A matter of faith: NZ’s Māngere congregation with 100% vaccinations

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Reverend Suiva'aia Te'o
Reverend Suiva'aia Te'o (left) and youth group leader Gardinea Lemoa outside the Sāmoan Methodist Māngere Central parish. Image: Justin Latif/Tina Tiller/LDN

By Justin Latif, Local Democracy Reporter

Church minister Suiva’aia Te’o says proactive communication, compassion and clear information have led to a fully vaccinated congregation.

Like most churches operating under level three and four rules, the Sāmoan Methodist Māngere Central church livestreams services on Facebook and holds Bible studies and prayer meetings over Zoom.

To keep the young people engaged they run Kahoot! quizzes and online talent shows.

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But when lockdown rules lift, the congregation will be able to confidently worship in person — because all 120 of them are already double-vaccinated.

The church’s Reverend Suiva’aia Te’o says no edict or mandate was imposed by her or anyone else. Rather, she made sure everyone was given clear and relevant information, and then members of the congregation got the vaccinations of their own volition.

“One Sunday I gave a brief talk about why they should take it. My thinking was if everybody understands why, then they can make a decision for themselves,” she says.

Te’o was motivated to promote the vaccine after attending a talk organised by Pacific health provider South Seas for church ministers in South Auckland. She says the crux of her message to the congregation was to do it for the “love of family”.

‘We breathe the same air’
“We all live in the same world and we breathe the same air,” she says. “The delta variant can spread so easily, and so I reminded them it was about the safety of their families, the safety of the community and the safety of the church.”

She also recruited the support of her church’s youth group leaders, including Māngere College student Gardinea Lemoa.

“We have youth meetings every Friday and so I’ve just been encouraging them to get vaccinated and to get their friends and family vaccinated as well,” says Lemoa.

“We’ve also been making up memes so they could post things on their social media accounts.”

Te’o is well aware that some Christian leaders are calling the covid-19 vaccine the “mark of the beast” and a sign of the end times, but she’s got no time for such attempts to stoke fear.

“I know they say that’s what they believe, but I don’t agree. I think it’s just an excuse and they need to get vaccinated.

“We have got this remedy, and I’m convinced it has been developed with God-given wisdom and knowledge by professionals so we can be safe.”

86% of eligible Pacific population
Before this weekend 86 percent of the eligible Pacific population have had their first dose, compared to 89 percent of Europeans and close to 100 percent of the Asian population.

Around 50,000 Counties Manukau District Health Board residents still need to get their second dose in order to reach the 90 percent double-vaccinated threshold. It’s a marker the Auckland and Waitematā DHB populations need about 15,000 and 40,000 doses respectively to reach.

Given the lower vaccination rates for Pacific peoples, associate professor of public health at the University of Auckland Dr Collin Tukuitonga says it is still a source of frustration that the Ministry of Health decided on a centralised approach at the start of the vaccine rollout and didn’t lean more on churches to support the immunisation programme.

“It is encouraging to see so many community-led initiatives happening now. But these should have been resourced from the beginning,” he says.

“Instead, the first big mass vaccination event was held at [higher learning institution] Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT). It was great that they got 16,000 people vaccinated then, but it actually made things worse in some ways, because they barely vaccinated any Māori or Pacific people.”

He says when local organisations like churches are empowered to take the lead, mistrust and misinformation become less of a hurdle to overcome.

“Now we have Pacific providers taking ownership we are finally seeing a lot more acceptance and uptake of the vaccine.”

Quickly got on board
Te’o says though her congregation quickly got on board with the vaccination rollout, many have still found lockdown challenging.

“I thought with this lockdown it would be quiet for us, but it’s not – there’s more and more Zoom meetings and more work. It’s been a hard time, the world is changing a lot for so many of us and there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“We’ve been providing food parcels for some families and some have needed small monetary grants to help with paying the power or other bills.”

But one thing she is confident about, given all her congregation is vaccinated, is that when they do get back to in-person services they’ll all have that extra layer of protection.

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air. Asia Pacific Report is a partner.

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