Telling Forth Jehovah’s Praise in the Cook Islands
“LET them attribute to Jehovah glory, and in the islands let them tell forth even his praise,” wrote the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. (Isa. 42:12) In keeping with those words, the praises of Jehovah are being heard in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific.
The 15 islands of this group are spread over an area of 751,000 square miles (1,945,000 square kilometers), yet their combined land area is only 93 square miles (241 square kilometers). Polynesian migrations to these islands took place in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. Europeans came along much later. Reportedly, Pukapuka was first seen by Spanish navigators in 1595. During the 1770’s the Southern Group was explored by the noted British seafarer Captain James Cook, after whom these islands are named.
In 1823, John Williams of the London Missionary Society visited many islands of the Southern Group and introduced the Bible to the populace. For many years Christendom’s missionaries exercised rigid control over the people. Today, the Bible in the Rarotongan language is found in most homes. Many older people have deep respect for the Scriptures and can quote from them verbatim.
For a long time, the Cook Islands were “off the beaten track,” having limited ship and air links with the rest of the world. Only since completion of the international airport on Rarotonga in 1973 has that island (home of half the total population of 18,112) been included in main air routes. Also, small planes now fly regularly between Rarotonga and the islands of the Southern Group.
PRAISING JEHOVAH ON RAROTONGA
Apparently, the first of Jehovah’s Witnesses to declare the “good news” in the Cook Islands was Sydney Shepherd. In the early 1930’s, for about two years he traveled through these waters by boat, witnessing on Rarotonga and other islands. Although little was done to follow up this activity, in 1939 a family from New Zealand briefly visited four of the Cook Islands.
Brother and Sister Bruce Clarke came to Rarotonga in 1962. Their interest in serving here had been aroused by a Cook Islander with whom they conducted a Bible study in New Zealand. The woman wanted her people to hear the “good news.”
In 1962 only five individuals attended the Lord’s Evening Meal in Rarotonga. The opposed Roman Catholic wife of one man, Alex, prevented his attendance by damaging his bicycle with an ax. Nevertheless, Alex persevered and was baptized as a dedicated witness of Jehovah in 1963. With his wife, Nane, present as an observer, he translated the baptism talk, answered the two questions asked of baptismal candidates, and then was immersed in the lagoon. Not many months later, his wife, too, was baptized. They were the first Cook Islanders to become dedicated Christians, and today Alex and Nane Napa serve as special pioneers.
LET US DO IT AGAIN
Generally, travel and permit problems curtailed earlier visits by traveling elders. But how upbuilding it was when circuit overseers came to Rarotonga!
During one such visit, in 1965, the local Witnesses put on a small circuit assembly having the theme “You Are the Light of the World.” They enjoyed the program so much that when the traveling overseer’s plane flight was delayed for a week, the assembly was repeated, much to the delight of all those present.
ISOLATION TAKES ITS TOLL
After four years in Rarotonga, the Clarke family had to leave because of illness. In time, communication with Jehovah’s people elsewhere became quite limited and isolation set in. With no outside help, the small group of spiritually young Witnesses became despondent and gradually slipped into virtual inactivity.
But circumstances began to improve in 1969, when a New Zealand Witness and his wife moved to Rarotonga on a work contract. Soon regular Christian meetings were being held and the Kingdom-preaching activity was revitalized. Since then the Kingdom work has continued moving ahead.
MAORI SPECIAL PIONEERS SPUR INCREASE
There is a close resemblance between the New Zealand Maoris and the Cook Islanders (also called “Maoris” here), and this similarity extends to their language. Hence, when Maori special pioneers Sam and Agnes Wharerau began serving on Rarotonga in 1970, they were soon able to speak the local Rarotongan tongue. As a result, during their four-year stay they aided many islanders to learn Bible truth.
Increase was in evidence, and a private home no longer was adequate as a meeting place. A Kingdom Hall was needed. With Jehovah’s blessing, a lease was arranged for ideally situated property at Arorangi. By early 1971 work on the building was under way, and in a few months the congregation had moved into their new hall. All seemed to be going well.
