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Benson Mauga could be the poster boy for Pacific Island chiefs. A big man with black wavy hair, a regal face, and confident stature, he commands respect. He looks like the great-grandson of a Samoan paramount chief that he is.

Born in Honolulu, where many Samoans live, Mauga was six when his family moved 2300 miles south to the island of Tutuila in American Samoa. An unincorporated territory of the United States, American Samoa comprises seven islands in the Pacific Ocean about 1600 miles northeast of New Zealand. The islands are remote and opportunities limited. Most people work in the tuna canneries or for the government. Mauga dreamed of attending college and becoming a physical education teacher. He decided to immigrate to the United States, and once here, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served for 22 years.

When Mauga arrived in San Diego in 1979, he found a Samoan community. He met his wife, Mouna, at the First Samoan Assembly of God church. These days, Benson works in aviation security at Lindbergh Field. Mouna does data entry for a government contractor. They live in Lemon Grove and have six sons. The parents put in their 40 hours at work each week, attend the kids' football games, grab a Saturday breakfast at Denny's, shop at the mall. It's a San Diego lifestyle. But Mauga is a man of island tradition, of fa'a Samoa — the Samoan way of life.

God Is First

"In Samoa, they put God first," says Mauga.

"The main thing about Samoans is that they worship," says the Reverend Fagatua V. Tili, the pastor of the First Pentecostal Church in Oceanside. Tili was born on the American Samoan island of Ofu, in the Manu'a group. He came to San Diego in 1972. "The church is like a family coming together," he says.

The London Missionary Society began converting Samoans to Christianity in 1830, and other missionary groups followed. Later in the 19th Century, the islands were divided along the 171st meridian into German and American colonies. Today the German colony, the western islands, is the independent nation of Samoa. Citizens of the eastern islands, the Territory of American Samoa, are nationals of the United States (with the same rights, except for the vote, as American citizens). Half of American Samoans belong to Congregational churches; the other half are Pentecostal, Methodist, Mormon, and Catholic. The territory's motto: In Samoa, God Is First.

"Here in North County," Tevesi Fa'apouli Jr. says, "there are 12 Samoan churches." Fa'apouli was born on Tutuila, where 95 percent of the territory's population live. "The young generation normally attends the Samoan version of church in the morning. Later in the day they go to Calvary Chapel or one of the other newer versions."

Samoan relationships in the family and community are determined by a social hierarchy that does not exist in the United States. The church can help to bridge the cultural gap. "Over here they use the church in place of the village," says Salani Faiivae, who works in the San Diego City Attorney's Office and lives in National City. "In Samoa, each village would have a paramount chief as a leader. Here the local pastor often fulfills the role of paramount chief."

"The pastor is kind of like the mayor of the village," Fa'apouli explains. "He's like the elder, so when he speaks everybody listens."

If the Reverend Fagatua Tili is considered the paramount chief of his community, then Fa'apouli might be considered a high talking chief. "There's a chief," explains Tili, "then a high talking chief. Not everybody can speak. I'm a chief and he's my spokesperson. He's the talking chief." Although not a member of Tili's church, Fa'apouli is a good communicator, active in the Samoan community in North County and connected with many people.

Traditionally, "A talking chief usually deals with family issues," Benson Mauga explains. Mauga's great-grandfather, Paramount High Chief Mauga Gagamoe Palepoi, helped negotiate the deed of cession that established American Samoa as a territory in 1900. High talking chiefs, Mauga says, "help with family counseling during times of trouble. They offer condolence. They gather the family together for fund-raising for family events."

The church also helps preserve language and customs. "Our services are in our language. And the songs too," Tammy Salanoa says. "They try to teach the language in the Sunday school classes." Salanoa, whose father was a Marine, grew up in Oceanside. Today she manages a store there, Le Manai Food Products, which sells Pacific Island food.

"A thing that's really good about the Samoan churches is that they use the Samoan language," Fa'apouli says. "The more you attend, whether you were born here or not, it gives you a command of the language. It's how we communicate with the elders and other family members who are of the higher generation."

But not all Samoan churches emphasize island culture and village hierarchy. "For many churches, the view that they hold is the importance of the language and to maintain that," says the Reverend Faafouina Solomona of the First Samoan Congregational Church of San Diego, whose pastoral roll includes 300 Samoans. "I think it's important, but I see my primary task, or the church's primary task, is to proclaim the gospel. The language and the culture, I believe, are secondary.

"The church has often been portrayed as a village setting, and the minister could be seen as a chief. Our understanding is that everybody has a responsibility. In our church we have a structured leadership. We have elders and deacons. The pastor is the pastor of the church, but I don't see my role as being the big chief of things. Rather, it's someone who is able to support or to enable or to give direction.

"The church here is the first Samoan church in the continental United States," Solomona continues. "It was established in 1955. When it was first established, it was a small group of Samoan people. A lot of the Samoans were serving in the military -- in the Marines or in the Navy. This was the home-base church for many of them. Through the years, the church has undergone some changes from being a predominantly Samoan congregation. There is a mix now of Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-Americans, and also other Pacific Islanders who attend from time to time. Services are now not solely in the Samoan language. They are actually bilingual. We have sermons in Samoan and in English every Sunday."

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