Therese Lautua: pondering god

Opinion: Exploring Pacific women's faith and mental well-being reveals the profound impact of their relationship with God.

Dr Therese Lautua
Dr Therese Lautua is a research fellow in Theological and Religious Studies. Photo: William Chea

In a secular society, it’s not often that academics get a chance to talk about the impact of religion or deities, but my research explores how Pacific women’s relationship with God can affect their mental well-being.

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 well-being, alongside relationships with the physical environment, family and culture. In New Zealand around 68 percent of Pacific peoples identified as Christian in the most recent Census data.

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 the mental well-being of Pacific peoples.

For my doctoral thesis in theology, completed in 2021, 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 well-being.

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, women who had been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness, women who were angry at the church, yet also those who were wholeheartedly 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 well-being.

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, greater 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.

The power each of these women had in weaving together the aspects of their identity, holding themselves with grace while serving their families and communities, is a privilege I was able to witness.

What struck me is how much Pacific women carry – emotionally, socially and psychologically.

Dr Therese Lautua, Theological and Religious Studies

The women had a range of images of God, which had changed over time. A positive image of God, for example, a loving and compassionate one, is one that is more likely to be beneficial for an individual’s mental well-being. God either compensates for the lack of relationship with parents or authority figures, or consolidates it and reflects positive relationships with parents or authority figures.

In other words, for a Pacific person, if the parental relationship with a child is not open and loving, this may also be reflected in how that child perceives God – and therefore negatively affects their mental well-being.

God was commonly described and perceived as ‘Father’, ‘Love’, ‘Creator’, through nature-based metaphors, and as ubiquitous. ‘Feminism’ in the Pacific is not the same as Western feminism, and women spoke more often about understanding the hierarchies within their own cultures so were generally happy about calling God by a male pronoun, though those raised by single mothers refused to call God ‘Father’.

Fifty-seven of the 64 women said their image of God helped them maintain a positive state of mental well-being. Though sometimes during negative life events, such as having an argument with a friend, women did not pray to God, God remained a constant anchor especially when they faced more significant mental distress such as the death of a family member, or stress from balancing everything in their lives.

For many of the women, God was the love that binds all the relationships within their families, which were so important in each of their lives, and propelled them forward to serve them and their communities with vigour. They’re not alone in that. I, myself, feel responsible for contributing to developing resources for my own faith community, that is, Catholic parishes and schools.

My doctorate came out of seeing too many young Pacific women struggling with mental health, without knowing what their faith communities believed and taught about the issue. What I hope can ultimately happen is that there will be more denomination-specific mental well-being resources that youth can access, connected to culturally specific Pacific professional services.

While I am moving overseas in June for one to two years at Harvard, this issue isn’t, and won’t be, far from my mind. From my postdoctoral research I have ideas to create pilot workshops on mental well-being, faith and cultural identity. It’s important in a secular society like New Zealand to allow all women to feel comfortable talking about their religious beliefs. It’s for everyone’s good.

Dr Therese Lautua is a research fellow in Theological and Religious Studies. She heads to Harvard in June for a teaching position as a College Fellow in Indigenous Religion at Harvard University.

This article is adapted from a piece that first ran on Newsroom.

The views are personal opinion and not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.