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Samoan congregation in Alaska celebrates new charter (UM News)

April 11, 2023

Friends and leaders from across the Alaska Conference and Western Jurisdiction gathered March 19 in Anchorage to celebrate the chartering service of Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Church, a primarily Samoan congregation.

Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area presided over the chartering ceremony, which he said is a first for him as well.

“We don’t get these often these days, so thank you for this gift and the gift you get to be as a witness that the church of God is still growing,” he told the congregation. 

To the visitors, he said, “What you are witnessing is the institution catching up to the church. The church has already been happening and the institution has arrived.”

Though it is now one of the newest United Methodist churches, Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Church has been worshipping together since 2010.

The Rev. Fa’atafa “Tafa” Fulumu’a, the church’s pastor, said the name Ola Toe Fuataina means “new beginning.” 

Fulumu’a, who lived in Hawaii and belonged to the California-Pacific Conference, said he was brought to Alaska by a recurring dream where his wife was calling him on the phone but he didn’t answer. A pastor friend who relocated to Alaska also had asked if he wanted to come start a church there.

“I said, ‘No, it’s too cold for me,’ but he kept calling.”

One night while he and his wife were watching TV, Fulumu’a fell asleep and dreamed about Alaska. 

“I woke up and cried, and told my wife that if this is God’s calling, we have to go,” he said.

He explained his dream to his district superintendent, who told him, “Tafa, you have to go.” 

March 7, 2010, was the last Sunday at his church in Hawaii. A week later, he met with the community of Samoan United Methodists who wanted to start a new church in Anchorage

They worshipped for several months without a permanent home before Fulumu’a spoke with leaders at East Anchorage United Methodist Church, who were in need of an organist. Fulumu’a, who played piano and organ for several churches, offered to be East Anchorage’s organist if the Samoan congregation could meet there. 

Unfortunately, they lost their church home in 2016 when East Anchorage was discontinued. An Episcopal church hosted their worship services for several years, and they were able to move back to their original home in 2019 when the Alaska Conference began a new church start in the building and its pastor invited them to share the space. 

“When I came here and we were looking at what to do with the building, I found out they were still looking for a home so I reached out to see if they wanted to come back,” said the Rev. Murray Crookes, pastor of Every Nation United Methodist Church. “I love Tafa to pieces and I celebrate (the charter) with them. It’s so amazing.”

Not long after their return, the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to in-person worship, so Fulumu’a posted sermons on the church’s Facebook page until the congregation could return. 

Through all its hurdles, Ola Toe Fuataina has continued to grow its membership, including many young people. The youth featured prominently in the chartering celebration, performing most of the music. 

“When the youth were up singing, I couldn’t hold it in,” Bridgeforth said afterward. “To have a group of young people committed, engaged and enthusiastic was a clear reality that this is what we’re supposed to be about. These are the generations that we have to focus on and give our energy to.”

Galoane Taiula, who oversees the youth programs, said that the most important thing is keeping kids involved in the life of the church. 

“We relate to them and love on them. They love the music ministry, and we keep them involved with any activity they love, like sports, volunteer mission work or dance,” she said. 

As a child, Taiula said, she only went to church because her parents took her, but outreach programs at a United Methodist church drew her in during a “dark time of life” for her.

“It made me want to reach out to other struggling youth,” she said. 

Taiula said she can see the youth hunger for more after an event like the chartering service. Two more joined the church afterward. 

Fulumu’a attributes the church’s growth to his practice of home visits. Many Samoans work Sundays and can’t come to worship so he spends weekends visiting families. 

“For me,” said Bridgeforth, “it’s not even about the numbers. It’s about the impact and the influence that they’re having on these young people’s lives. That will impact future generations in perpetuity.”

Fulumu’a said he hopes to keep growing, which might mean the church will have to seek a larger worship space.

“I believe God is still with us, still sails with us on our journey. I’m so grateful to God for using us,” he said. 

During the service, the Alaska Conference gifted to the church a baptismal font and Communion chalice and plate. The chalice and plate were originally consecrated for East Anchorage United Methodist and the bishop reconsecrated them for the new church. Fulumu’a was presented with a certificate of organization, officially recognizing that Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Samoan Fellowship is now Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Church.

“This congregation didn’t begin today,” Bridgeforth said during his sermon. “It didn’t begin when this group began to gather as a fellowship and it didn’t begin when the word of God began to be preached in the South Pacific. 

“This ministry began when God created the heavens and the earth. This congregation was in the creation narrative. In it, we have liberation and we have life.”