By ALAN PERROTT
South Auckland families are being pushed into bankruptcy by some money-hungry Pacific Island churches, say critics.
Otara lawyer Hellen Riley-Tombs has clients who voluntarily go without food or become bankrupt rather than miss a payment to their family church.
Families have mortgaged their freehold homes or got quick money from loan sharks. She also claimed one client became so desperate he turned to crime to fund donations.
After defending him in court, Ms Riley-Tombs examined his family's finances and found they were more than $80,000 in debt and living on food parcels from the Citizens Advice Bureau.
"I understand the general donation was 25 per cent of your income, so if they have any money in their purse they hand it over. Some ministers can be very forceful in their rhetoric when saying, 'We want and expect this donation from you', and I don't believe these people are empowered enough to understand they have a choice."
Most concern falls on the Pacific Island-based churches, now establishing branches in New Zealand, which use peer pressure to squeeze more money out of followers.
Unlike mainstream churches, these organisations do not have the financial and administrative backing of large organisations such as the Presbyterian, Catholic and Mormon churches to fund large-scale building projects.
Arthur Anae, a Samoan matai (chief) and former National Party MP, says any coercive practices are "abhorrent and disgusting".
He is angry with ministers who name those who provide donations along with the amount, which publicly shames those who give too little or do not give at all.
"That's not right. I don't see it as a very Christian principle."
Mr Anae said huge amounts of money were flowing from Pacific Island families to the churches and their home islands. One Otara church he visited collected $1 million in donations in one day.
Mr Anae said research he did during his time in Parliament showed that $26 million was being sent to Samoa and $15 million to Tonga each year.
He said such generosity put some people into financial hardship, but they were reluctant to seek help.
"They won't raise [the issue], won't talk about it," he said. "They are too proud, but they do it from the heart ... They'll make do and get by because [giving money] is what they wanted to do."
The Pasifika Problem Gambling Helpline has dealt with some who take to gambling in the hope of raising money for their church.
Rangi McLean, from the Manurewa People's Centre, has friends who have mortgaged their homes in order to hand over lump sums of $50,000.
He said they regarded their church as the focal point for daily life, and providing money was natural.
The Rev Maua Sola from the Mangere PIC Church said that while there was concern some churches exploited their flocks, he was worried it was becoming the stereotype for all Pacific Island churches.
"There are some churches where there is pressure and there is set amounts and [the donations are] announced and things like that, but most have systems of freewill giving."
Mr Sola said that when immigrants arrived here, they lost the close village bonds they were brought up with, so the church became their surrogate village where they could speak their own language and be themselves.
He said months of inhouse donations and fundraising had helped his Presbyterian church to buy 2ha, on which it was building three preschools for its community.
"But in some churches five families with houses each get loans, raise $1 million, and you've got a new church. That's ridiculous."
By ALAN PERROTT