Pacific women, God and wellbeing

Pacific women

International Women’s Day on March 8 draws attention to the lives of women.

My research explores, in the inner lives of Pacific women, how their relationship with God can affect their wellbeing, and how their image of God relates to their relationship with their parents.

How we name, visualise and describe God is most often directly correlated to our relationships with attachment figures such as a caregiver or parent.

The way we talk about God and how we perceive God is also influenced by our upbringing, religious involvement and commitment, religious artwork in churches, museums and on social media.

Pacific peoples see religion and spirituality as important for wellbeing, alongside relationships with the physical environment, family, and culture.

Yet there is much we don’t know about religious belief in the Pacific.

The disciplines of Christian theology, indigenous studies, psychology, and sociology are yet to adequately investigate specific religious practices, their theological basis, and how this affects mental wellbeing for Pacific peoples.

For my doctoral studies in theology I had the chance to speak with, and learn from, 64 young Pacific women in Tāmaki Makaurau about how their images of God and cultural identity affected their mental wellbeing.

I met young māmā who were working and studying at the same time, women who were deeply immersed in their language and cultural reclamation journey.

I met women who had been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness, women who were angry at the church, yet also those who wholeheartedly were serving in the church.

I met women who, when faced with a physical illness equally sought traditional Pacific healing methods, Western medicine, and prayer.

In our talanoa (free discussion), we laughed, cried, untangled our family and village connections, and talked about how church communities in Aotearoa might better engage with Pacific congregations to talk about and support mental wellbeing.

What struck me is how much Pacific women carry – emotionally, socially and psychologically. They need to navigate how to express their cultural identity in a Western, secular context.

If they aren’t fluent in their native tongue they could be mocked by their wider extended family, unable to understand conversations and so feel inadequate.

They must also fulfil their families’ expectations of what it means to be a Pasifika woman, whereas their male family members may have more social freedom. They may be responsible for caring for family members, as well as having to study and work.

And they feel obliged to succeed because that’s what our older generations moved to Aotearoa for – educational opportunity, more employment options and a different future.

These young women were also grappling with what their Christian faith meant to them in light of being able to learn more about our cultures before colonisation and the harm churches caused in their compliance with racist colonial regimes.

  • Dr Therese Lautua is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Theological and Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland.
  • First published in Newsroom
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