At Hui 2019, John Catmur was awarded the Lionel Stewart scholarship. He planned to use the scholarship for advanced studies in te reo Māori and to explore the use of taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) in Christian worship. He updates us on his progress with both.

It turns out that 2020 has been a very cheap year for the Lionel Stewart scholarship! Many aspects of life, including language courses, have been disrupted by COVID-19. 

January began bright and full of promise. I drove to Waimārama, south of Napier, to the marae that kicked off the entire kura reo (literally ‘language school’) movement 31 years ago as the Māori renaissance gathered pace. 

In this beautiful rural coastal setting I was privileged to sit under some of the finest tutors in the country, like Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, who once upon a time (1987) was the inaugural Māori Language commissioner. 

My Waimārama experience

Papa Tīmoti, now 83 and still the sharpest tool in the box, has affectionately called me his punua Pākehā (pet Pākehā) much to everyone’s amusement, including mine. But underneath his droll manner is a deep commitment to anyone passionate about reviving te reo Māori. 

At Waimārama 2020 he did me the great honour of bestowing me a Māori name: Te Kaiiriiri (the Baptist). I took this as a sign that I am considered worthy to be called a friend of the Māori language world. I belong. It also gives everyone a good laugh, knowing that John the Baptist is in their midst. 

I am just one of many non-Māori who are on this journey of advanced Māori language studies, but each one who takes that journey is adding just one small dab of healing anointment to the wounds that have divided the peoples in Aotearoa. 

Waimārama was also the first time I prayed freestyle in public at a kura reo in te reo Māori! Every day begins and ends with karakia. Karakia time involves a song or two, a prayer and a short homily (which in this secular context is normally a motivational testimony from someone’s language learning journey). But these are also great spaces to share a living faith in Jesus Christ using the indigenous language of our country. It was a privilege to do so at Waimārama this year. 

COVID-19 disruption

Aside from Waimārama that’s about it in terms of formal learning; all other kura reo have been cancelled or were unavailable to me as an Aucklander because of COVID-19 restrictions. I got a few neat books and my reading skills and vocabulary have massively improved as a result, but the other steps forward I took were due to COVID-19 itself. Because of our lockdowns people have been far more willing to kōrero Māori online, making it possible for me to have a conversation in te reo Māori around five days a week on average since April. Sometimes the best things in life are free! 

Part two to come

I want to confess before you all, as one who was trusted with a valuable kaupapa—exploring the use of taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) in Christian worship—the other half of my scholarship has not been very fruitful so far.

Taonga puoro is a kaupapa close to my heart, my first Bachelor degree having been in music. But I’ve suffered from a lack of opportunities and also a strange lack of motivation that has been difficult to contend with. 

I now have some knowledge and a wonderful albatross bone kōauau (small flute) in my possession, and hope to make the most of that, but that is all at this stage. The little I have spent of my scholarship money has been mainly focused on te reo. 

However, I do want to continue and make something of it, and I’ve got a lot more excited since managing to get a sound out of my kōauau! After discussing it with David Moko, we agreed that my scholarship would carry over into 2021, given the COVID-19 disruption. So, expect part two of my story next year!

The hope of the world

As I reflect on where I’m at now, something very deep is in my heart. Someone said to me recently in a fit of wild adulation that they should write a book about my journey. Never! I want to say this: te reo Māori, although a taonga, is nothing compared to the love of Jesus! It offers no ultimate hope whatsoever to the world, except as a wonderful common grace to give earthly dignity to people, and as one platform for reconciliation. Only Jesus’ power can transform hearts, truly humble us and cause us to serve one another for the healing of our country and the turning of souls to the Father. 

If they’re going to write a book, they should write one about someone who has pointed only to Jesus, not some freak of Pākehā nature who has basked in the spotlight of the new cool, wretched man that I am. 

And so, if I ever use te reo Māori again may it only be as an overflow of the desperate love of Christ that God has put inside me for others. His love touches so much more deeply than even speaking the noble Māori language can. 

Biculturalism is not the hope of the world—Jesus Christ is! The love of Jesus, if it really lives in us, will cause us to humble ourselves, sacrifice, honour, forgive and reform at a far deeper and more radical level than is possible in human strength. Then Māori and Pākehā will be reconciled! We will become slaves to one another. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (Romans 13:8, NIV). 

I commit to becoming a punua Pākehā. In fact, I commit to becoming nothing, in the hope that Jesus will be made manifest in me. To paraphrase an old saying, I will preach the gospel at all times. And I will use (te reo Māori) words if necessary.

Contributor: John Catmur

John is the pastor of Māngere Baptist church. He was born in London, England, where he lived until moving to Aotearoa in 2007. He has always held to the value that any people group are as important as his own. But this value didn’t really find expression in Aotearoa until about seven years into his life here, when, with the help of David Moko, he began to meet the Māori world.