Weekly Practice: Service in the Spirit of Manaakitanga

A lifetime ago I used to run an after-school programme for 40+ kids in our neighbourhood in Otara.  It was a crazy, hilarious, chaotic, at times devastating, yet love filled corner of the world.  The centre wasn’t much, but it was ours, a second home to many of the children who turned up each day.

One of our supporters offered to cover the cost of repainting our run-down buildings.  This group wanted to give these kids from Otara a place “they could be proud of.” (We thought they were?). So, we set about brainstorming colour scheme ideas with our kids, who quickly moved on to second phase development inclusive of water slides and bike tracks. We regrettably reined it in, submitted our ideas to the supporters, and waited excitedly for a reply while the project preparations began.

The colour scheme arrived, and our response was unanimous—the colours were ugly. Even the painter objected. We asked the supporters to reconsider, but they insisted. We didn’t have the means to complete the project, so relented. Despite their heart to serve, the group’s actions caused grief and pain. Many of the children emotionally disassociated from what had been a much-needed place of belonging. They were prouder of it before the renovation.

But as was characteristically resilient of them, they eventually turned it into a joke and got over it. We grew on the painter too. He became part of centre life, reading and hanging out with the kids weekly, long after his job ended. A tall blonde Norwegian in a sea of little brown faces. It was beautiful. And funny.

I got over it, too. But I’ll never forget the looks on the children’s faces when their voices were silenced and their mana violated.

Manaakitanga is a beautiful concept. It’s often translated as hospitality or respect, but it’s more than that. Manaakitanga means to enhance the mana (dignity, inherent value, esteem) of others. When you manaaki you anticipate need and meet it before it’s required. There’s no expectation of reciprocation, including thanks or gratitude. It weaves together with aroha.

If service was synonymous with manaakitanga, what would that look like?

“God claims the world as his. Everything and everyone belongs to him!” (Psalm 24:1-2 TPT)

What could it look like if our service of others embodied the proclamation of Psalm 24 that we are ALL claimed by God? If we viewed those we seek to help with mana, as God’s image bearers?

Instead of arriving at a community or family with assumptions about what their needs are (even if they’re obvious), what might it look like for us to listen, watch, and seek to understand? Does our service of others stifle or stimulate their creativity, solution creation, and ownership of circumstances? It’s frighteningly easy to dehumanise a person. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes, “…to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

How do we honour and sustain good and necessary work without centralising ourselves in the narrative? (Note to self).  When raising funds in the charitable sector, how might we speak about those we serve as God’s image bearers, rather than as subjects whose triumphs feature in stories that we tell about ourselves?

What would balance sheets reveal if they accounted for the mana of our staff, volunteers, clients… our people?

Let the with-ness of Jesus be your witness. 

My Irish Nana loved roses and would often bring some freshly cut from her garden to brighten our home. One day, some of the gang community who worked with my dad were visiting. Nana arrived and without thinking twice, she turned to Kerry, the gang president’s wife, and offered her the roses.  Kerry froze. “No-one’s ever given me flowers before.”  Nana smiled, “Go on, Love.  They’re for you.” Slowly, Kerry took the roses from Nana’s outstretched hand and bowed her face in them in a silent thank you.

Two days later, friends went to visit Kerry. She was sitting at the kitchen table, and placed in the centre, standing in an old tin mug, were the roses. Without taking her eyes off them, Kerry said, “No-one’s ever given me flowers before.”

Service in the spirit of manaakitanga will bind us together to reveal God’s design of and intentions for us, often going beyond that which we first imagined. With-ness is an extraordinary thing. It causes Irish Nana’s to have eyes to notice an unseen woman and offer her roses. And a Norwegian man to find belonging with Polynesian kids in Otara.

Amidst the strain and unknown of a disrupted life such as this, even when it doesn’t seem like it, God is faithful. In the remaining days of isolation, may you have moments of openness and with-ness with God that he might bring you roses.

(Image by Annie Spratt, licensed under CC Zero)