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Churches help Bay Area Samoans keep traditions alive

Sara Harrison
The First Samoan Congregational Church in San Francisco is one of the oldest Samoan churches in the Bay Area


There are the 50 states, of course, but there are 14 territories in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands that are also part of the United States. One of those is American Samoa.

U.S. missionaries, and the military, arrived there in the 1800s, and by the turn of the century the island became a territory, divided from its independent counterpart, the nation of Samoa.


Now, more than 13,000 people of Samoan ancestry live in the Bay Area — and churches provide a means to preserve their island heritage.


“That’s how the culture survives outside of Samoa,” said Tai Faaleava.

Faaleava was born in Samoa, but moved to New Zealand, and then to the U.S., by the time he was in high school. There are a lot of people like Tai. Both island

"I like that we always get to sing, and it's really fun. I think it's good to speak in my language and it's fun learning more about my culture."

  nations suffer from slow economies, and now more Samoans live abroad than live on the islands.

Church parallels

Traditionally, Samoan communities are tight knit and centered around villages with chiefs.

For those living abroad, Faaleava says the church mimics that structure.


“The structure, the relationship between people, so the interaction, the hierarchy that’s within the church. I think that’s parallel to the Samoan culture,” he said. “It’s kind of duplicated, I would say, from the culture into the set up of the church.”

Missionaries from Europe and the U.S. introduced Christianity to the Samoan islands starting in the early 1800s. Now, 98 percent of the population there identify as Christian.

Last year, the nation of Samoa even changed its constitution to officially make the country a Christian state.

Because Christianity is such a big part of Samoan life, it’s not surprising that Samoan communities abroad are turning to their churches to help preserve their culture.

“For a lot of Samoan kids now, the only exposure they have to Samoan language is here in the church, is hearing the songs in Samoan or getting a few lines in a skit,” said Faaleava.

Tai learned to speak Samoan from his parents and grandparents, but Patsy Tito, the director of the Samoan Community Development Center in San Francisco, says not every family does that.

“It’s unfortunate that two, three generations from now we may not have language,” she says, “because even our kids are having kids and they’re speaking in English to them.”

Generational shifts?

There’s also just a long history in the U.S. of non-English speaking groups not being encouraged — and often strongly discouraged — from speaking their home language.

Five years ago, when Tai’s father, Tala, became pastor at the First Samoan Congregational Church in San Francisco, he realized that language gap was really affecting his congregation.

“When we came here, we noticed that there are adults. And then I realized that most them don’t understand Samoan,” said Pastor Tala.

He decided that since so many people in the community couldn’t understand when he preached in Samoan, he had to make a change.

Now, the First Samoan Congregational Church holds services in Samoan and English to make everyone feel included.

He also thinks the bilingual services help English speakers understand a little more Samoan too.  

“If I speak in Samoan and then in English, maybe they’ll be able to reconciliate both languages and somehow learn a few words from this and that,” he said. “That’s how I learned English at home. I went to a church where the sermon was interpreted. So I hear an English word I don’t know, I wait for the interpretation.”

The church also offers bilingual choir, Sunday School, and cultural classes. Some families drive in to the city from as far away as Vallejo and Vacaville to participate.

Before services start, Sunday School teacher Sala Togeiai wrangles her class of eight- and nine-year-olds into the church’s chapel.

Today’s lesson is about Noah’s arc.

“None of them speak Samoan,” says Togeiai, “but they are learning, they are learning. That’s why we’re trying to do bilingual in our lessons at our Sunday school. I think they understand when we speak Samoan to them but they cannot speak it.”

For Togeiai, holding onto that identity is hugely important.

"It's really fun"

“Samoan culture, it’s very special to us, very precious,” she said. “We have to keep that identity that we have, our Samoan identity. Culture. We have to have it.”

In the church’s day care, eight-year-old Jailene introduces herself in Samoan while she constructs the Tower of Babel out of marshmallows. Although she speaks English at home Jailene likes all the cultural activities they do at church.

“I like that we always get to sing, and it’s really fun,” she said. “I think it’s good to speak in my language and it’s fun learning more about my culture.”

For Tai Faaleava, speaking Samoan is integral to his identity. But, he says, it’s even disappearing in his own family.

“Out of me and my siblings I’m the only one that speaks it fluently. My little brother has lost it completely,” he said. “Now, you know I meet kids who were born here and never lived outside of here, the way they identify with being Samoan is tattoos and long hair, that’s it.”

Faaleava sees these changes, but he doesn’t think they’re all bad. In many ways, he thinks that kind of evolution is inevitable.

“Culture is like liquid. It’s constantly evolving,” he said. “I think, as the generations continue, the culture is going to shift. The only thing that I would prefer is that we maintain the language.”

Pastor Tala says, the cultural activities and bilingual sermons have been really popular.

And he says, the kids are the ones pushing their parents out the door in morning, anxious to be on time for those 9 a.m. classes.