Let's talk about religious faiths in Auckland

By Dionne Christian

What’s it like inside our city’s synagogues, temples, cathedrals and mosques? Dionne Christian talks to eight Aucklanders about their place of worship.

Dr Kerryn Olsen at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Patrick You and Vigee Li at Fo Guang Shan, Dr Sairam Iyer at the Swaminarayan Mandir Temple and Firoz Patel at the Ponsonby Mosque. Photo / Natalie Slade
Dr Kerryn Olsen at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Patrick You and Vigee Li at Fo Guang Shan, Dr Sairam Iyer at the Swaminarayan Mandir Temple and Firoz Patel at the Ponsonby Mosque. Photo / Natalie Slade

DR KERRYN OLSEN, 35

A senior tutor in the English department at the University of Auckland, Olsen and her husband, Greg, travel from their west Auckland home in Laingholm to attend the Sunday service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell. The cathedral serves as a parish church, mother church of the Auckland Anglican Diocese and seat of the present Bishop of Auckland. The Cathedral Precinct also includes St Mary's, the historic former cathedral church built in 1897.

"My husband and I hadn't been going to church for a couple of years and we decided, at the beginning of 2000, we should find a place to go to. We picked Holy Trinity because we thought it would be a larger congregation and while we quite liked the traditional church atmosphere, we also wanted something that had a reasonably liberal philosophy. We wanted a place where we would be challenged intellectually while being supported spiritually.

"We discovered we really loved the people there and it is mostly the people who keep us coming back. We go most Sundays unless we're sick and it's cold and wet. The service has a set form; the cathedral is the place where all the traditional Anglican ritual happens, so you have a processional hymn as the priests and the choir comes in with the cross in front of them.

"We gather together for the Rite of the Penitence, the confession. This, to me, is one of the most beautiful bits of the service because it acknowledges that we are human. One of the phrases is 'forgive us for the wrongs we have done and the good we have not done'. It is the 'good we have not done' that keeps getting me because there is so much more that we could do. At the end, the priest says, 'know that you are forgiven and be at peace'. Then we have readings. We like the centrality of the Bible. Then there's the sermon, which is usually quite short, the communion, which brings everyone together, and then there's another hymn and we're finished after about an hour and a half.

"I was raised a Christian. I believe in a God of love and forgiveness. The important bits for me are to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself and that's how I try to live out my life. From a place of being loved by God, what can you do to share that with the people you encounter every day? A big part of that for me is social justice and environmentalism. I work hard to find Fair Trade goods as one of the most practical workings of it and trying to be, well, nice to people, to be there for them when they need it and to treat everybody with respect. We're all in this 'soup' together.

"As a place of worship, looking at some of the stained glass windows while one is sitting in church and listening to the sermon encourages contemplation, as there are a lot of verses on them. Just the great soaring upwards [of the roof]; I'm not saying God is a long, long way away, but it lifts your mind."

PATRICK YOU AND VIGEE LI, BOTH 27

Devotees at the Fo Guang Shan North Island Buddhist Temple in Flat Bush, which promotes the ideals of Humanistic Buddhism as expounded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order. The couple, originally from China, came to the Buddhist faith around four years ago and travel from the North Shore to attend a Sunday service at the temple. They will marry there this year.

Patrick: "For me, the temple is a place that helps to clear my mind and makes me think. Before I came here, if I was unhappy, I would say it was someone else's problem. But I come here to learn the Buddhist way, which teaches you to check yourself first. I have learned not to push my problems on to other people and consider what I can do to be a better person. This is a mind change; this is the power from the religion.

"As Buddhists, we believe in the three goods - say good words, do good things and keep good thoughts - and the four gives: we give confidence, we give hope, we give joy and we give compassion. We remember these all the time. They provide a structure and philosophy to live life by. The modern world is very fast; people have the internet and can hear lots of news but they never think about themselves and what's in their minds and their hearts. This [coming to the temple] is about how to be a good person.

"At each service, which lasts for about three hours, we chant the dharma - the Buddhist teachings - and then the abbess, who leads the service, gives a lecture, similar to a sermon in a [Christian] church. She speaks about the teachings of the Buddha and how to incorporate these into everyday life.

"We have different dharma services with specific teachings for different events. We eat here after the service because the vegetarian food [at the teahouse] is so good.
"There are lots of people who come to the temple - families, tourists, visitors - because this temple is not only for Asian people, but for New Zealanders, for all of us living here. A lot of people come to the teahouse because they like the vegetarian food and the peaceful environment."

Vigee: "Normally we come every week, on a Sunday, but if we have any free time during the week then we tend to come across. The temple is important to me because it makes me feel peaceful and helps create space in my life.

