In 1964 Samoans in Seattle form the First Samoan Christian Congregational Church in southeast Seattle. They choose Folasa Titialii to act as their pastor. The second Samoan congregation will be the First Samoan Assembly of God, formed in 1971. After this, Samoan churches in Seattle will flourish, offering bible study and services in Samoan. These churches will bring families and friends together and help pass on traditional Samoan values such as obedience to elders, a familial focus on children, and care for members of the community. At first the churches are insular and reach out only to congregants and their families, but gradually they will begin reaching out to others in their neighborhoods and to people in need.
Background of Samoan Faith
Fifteen islands located in south Pacific Seas two-thirds of the way between Hawaii toward New Zealand constitute the Samoan Islands. The native people followed a local religion until the London Missionary Society, predecessor to the Congregational Church, carried Christianity to the islands in 1830. The missionary John Williams traveled to Sapapali’I on the island of Savai’I and converted Malietoa Vainu'upo, a man who received four honorific titles and became the de facto monarch. Some Samoans had learned of Christianity from sailors and traders, but with the conversion of the king, the rest of the Samoan population converted as well. Soon after, Methodist and Catholic missionaries brought their faiths to the islands.
In 1900, Samoan chiefs signed over possession of the six easternmost islands to America in an attempt to gain military protection from other European colonial powers. The Samoan people took up the Christian religion passionately. Today (as of 2001) Samoan churches represent 15 different denominations all over the islands.
Creating Samoan Space in Seattle
Despite the long history of Samoa as an American territory, migrants did not travel to Seattle until after World War II. After the Pago Pago Naval Base in American Samoa closed in 1951, the Navy relocated Samoan servicemen, administrators, and their families to Tacoma to work at Fort Lewis. Many of these settlers moved to the Seattle area and joined local congregations. But it was not long before they formed their own churches.
In 1964, the Samoan community chose Reverend Folasa Titialii to lead the first Samoan church in the region. Titialii with his wife, Ave, found the Seattle Samoan Congregational Christian Church in southeast Seattle near Brighton. Folasa’s brother-in-law was stationed at Fort Lewis, and the couple had moved to join him in 1957. Many new arrivals from the Samoan islands joined family in the area and sought better educational and occupational opportunities.
Titialii preached to the congregants only in Samoan, and Samoan singing and organ music, provided by Jack Thompson Sr. filled the church as well. As the congregation grew in number, the Titialiis pioneered its move in the late 1970s to the Renton area.
Due to the tendency for one or more families to make up early Seattle congregations, church events were (and still are) venues for meeting friends and family socially. So esteemed is the place of church in Samoan culture that any member who distanced him or herself from his or her church also distanced from the community. In Seattle loyalty to a church complemented the traditional values of the islands. The atmosphere in the church underscored the values of the fa’a Samoa or Samoan Way. The Somoan way respects elders and focusses on family and on the traditional moral compass of the culture. One Samoan described walking into church within the Seattle community as “going home” (quoted in McGrath 329)
Although Christian ministers did not have a formal decision-making role in the Samoan community, they received great respect and often acted as the voice of the church and community.
Church ceremonies helped to instill the values of the traditional Samoan culture into the increasingly Americanized children. Through the bible study and socializing with the larger Samoan community, the children internalized the fa’a Samoa. The annual “White Sunday” event serves as a religious confirmation for the children and a celebration of their Samoan background. At the First Samoan Christian Congregation Church, White Sundays had palm fronds and tropical flowers with the some of the men in lava lavas or sarong-like skirts. In Samoan, the children read aloud bible stories, performed in plays, and recited lines that reflected the values held high in the culture of their parents and grandparents.
The First Samoan Assembly of God
In 1971, Rev. Misailetalu Talaga (1916-1976) and his wife, Fiva Leasau Talaga (1915-1990) started the Samoan Assembly of God in Rainier Valley in Seattle. The Talagas originally lived in American Samoa, but when one of their sons left for schooling in America, they were devastated. Fiva began going to the local Assembly of God services for solace, at first with some trepidation. She felt deeply touched by the services and finally convinced her husband, Misailetalu, who was the local medicine man, to join her.