However, a serious problem arose in 1974. Under advice from the Religious Advisory Council, the government passed a bill restricting religions in the Cook Islands to long-established churches. Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for recognition, but for a time could not hold meetings in the Kingdom Hall or any public place. However, by 1975 verbal approval had been received for use of the hall as a meeting place. Happily, this was followed on June 1, 1976, by a letter approving Jehovah’s Witnesses as the sixth recognized religion in the Cook Islands.
THE KINGDOM WORK REACHES OUT TO AITUTAKI
In the 1930’s Sydney Shepherd first sowed the seeds of truth on beautiful Aitutaki, partly a coral atoll enclosing a lagoon nearly nine miles (14.5 kilometers) long. Tuaivi Mose, a Polynesian, readily accepted the truth. Besides speaking about it to others on Aitutaki, he wrote to acquaintances on the island of Mangaia. Realizing the importance of having Christian publications in his native tongue, he began translating the books he possessed. Since no Witnesses visited Aitutaki before he left in 1964, it was not until moving to New Zealand that Brother Mose was able to get baptized in symbol of his dedication to Jehovah, made many years earlier. Because he spoke out about his beliefs, he became known on Aitutaki as “The Watchtower Man.” Until his death a few years ago, Brother Mose stuck loyally to the truth.
The Kingdom work really got under way on Aitutaki in January 1972, when three Witnesses who had learned Bible truth in New Zealand went home for a visit, and nine publishers from Rarotonga joined them to give the island a good witness. They found much interest, and 60 people attended a public Bible talk. Sixteen were present for the first observance of the Memorial held on the island. January 1973 saw European Wayne Blake and his Aitutakian wife, Aileen, proclaiming the “good news” there, and the 71 present for the Memorial that year included interested observers from five local churches.
The Aitutakians cling to their traditions, but much of the former hostility toward Jehovah’s people has subsided. It is realized that the Witnesses wish the people no harm and only desire to discuss the Bible with them. Even pastors no longer are hostile.
EXPANDING THE WITNESS TO THE OUTER ISLANDS
Although the “good news” is well established on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, another 6,000 people live on the other 10 inhabited islands of the group. During short visits through the years, some Bible literature has been placed with those reading English. But a real boon to the work has been the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life in the Rarotongan language.
In Mauke it is customary for the entire populace (710) to gather at the wharf when a boat comes in and to provide umukai (a feast) for the visitors. An ideal time to offer the Truth book! Two visiting Christian women did so on one occasion, and an entire carton was empty in no time. So, it was back to the boat for more books. Soon, these, too, were gone, and still others wanted copies. To meet the need, 50 additional books were sent later to Mauke.
Similar success was experienced by Witnesses visiting Mangaia. They placed 769 books and 600 booklets with the 1,630 people on that island. The literature was not refused at a single home!
SCENE SET FOR FURTHER BLESSING
Considerable time, expense and effort have been required to spread the “good news” in these islands. But Jehovah God’s blessing evidently has been on this activity. Today there are thriving congregations of 47 Kingdom publishers in Rarotonga and 16 publishers in Aitutaki. Moreover, there are good prospects for the establishing of further congregations on some of the outer islands.
As the year 1978 drew to a close, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Cook Islands keenly desired to attend the “Victorious Faith” International Convention in Auckland, New Zealand. But how could that be possible? The economy in the islands is such that it would have cost each one a small fortune to make the convention trip. However, Jehovah’s hand is not short. The hearts of loving spiritual brothers and sisters in New Zealand were stirred to contribute the round-trip air fares for some 60 of the islanders. These were present December 6-10, among the throng of 12,328 who shared in that grand feast. Native Cook Islanders took part in the program, and on the Saturday evening after the regular sessions, they appeared with others in colorful native dress to delight other overseas visitors with a program of native song and dance. Their joyful oneness with the Maori, Samoan, Niuean Islander and Caucasian conventioners was another living testimony that today Jehovah is gathering peoples of all nations and tribes into a worldwide unity in Christ Jesus.—Eph. 1:10.