"Buddhism teaches us more wisdom because when you have more wisdom, you can handle the everyday better. Buddhism is my life - my daily life and a way of life."

STEVEN HOFMAN, 20

Jewish faith has always been part of Hofman's life. He and his family are members of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, which has been based in Greys Ave, central Auckland, since 1967. It is the hub of Auckland's modern orthodox Jewish community and includes two synagogues, the kosher cafe and shop Greys Avenue Deli, offices and Kadimah College. Auckland's first synagogue was in Princes St and opened in 1885. South African-born Hofman arrived in New Zealand with his family in 1994. He attended Kadimah College and is a leader of Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva.

"The interpretation of the synagogue is a communal meeting house, so it's a place where you meet the community and you pray together. One of the requirements for praying is that you need 10 men - a minyan - and you can't have that unless you have a synagogue or communal meeting house. To be part of that minyan, that community, makes coming here so special because it is our communal meeting place.

"Our Shabbat starts on Friday evening and runs into Saturday. The Saturday service is about two hours and 15 minutes and I come every Saturday. We read from the Torah [five books of Moses], there are prayers and eight people get called up. There is a further reading from the Haftara, the books of the prophets, then usually the Rabbi has his sermon - he usually starts it off with a good joke to get everyone's attention - and then we carry on with the second part of the service. The Torah is read mainly on a Saturday, but there are readings on Monday and Thursday but there are only three call-ups and no Haftara.

"The beliefs of Judaism are really centred on how one should act. We believe you should act to a high moral standard and the way you conduct yourself publically and privately should always be at the same high level.

"We believe in one God; we are still waiting for the Messiah to come and that's what we are always striving for: to be good so the Messiah can come. Generally, the concept of being a good human being is important. Judaism means to me a way of living, giving me the moral fortitude to act in the right way.

"Growing up, I knew right from wrong at a very young age and it set my life in motion as to how I would act outside the house. I pray three times a day, mainly in the morning but not in a minyan as I am working too early or across at university. I eat kosher food. The day-to-day requirements that Judaism has for us in the way we act, I try to uphold when applicable. Coming here and being in the communal centre is quite nice because I can switch off all the outside distractions I might have with university or any other thing. I can focus solely on what's in front of me in the prayer book and think about what the words mean that I am saying. Just having that, being here, allows that to happen."

JENNY SCHOLLUM, 61

Attends the Church of Saints Peter & Paul in Puhoi, which opened in 1881 and has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment to preserve it for future generations. Fundraising for this is ongoing as preparations begin for the next round of renovations. Schollum, a historian who was born in Warkworth, has spent most of her life in the area.

"My former husband, Murray, and I were married in the Methodist church and I was going to the Warkworth Methodist church off and on. One Sunday, we had to do something in Auckland - I can't remember what, but it was important - and going to the Warkworth church wouldn't have left enough time to get to Auckland so we said, 'why don't we go to [the Catholic church in] Puhoi?' and we did with the family.

"For the first few times I was there, I went expecting to disagree with a lot of the practices but I really couldn't find anything to disagree with and it became clear that that was where we were meant to be. Murray was brought up in the church. [There are stained glass windows from the 1900s dedicated to Murray's ancestors, who were among the first settlers in Puhoi].

"Puhoi has mass on Sundays and Wednesdays, so I go then, and to Warkworth Catholic Church some other weekdays. The Catholic services take the same form, but during the week it is a little less formal. A typical service is about an hour. We're lucky to have a regular congregation of about 50, including a number of families and younger people.

"There is a peaceful serenity in the church and I can feel the faith of the pioneers on which Puhoi was built. So it's lovely just to be there.

"We believe that God is everywhere, but in the church he is present in lots of ways: in the Eucharist, in the priest, in his word, in the liturgy and in the people by his spirit and so at church there is a concentration of his presence. I am well aware that I fall short of what I could be for God so I am still seeking to learn and grow."

DR SAIRAMI IYER, 29
A devotee at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Avondale, laser physicist Iyer was born in India and spent his childhood in the Middle East. He and his family moved to New Zealand when he was 12 and he became a practising Hindu 10 years ago. The ornate Hindu mandir (temple) located in Avondale was the first in New Zealand of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha.

"I go to the mandir because it gives me a higher level of happiness in my life. In the 'normal world' - secular and material - you can experience happiness through various things: success in your education, your work and the things you buy, but there is a limit to that. Also, when you have ups and downs, it is often difficult to cope with life's trials. However, spirituality enables you to experience an unperturbed state of happiness. The fundamental reason why I go to the mandir is to obtain that peace of mind; that spiritual happiness. The other aspect that goes hand-in-hand with spirituality is the spirit of service that I see at the temple. In helping others through selfless service, I am also able to express another form of devotion.