The church service also changed his life, and they moved to Seattle in 1956 for Misailetalu to study at the Northwest Bible College in Kirkland. When he graduated, he was the first Samoan graduate and then became the first Samoan pastor for the Assembly of God. After briefly living in California and starting a congregation there, the Talagas moved back to Seattle and established the First Samoan Assembly of God in Rainier Valley.
In addition to the religious and bible study services, the Talagas worked to ensure that new Samoan arrivals found a place to stay and received any help they needed to adjust to America. This showcased one hallmark of the Samoan culture: its communal spirit where family and friends helped each other and sacrificed for each other. Early churches helped to reinforce this loyalty to and support for the larger community. They held events, dances, bingo games, and concerts to raise money for distribution as loans or gifts to members of the congregation in need. For a funeral or wedding, the church community pooled resources to help the grieving or celebrating family. Even the Samoans who joined non-Samoan congregations tended to form an insular group within the larger congregation and look after one another.
In 1976, Rev. Talaga passed away, and Fiva became the leader of the First Samoan Assembly of God. She took correspondence courses to improve her English and ministry courses, until finally she became ordained in 1985. She became the first female pastor of an Assembly of God church. She led the church and participated in the council of Samoan churches until her death in 1990. Her son, Washington Talaga, was chosen to lead the congregation, which in the mid-1990s became the Jubilee Christian Center.
Traditions and Questions
Despite the home quality of the Samoan churches, the traditions represented by them began to be questioned in light of ongoing issues with Samoan children underperforming or even dropping out of school. During the 1980s, as gang membership became a more salient problem to the community, more and more Samoan voices spoke out against the lack of action of family chiefs and church leadership.
Primarily, they thought the traditional values failed to properly prepare children for life in American society. The insistence on absolute obedience to elders lacked the lessons of independence and self-progression found in the American way. Additionally, since churches held services solely in Samoan, many children who did not know the language well would stop attending after reaching young adulthood. Another critique found the churches more interested in building the numbers of their congregation than helping children reach their potential. Critics of traditional ways, including Betty Patu, Paul Patu, and Solia Talaga, insisted that among other things a united effort by the churches as well as more schooling would allow children to succeed in American society.
A Passion for People in Need
Although the Samoan community at first remained insular with its familial focus and services only Samoan, in the 1990s many churches began providing bilingual worship and social services to the larger community. In 1974, the Faith Samoan Church formed in Columbia City as a United Church of Christ congregation with services in Samoan, fellowship opportunities, and bible studies.
The congregation has re-emerged as the Samoan Congregational Christian Church Seattle III and hosts a number of social services to the Samoan community including parenting workshops, domestic violence prevention, Samoan language classes, and a Homework Center for children. The church also hosts a Polynesian Food Bank, which reaches beyond the congregation to help people in the area in need of food.
When Rev. Washington Talaga took on the leadership of the First Samoan Assembly of God in the early 1990s, he began providing services in English and Samoan. Additionally, the church bused homeless people from the city to their facilities for food and other amenities. As Pastor Talaga, now of the Jubilee Christian Church, explained, the Samoan people have a “passion for people in need. They reach out by not looking down but embracing” (interview).
White Center and its Churches
Now there are more than a hundred Samoan churches in the Pacific Northwest and dozens in the Seattle area alone. In the past decade, the area around White Center has emerged as a vibrant, growing community with an active Samoan population. One count estimated that Samoans made up 2.5 percent of the 22,000 residents, and the White Center Assembly of God especially supports social services to reach beyond its congregation.
The church, established in the early 1980s, recently began helping other individuals in need. Their community service organization, PASEFIKA, hosts a cultural festival for Samoans and other Pacific Islanders to create awareness of their cultures. The festival includes dancing groups -- another cherished activity in Samoan culture -- island food, and musical groups. PASEFIKA also provides a food bank, tutoring and after school care, and other programs.