Hawaii’s Ambassador to Alabama

Posted on January 30, 2018


The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, that “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5: 20). Surprisingly, when I heard UA’s quarterback Tua Tagovailoa respond in the seconds following his touchdown pass that cinched the National Championship for Alabama that he owed everything he’s done to his Lord Jesus Christ, I thought, wow, Tua’s preaching to us in the Bible Belt. Good for him. We need more of Tua’s preaching and witnessing.

His grandfather, Seu, set the Christian tone of his Polynesian descendant family in Hawaii. Seu persuaded Tua with teachings based on Holy Scripture that he could be what he set out to be, and Seu was sure Tua was destined to be a football star.

Granddad shared with Tua his favorite Bible verse, “No eyes have seen, no ears have heard, no mind has imagined what God has prepared,” (1 Cor. 2:9) It’s a verse both poetic and prophetic, and Seu was sure all his 28 grandchildren were destined for something great.

Grandad sure didn’t miss it with Tua. Daily spiritual lessons and family check-ins were part of growing up in Seu’s family.

In the mind and hearts of Samoans is the sharing of all gifts and talents. Tua rises up, like another Hawaiian of Samoan descent, the Heisman Award- winning Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota, a hero to the younger Tua. Mariota too is a Christian whose goal is “to go out and show he world that Christ lives.”

Christian missionaries brought the faith in the nineteenth century to the Polynesian culture of the Pacific islands, including Samoa and Hawaii. The first missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in Samoa in 1830, and found some already there converted to Christianity. Wesleyan missionaries had already been in Tonga and Tahiti and the faith spread to other parts of Polynesia by the great maritime culture of the people who sailed hundreds and thousands of miles on their seagoing canoes, largely of catamaran designs.

By 1855 the entire Bible had been translated into Samoan, and Samoa became a Christian nation, whose preamble to their constitution describes Samoa as “an independent State based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and traditions.”

Tua represents a wonderful Christian teaching, that all members of the community share in the rise and prominence of one of them. He didn’t crow about himself on that moment of national prominence. He remembered his Lord and his granddad and I’m sure Tua wished Seu could have been there in person, although I suspect he was in spirit.

Although he may not be conscious of it, Tua represents a reverse missionary phenomenon at work in the world: the reconversion of old Christian strongholds—like Europe and the United States—by the dynamic spread of new Christians from across Asia and Africa, and even Latin America and now we see even Polynesia.

In fact, evangelical Christians from places like Nigeria and Kenya in Africa, represent a shift in Christianity’s cultural center of gravity from the West (Europe and North America) to the so-called global South. By 2025, if the trends continue, at least 50% of the world’s Christians will be in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the mid-twentieth century, 1950, 80% of the world’s Christians were in Western countries. This is a dramatic demographic shift, and Tua is part of it.

In Great Britain, where half of all British adults describe themselves as having “no religious affiliation,” Pastor Reuben Ekeme’s ministry in York, for example, is aimed specifically to white non-believers.

“Britain brought the gospel to us [in Africa] in the past,” said Ekeme. “Now, by God’s providence we are here when Christianity is very much challenged, and the UK churches are really declining.” African missionaries are being trained “in cross-cultural understanding to better evangelize in the UK…while others are trying to forge closer relations between African congregations and the ‘indigenous churches’ near them.”

Closer to home, the Catholic church has been recruiting African priests for years. The number of Catholic priests in the U. S. has been declining, by about a one third, in the past 50 years, while congregations have expended almost by one third. Today more than 6500 foreign-born Catholic priests serve in the U. S. That’s a fourth of the total number of clergy.

The same phenomenon is true of Protestant evangelicals. “We have been blessed by the U. S.,” said Badeg Bekele, pastor of Emmanuel Ethiopian Church in Los Angeles, “and now we want to give back to them through the gospel of Christ.”
“The church in Africa is one fire,” said Pastor Ivey Williams of a congregation in Tallahassee established by the Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God, “while the church in America is, for the most part, losing its zeal.”

The African churches share certain common characteristics like exuberant worship, heavy emphasis on prayer, and a strong missionary impulse to plant new churches and win new converts.

And go into any community in the U. S. with a sizable proportion of Hispanic immigrants, legal or otherwise, and you will find small and mid-sized Evangelical Protestant churches scarred throughout. We could take a driving tour of Northport and Tuscaloosa and their outlying communities and I bet could turn up twenty or thirty little churches without a problem. Measure the excitement of the faithful in these churches with more staid, traditional Protestant denominations and I don’t think you will recognize they but different versions of the same faith.

So, to Tua, keep up the faith. You have a lot of worshippers here who share the faith of you, your parents, your grandparents. And, of course, keep sharpening those throws and coolness in the shadows of monster linemen trying to bury you. This is, after all, the home of the Crimson Tide.

Published as “Hawaii’s ambassador to Alabama” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018.