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Close encounters: From Hawera to Samoa

Lolagi and his wife Sanna at the offcial opening of The Salvation Army in Samoa.
Posted October 2, 2018

A spur of the moment decision and a bucket of KFC were the beginning of Lolagi Phillips’ journey to discover God and The Salvation Army.

Lolagi Phillips grew up in Hawaii as one of 16 children. He is sixth in the pecking order and has a twin brother. Typically, whenever they argued growing up, Lolagi would turn to his twin and say, ‘You should listen to me because I am older than you’. The response was always the same, ‘You’re only five minutes older than me!’

‘It’s pretty cool being five minutes older,’ laughs Lolagi. In 1999, at 18 years old, he moved to New Zealand and eventually settled in New Plymouth. By 2003, he was getting involved in all kinds of organised criminal activity and, as he says, was ‘living for myself’.

Lolagi loved motorcycles and would often go out riding. His oldest bike was a 1953 Indian, and while not the most reliable of his bikes, it was one he loved to ride. ‘I took my bike out on the road. Normally this bike dies on me every time I take it out, but this one day I got all the way to Hāwera.’ It’s about an hour away and, ‘My tummy felt empty after all that riding,’ says Lolagi. There was only one thing for it.

A strange sight

He saw KFC and figured that would be a good place to get something to eat. ‘I turned my bike [into the carpark] and the first thing I notice is this really big guy sitting inside by himself, with two buckets of chicken.’

It was only 10am, so it seemed a little strange to Lolagi. He walked inside with his riding jacket, sat down next to the man and watched him eating from one of the buckets. Trying to  decide if he should or shouldn’t say anything, ‘I thought, “Nah, I’ll ask him”’. So he said: ‘Are you going to eat those two buckets all by yourself?’

The man stopped eating and looked at Lolagi. He said, ‘No, I’m waiting for somebody and I think that someone is you’.

Lolagi was intrigued. ‘He pushed the bucket towards me and continued to eat, not saying much,’ he recalls with a smile.

‘So I sat there, watching him eat the bucket of chicken and thought to myself, “He must be an islander”.’ After the man finished eating, he said to Lolagi, ‘Come with me, I want to show you something.’ Putting his bucket of KFC into the bag on his motorbike—usually used to carry tools with which he might need to fix his bike—Lolagi followed the man, who drove his car about five minutes up the road.

‘He parked his car, hopped out and walked to me and said, “See this building here? This is The Salvation Army”.’ Lolagi had no idea what The Salvation Army was. ‘At the time, all I knew was guns, drugs, making money and hurting people—that’s how I made my living,’ says Lolagi. ‘I didn’t serve anyone, or think what they might need—I never asked, “Can I help you with this? or, Can I pick up this rubbish?”’ Lolagi admits he was also a ‘pretty big alcoholic’.

After the man had shown him The Salvation Army, he pointed to another building and said, ‘See this building? This is where The Salvation Army prays—and one day you’ll be there’. Then the man turned around and walked away. ‘He didn’t tell me his name or anything about himself,’ recalls Lolagi. Somewhat surprised by what had unfolded that morning, Lolagi hopped back on his bike and rode off.

Welcome back!

‘Two years later [2008], I visited this place again—because that man was still in my head. I was thinking, “Who in the world are you, telling me this stuff and what I’m gonna do?”.’

Despite the two-year gap between encounters, the man recognised Lolagi instantly and said, ‘Welcome, you finally came back—I knew you would. My name is Joe Serevi and I am from Fiji.’

‘I said, “I knew it! When I saw you with those buckets of chicken, I knew you were an islander”,’ laughs Lolagi.

That year, Hāwera Corps was focusing its Sunday services on God’s love, recalls Joe—who was then the corps officer in Hāwera. ‘We were preaching about the love of God, understanding that love, and how you can receive it for yourself.’

Joe helped Lolagi understand the Bible, about how Jesus died for the sins of the world and how God can forgive people of all the things they did wrong.

For Lolagi, this was indeed good news: ‘God began to work in my life—I didn’t stop immediately, but God helps you to find a way. He wants you to do your job too, and it was a bit of a battle for me with ups and downs—but God was there the whole way,’ he says. Joe was running a life group during the week for people struggling with addictions. Having come from that lifestyle himself, he knew the importance of support and encouragement.

