Host, for This Is his compassion to you all.

(From Te Rongo Pai Hou A T.W. Ratana Mangai, Sheet No.37; Akoranga Anaru, 1997 pg55)

The new day of Pentecost, on a windswept plain above the Tasman Sea. Such a strange place to start, yet a familiar beginning, like a bush burning or shepherds watching over a flock. This commissioning was the beginning of an indigenous Christian movement that is 97 years old this year.

I have been in the Manawatū and then Whanganui with my daughters’ kura for their performance at Te Mana Kuratahi, the national primary schools kapa haka competition, held in Papaioea. In the first part of the week I stayed at Te Hiiri Marae, a marae of Ngāti Rangatahi and Ngāti Mātākore of Raukawa and Maniapoto. I moved over to Ratana Pā to join Te Wharekura o Mauao who were staying in Manuao, an expansive facility facing the sports fields that lie in front of the Temepara, the Ratana Temple.

WP_20151108_005Whilst we had finished at Te Mana Kuratahi, we stayed on for the Tuawaru o Noema, the celebrations of the Anahera Pono visiting Wiremu Ratana on the 8th of November 1918. It is essentially the birthday of the Ratana Church. Many consider the main event on the Ratana calendar to be the 25th of January, Wiremu Ratana’s birthday. The Apotoro who spoke on the Tuawaru were very clear that, whilst the birthday celebrations were important, the Tuawaru o Noema was the most significant date; the birth of the church.

The anticipation the day before is palpable. Members of Ngā Reo, the brass bands are meeting, practicing in the band room, as are members of Ngā Koea, the choirs. Children’s laughter rings across the marae atea, and being so close to Guy Fawkes, fireworks intermittently burst aloft. The day begins with Whakamoemiti at Midnight, however I hope any morehu reading this will forgive me for missing that one. So our day began with breakfast in Kī Koopu, provided by ringawera in uniform white, efficiently setting and clearing tables, dishing out mince and mashed potatoes, porridge and cups of tea.

We attended two services, 11.00am and 2.00pm, and then the regular evening Whakamoemiti. The afternoon service is at the time that Wiremu Ratana’s visitation occurred. The bells start to toll in the Temepara half an hour before and people mill around, a rainbow of colour. Having spent most of my years in the Catholic and Anglican churches, the riot of colour in Ratana is a bit of a culture shock: Roopu Raupo Waiata in orange habits, Awhina in purple habits, Ngā Reo in yellow, purple, maroon, blue, green, Apotoro in purple, Apotoro Wairua in blue, Akonga in white and yellow, red jacketed ushers. Colour everywhere, and then us, the crowds, in our normal mix of Māori formal and eclectic clothing: blacks, shirts, beanies, dark sunglasses, league jerseys, All Black jerseys, formal dresses, summer dresses, baggy hoodies, kaumātua in three piece suits with pocket hankerchiefs, kuia with large hats and pashminas.

About 10 minutes before the service, Ngā Reo assembled on the marae atea are brought to attention by the band master who leads off towards the Temepara, followed by the Apotoro and Akonga, Roopu Raupo Waiata and Awhina, Ngā Keao, and the Morehu en masse. The procession that afternoon matched that of the morning, except included dignitaries, including Labour MP Reno Tirikatene, two member of Tikanga Māori of the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian moderator. When we arrive at the gate of the Temepara, the band assemble at either side and play as we proceed onto the Temepara grounds and up the stairs into the Temepara itself. The temple itself is an expansive, airy space filled with pews, white walls ringed by painted chains connecting all the symbols of the Ratana faith with Ihoa me Ngā Mano Whaioio. The five pointed star, purple, white, yellow, blue and red, in the whetu marama, iconic images that are in stark relief throughout. The atamira is a grand affair in wood, staged seating with the Apotoro and Apotoro Wairua on one side and the Ngā Reo on the other faced by Ngā Koea; and above it all the seats for the Tumuaki, a Servant of Humanity and Servant of God, Defender of the Faith and other dignitaries.

The service started with the Ngā Reo, the Ratana brass bands. There are seven Ratana brass bands throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. It is regarded as a great honour to join, and they are treated as such in Ratana services and events. It was explained to us that the band represents the sweetest sound of worship; whereas the the words and messages spoken can change over time, the C note played by the band a hundred years earlier will be the same C note played a hundred years from now. An immutable sound, the breath of the Wairua Tapu in music. Within the Temepara, the brass band is glorious, expressing in music what few can express in words. The power, the beauty caught in my chest and brought tears unbidden to the eyes.

Of the two kauwhau, the afternoon service stood out to me as an inspiring and uplifting message. We were beseeched not to look back at the 97th birthday but forward, to three years time, to the centenary. At that time the church needed to take a spiritual audit, to ask what have we achieved. The church needed to encourage all Morehu to return to the Temepara, to home to ensure that the Tuawaru o Noema was held in the same esteem as the 25th of January. The church needed to continue to pursue its vision that Ratana welcomes all peoples, all faiths within its all walls with its message of peace and light. It was a message to have faith and live it out in the simple day to day.

Ratana services are simple in design with karakia, Ngā Reo, the Ratana brass band, Ngā Koea, the choirs and the Apotoro and Apotoro Wairua playing a part. Ratana services are quite simply very touching. A perfect treasure, well formed. As I left the Temepara I was surrounded with the most beautiful perfume. It was the perfect expression of my experience of Ratana faith; a visceral encounter with God that cuts through the intellect to leave a heart strangely warmed.

Ratana is not the dramatics of politicians visiting on the 25th of January. It is not a syncretic expression of Christianity, nor an historical anachronism. It is a demonstration of a gospel born of Aotearoa New Zealand. If the gospel is to have a continuing life in Aotearoa New Zealand, it will need to have roots in this nation, not remain a grafted branch as it remains in so many churches. In Ratana, we have just such an expression. Here the gospel found a way to escape the grasp of European Christians so as to speak directly to Māori, to a humble farmer on a windswept plain. Such a strange place to start, yet a familiar beginning, like a bush burning or shepherds watching over a flock.