"One of the main fundamental tenets of Hinduism is non-violence. That's one of the reasons why we are vegetarians - because we respect all forms of life, big or small. Values like speaking the truth and compassion are important as is respecting all religions and understanding that we are all interconnected. Faith to me is very personal. For me, it's imbibing the values [of the faith] and being able to live a pure life of value-based living; it's about serving people and being able to control base instincts and eliminate them - anger, ego, etc - and improving my character.

"On a daily basis, the ritual of aarti, where songs are sung in praise of the Lord when lamps are being offered, is performed once in the morning and once in the evening at the temple. Additionally, on Sundays, we have something known as the sabha, which consists of spiritual discourses that provide practical guidance on how to progress on the path of spirituality. We have this for the adults and one for the children. I volunteer my time to organise weekly cultural activities and sabhas for young children. A typical children's class begins with the chanting of Sanskrit prayers and then we proceed to do the actual sabha. Generally, it all takes about two hours followed by sanctified food afterwards. On Sundays, many people come here and many more come during festivals such as Diwali. We welcome everyone to visit the temple.

"I can't go to the mandir everyday, but I have a small temple at home with the sacred images; it's called a ghar mandir. The beauty of having a ghar mandir is that I can observe our rituals on a daily basis. Every morning, I perform daily worship, which is called puja. In the evening, I do my prayers and I read my scriptural books but the temple is extremely important. We need a platform where all of us can get together and grow in a constructive environment; the temple is a place for spiritual education. It is a place which fills the void in our lives. A hospital aids to heal the body, the school aids to educate the mind, but where will one go to mend a broken heart? The mandir is such a place."

FIRASAT MOHAMMED, 32 AND FIROZ PATEL, 52

Both originally from India, Firasat has been in New Zealand 12 years and is married with a 3-year-old daughter; Firoz has been in New Zealand for 30 years and has three grown children. He is the secretary of the Ponsonby Mosque, which, when it opened in 1979, was regarded as the country's first real mosque, which has separate areas for men and women to worship. Up to 600 people worship there every Friday.

Firoz: "Our god, Allah, likes unity and when all people from different backgrounds - rich, poor, any job - are in front of the Almighty, everyone is the same so we stand next to each other in a row led by our own priest. We pray (salah) five times a day: before sunrise, at lunchtime - I come to the mosque and Firasat prays at work - again at 4pm, which we do together at work, and then at 6pm, when we come to the mosque, and another one at night.

"The five fundamental principles of God are to believe in the oneness of Allah - there is only one God; the five times a day pray requirements; fasting in the month of Ramadan; paying zakaar, which is an amount of money you pay to the poor, to those who are needy. You have to pay 2.5 per cent of your income to the poor; it is like a purification of your wealth. The fifth fundamental is going for Haj, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. I have done it." (Firasat is due to go next year.)

"Friday is our main day of worship. The time changes depending on the position of the sun. We have the calling, the azaan, telling people it is time to pray then we wash ourselves to purify ourselves and things ready for pray so the concentration, and your whole body, is focused on one thing. The imaam gives a sermon, say 10 minutes, in Arabic, and then gives a translation in English. It is a spiritual guidance, what our prophet tells us to do. Then we do our prayers. The whole event takes about half an hour."

Firasat: "I started coming to the mosque when I first arrived in New Zealand. I lived nearby so it was the closest place to come. Now I live in Mt Roskill but I had got used to the mosque and made friends here, so that's why I have kept coming back. I could pray at home - and, at times when I can't make it to the mosque, I do - but one of the requirements of my religion is to pray along with a group of people so I come to the mosque. When we come to the place of worship, which we call the Masjid, we all stand in the same line; we all are equal in the eyes of Allah.

"Our faith is about equality, community and discipline. We get up early and do our prayers to prepare for the day. There is a saying in English, 'morning shows today', so it [prayer] prepares you to get up, to start your day on the right path, so you don't oversleep and become lazy in life. It is about discipline, but also about peace and tranquillity; your own spirituality and that you have a duty that you offer. Coming here definitely helps. With a group, you are better off because you stick to the correct schedule and routine, which is exactly the practice that is required."

"It is hard to give an exact figure about how many people come here, but the whole place is full. I have had no issues with my employers [leaving work to pray]. I take an extended lunch on Friday and work late. I have found Kiwis respect other religions. In fact, I would say they highly appreciate them."

- NZ Herald

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