There were alcoholics and drug addicts, as well as probation workers who were working out their time at The Salvation Army. Joe says, ‘I remember one day Lolagi gave his life [to Jesus], and then the next day he came and asked if he could join and be part of the small group. When he came along he fitted right in and I could see that his life started to transform. It was discipleship in action.’

Lolagi recalls Joe asked him what his biggest fear was: ‘Death—I didn’t want to die. I remember Joe told me that death was a holy thing and I looked at him like, “Really? You’re pulling my toes”. He told me the story about people in Africa and that their biggest fear is running out of water, that’s why they drink dirty water.’

Lolagi was also struck by his observation of the ways The Salvation Army served others, instead of serving themselves. ‘The thing that touched me the most was how Joe went and
helped a lot of people that he didn’t even know.’

It was the opposite for Lolagi, who says he never really thought about helping others, especially if there was nothing in it for him. But one day he saw a man who was clearly stoned and unable to get work or help himself in any real way. ‘I decided to help him out and it felt really good. I didn’t want that good
feeling to stop.’

He began travelling from place to place and realised that everywhere he went, there were people who needed help. ‘It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, you’ll still
come across these people.’

A new place to call home

After having moved back to Hawaii in 2013, Lolagi moved again—this time to Samoa in 2017. He recalls a day, earlier this year, when he was having a bit of a down day at work. A palangi couple walked past him in a local clothing store and he noticed their tee-shirts with big Red Shields on them. Lolagi stopped them and said, ‘Wait, you guys are Salvation Army right? They said “Yes” and I was like, I know The Salvation Army!’

That palangi couple were Lieutenant-Colonels Jenny and Rod Carey, who moved to Samoa in February this year to start the Army’s work there. They swapped phone numbers and Rod
later rang Lolagi to touch base. Rod invited him to the first church service six weeks later: ‘He said he would come and that he had a surprise for us,’ recalls Rod.

When Lolagi turned up at the service he had his new wife Sanna with him. They had married a few weeks after meeting the Careys in the shop.

‘I began to build a relationship with them [Rod and Jenny] and I’m so glad The Salvation Army is here,’ says Lolagi, with a big smile on his face.

Lolagi and Sanna have made The Salvation Army their church and are both active in the life of the corps.

‘Lolagi lives up to his testimony by serving the morning tea and cleaning up the church, and Sanna helps serving and sings in the music team,’ says Rod. He shared his testimony at the
church service as part of the opening weekend celebrations in August. ‘Now my heart is about serving everyone, everyone!’ sums up Lolagi. ‘So if you need me to wash your feet, let me know and I will come and wash your feet.’

Get to Know Samoa

In August, The Salvation Army officially launched in Samoa. Here’s some fun facts about the latest country to join our territory.

  • Samoa is an archipelago—which means a string of islands—made up of 10 islands. There are two main ones, and its population is around 250,000.
  • The largest island is Savai‘i, and at its centre is the volcanoMountSilisili.
  • According to legend, Samoa is known as the ‘Cradle of Polynesia’ because Savai‘i Island is said to be Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland.
  • Samoa has its own ancient pyramid. The Pulemelei Mound, or Star Pyramid, is thought to have been constructed between 1100–1400 AD.
  • Apia is the capital and the largest city of Samoa, with a population of 37,708.
  • Samoa is located approximately midway between the islands of Hawaii and New Zealand.
  • Most of the Samoan Islands are very colourful. Mountain slopes dip into fertile valleys. Rich forests and flat lands slope gently toward the sea.
  • Samoa gained its independence from New Zealand in 1962, becoming the fi rst Pacific Island to gain independence.
  • In Samoa, young men are traditionally in charge of the food—including the gathering and the cooking.
  • Samoans are known throughout Polynesia as the ‘happy people’ because of their enjoyment of life and their good-natured personalities.
  • There are 16 types of coconut trees in Samoa, and 20 different kinds of breadfruit trees.
  • The only native mammal is the flying fox.

By Shar Davis (c) (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 22 September 2018, p6-9 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.