It was a practise run-through for my cousin's marriage ceremony. Alongside the other bridesmaids, I listened patiently as the priest went over the order of things. It all seemed like standard wedding stuff, until it came time to discussions about Communion.
First, the priest asked whether any of us were not Catholic. "Yes, me, I'm not," I said. Not a big deal, I thought as I admired the airy hilltop church we were in.
He seemed to have an alternative interpretation. As the only non-Catholic in the bridal party, I garnered his immediate focus for an explanation of how pivotal it was I refrain from receiving Communion during the ceremony.
It was an unpleasant experience. Bothersome enough that my cousin, the bride-to-be, apologised after the rehearsal. "It wasn't nice," she said gently. "I didn't like how he did that. Don't worry about what was said."
I wanted to high-five and hug her simultaneously. Like my cousin, most of my family are religious. Not all are Catholic, but most count themselves as members of the Christian faith. I am the odd-ball because I do not share that same faith. Occasions like weddings are when the variations between my views, and that of my family, come out.
It took me a long time to feel non-defensive about that, because church, prayer and even Communion are part of who my family are. We have all grown up attending church, though not always diligently, and grace before family meals is the norm. I also enjoy many things about religious practice.
I like the singing and I thoroughly believe in activities that support community projects and individuals and families who need help.
However, there are also parts that do not sit well with me. The overarching notion of heaven (and hell) has always made me wince. Related to that are the predetermined beliefs and values religious members have rolled out before them. Unrealistic expectations around tithing, which make it financially unsustainable for some families to remain in certain congregations, is another dislike of mine.
Many may say that stems from a superficial understanding of religion, and perhaps they are right. Admittedly, I used to wonder whether I had missed the moment at Sunday school that secured everyone else's faith in Christianity. My primary and secondary education also took place at Christian schools. If most of those around you believe in something, it will only be a matter of time before you are able to join the party. Right?
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Author and artist Maualaivao Albert Wendt provides an interesting explanation of his own journey with religion and faith. In an interview with E-tangata, Wendt clarified he was not an atheist. While not a member of the Christian faith, he equated the conviction he had in his beliefs as being religious in his own way.
"I come from a very fundamentalist Christian family, like most Samoan families," Wendt said. "My father was a deacon in the church, and a lot of my cousins were pastors and missionaries. And I grew up with the Bible and the church.
"But I dropped out of it in my teens. I didn't drop out in a rebellious way. It's just that I began to do my own search. And my search has been a search for my writing, and art, which I believe in. So I feel comfortable in it. But I've never tried to thrust my beliefs on others."
I have had a bit of time to grapple with what being different from the rest of my family really means. Similar to Wendt, I have my own beliefs and ways of making sense of the world. I am also sure if I shared the same religious beliefs as most of my loved ones, moments like weddings and Communion mass would be less awkward. However, those moments are also when I get to glimpse the benefits and virtues I never found in my own efforts to understand the Christian faith.
My cousin apologised for the priest's instructions because she knew I felt singled out for my beliefs, or lack of belief in that instant. The negativity of his directions did not reconcile with her own beliefs and what she wanted for those sharing in her special day. The role of her faith in that, and who she is as a person, is fundamental. And when it came to the real thing, like other non-believers, I stayed put as the bridal party and various guests filed up to the front of the church.
My cousin's older brother, a fa'afafine and treasured family member, grinned from one of the pews. We watched his sister receive Communion before marrying her sweetheart. It was another high-five and hug moment.