Palm Sunday

On a small Pacific island, a church service by the beach is a simple but inspiring affair, writes Catherine Keenan.

As we climb in the boat to go to church, the Fijians spruce in Sunday best and the white people looking salt-encrusted and dishevelled, it is like the missionary project in reverse.

In the 1830s the first missionaries arrived in Fiji intent on converting the locals from ancestor worship to Christianity. Oddly enough, however, Methodism proved less universally appealing than the missionaries had expected and they met with little success. So they changed tack and decided to concentrate first on converting the chiefs and, second, to let something of the old traditions seep into the new.

It worked so well that now more than half Fiji's population is devoutly Christian, and it's the locals who take us heathen foreigners to worship the God we exported to them. A young boy in a crisply ironed sulu (the wrap-around Fijian skirt for men) pushes us off the sand and the outboard motor rips into life. Soon we're charging across the clear blue sea, Bible pages flapping in the wind, to the church in the village of Niubasaga, on the neighbouring island of Moturiki.

The church is not like any of the ones I remember from my youth. It is an almost empty cement hall with no pews and no crucifixion scene, but it does have an enormous bamboo pulpit trimmed with white lace. The pastor, wearing a crisp white shirt, red tie, navy blazer, white sulu and bare feet, is already in full swing when we arrive and take our seats on the floor.

There are only about a dozen people in attendance: a few men in suits and some children who race around and thump each other with their Bibles. On the only chair in the place, beneath a brightly coloured crocheted blanket, sits the village chief.

Apart from repeated references to "Jisu Karisito," I can't understand what the pastor says, though I recognise the tone of it: the admonition, the rising fervour, the passion that seems so oddly out of place when you can see palm trees through the glass-less windows and hear the lap of the surf.

After a while the pastor stops and one of the parishioners stands to officially welcome (in English) the scruffy foreigners to the church. By prior arrangement, the male in our small group responds, saying how nice it is to be here and how lovely the village is. Then everyone breaks into song.

The singing is magnificent, the harmonies subtle and effortless. It brings an ethereal quality to the service, especially as the singers are guided only by a single high note sounded at the beginning by one of the women and a rhythmic tapping by one of the men. The service alternates between the solemn pronouncements of the pastor and the soaring melodies of his congregation. A strangely stitched-together thing.

We file out with the priest and the chief, then stand in line to greet the other parishioners as they follow. "Bula, vinaka," we intone ("Hello, thank you"). Whatever vague notes of familiarity I had detected in the church now peter away altogether, as we stand under the outstretched mango tree, the ground spotted with crab burrows, as a light rain falls.

The villagers invite us to drink kava, and as we sit on the mats in an almost empty room, I wonder how often the missionaries did this. Did they accept the proffered coconut shells of this clay-tasting, narcotic drink that makes your tongue go numb and leaves you feeling strangely soporific? Or, like the cannibalism they eventually stamped out (there were casualties on the way), was this one of the practices they disavowed? I clap my hands, a way of saying thank you, and down another bowl. Then it's time to leave.

The boat is anchored about a hundred metres from shore as the tide is low. I roll up my trousers and start splashing through water only a few centimetres deep. The slippery effects of the kava have just kicked in and the Fijians ahead of me look as if, like Jisu Karisito, they are walking on water.

For more information, contact the Fiji Visitors' Bureau in Sydney on 9264 3399.