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Life of faith

Gisborne Anglican Church leader Stephen Donald has stepped back from his role. He talks to Debbie Gregory about his life and his plans . . .

After close to 40 years of lay and ordained ministry, regional dean in Eastland and priest-in-charge of Gisborne Anglican Parish Stephen Donald has resigned his position because of ill-health.

Most of his four decades, apart from training at St John’s College and time spent at Sia-’a-toutai Theological College in Tonga, has been within the Waiapu Diocese, since 1994 in various roles in the Eastland region, much of this based in Gisborne.

Rev. Donald has had to adjust his plans for the future after a warning stroke at the end of July last year when he was found to have a reduced cerebellum.

“This made sense of the increasing difficulties with balance and walking, slurring of speech when tired, stressed or cold, and increasing difficulty producing legible handwriting over the past three to five years.”

Later in the year he was diagnosed as having Multiple Systems Atrophy - Cerebellum Type (MSA-C), a rare (5/100,000), incurable and degenerative neurological condition.

Since then, with his partner Raymond Pereira, they have been coming to terms with what this means.

Stephen was born and brought up in Hawke’s Bay but both his parents were from Tolaga Bay with a strong sense of identity on the East Coast. He was also a “cradle” Anglican with both his parents heavily involved in the local parish.

“A friend of my mother’s once said to her that she thought ‘that boy would enter the Church one day’.”

The friend’s father had been an Anglican clergyman, and had the first name “Faith.”

Stephen attended boarding school in Nelson where he joined the Nelson Cathedral Choir. He says he had a teenage rejection of organised religion.

“I misspent my youth in the hippie movement in Nelson and Golden Bay where I was exposed to Baha’i and Buddhist religions, albeit in their Western forms . . . looking back, I think if I’d known then what I know now, I could have misspent it much better,” says Rev. Donald.

When he left school in the 1970s, he went to Lincoln College completing a Diploma of Agriculture which he says was a disappointment to teachers at school and his parents who considered he had the ability to do a degree.

In 1977 he took up an opportunity to develop a nursery business on a small portion of family land in Tolaga Bay which he ran for a number of years. He ultimately sold the land and business in 1984.

In 1978, Stephen had the chance to visit the family of a friend from Lincoln in Fiji.

“Here I was exposed to Christianity in a different cultural context and alongside two other great world religions — Hinduism and Islam”, he said.

“Ironically my adult commitment to Christianity came staying in a Muslim household in Fiji.”

Returning to Tolaga Bay, he became involved in the Anglican parish. The late Rev Apirana Keelan, priest in charge, and “Mum Ruth” Maurirere both had a strong influence on him.

“I suppose she was the grandmother I never had.”

Rev. Donald was licensed as a lay reader and often led Sunday services at St Andrew’s Tolaga Bay and two Anglican churches in Tokomaru Bay. He also conducted funerals on various marae of Te Aitanga a Hauiti.

“This was an interesting time with the growth of the Charismatic movement in the Anglican and other mainline denominations.”

Long-term gifts of the Charismatic movementHe sees the importance of the Holy Spirit, and freeing up music in the churches as the biggest long-term gifts of the Charismatic movement.

In 1985, Rev. Donald started training at St John’s College Auckland and, from 1988, Sia-‘a-toutai Methodist Theological College, Tonga.

It was also around this time he had awakening knowledge of his own sexual orientation although he did not “come out“ to the wider church until 2010.

He returned to New Zealand in April 1989 and was ordained deacon in Havelock North on the Sunday he began as curate (intern assistant).

“It was a culture and climatic shock moving from Tonga to Havelock North going into the winter.”

In February 1990, Rev. Donald was ordained a priest at the Anglican Cathedral in Napier and in November that year installed as vicar of Porangahau.

He returned to Gisborne in January 1994 and became the vicar of Te Hapara (then a separate parish with a base in Childers Road, now part of Gisborne Parish).

During his time there he was involved in Te Hapara Whanau Aroha Centre, which used early childhood education as a tool of social transformation.

He was also workplace chaplain to several businesses, government departments and charitable agencies as outreach to the community, and it was a chance to develop his interest in liturgy and music.

In April 2004, he returned to Tolaga Bay to look after his elderly parents — his dad had just turned 90 and mum 83. While helping his parents he was non-stipendiary (self-supporting) assistant priest to newly-formed East Coast parish, and in 2008 was appointed as missioner to the parish.

In 2013 Rev. Donald was appointed regional dean for Eastland with oversight of five parishes from Wairoa to East Cape and since October 2015 until last month, was also priest in charge of Gisborne Parish based at Holy Trinity.

He has many highlights, with his regular involvement with iwi Te Aitanga a Hauiti at the top of the list.

Although he had no Maori whakapapa, the generational family involvement with the iwi meant acceptance.

Rev. Donald particularly highlights the 2007 discovery of a forgotten cemetery from the 1840s in the grounds of Tolaga Bay Area School and the 2012 Transit of Venus commemorations.

The establishment of an Early Childhood Education unit in the old Waikura Valley School at the top of the Coast was another highlight.

Outstanding for Rev. Donald also was being a member of the board of trustees of iwi health agency Te Aitanga a Hauiti Hauora, iwi with a special focus on men’s health and sexual health education.

“Coming out” to the synod of Waiapu Diocese in 2010 is another pinnacle alongside attending Hui Takatapui — a gathering of gay, lesbian and transgender Maori in the same year.

Another high point was attending a Human Rights Conference as part of the Wellington Outgames and in 2012 he enjoyed three months study leave in the San Francisco area.

“As part of that time, I was sitting in on a course focusing on Transforming Theology and when asked to choose our own preferred personal pronoun, a Hawaiian girl and I both chose the Maori/Polynesian pronoun ia — which lacks gender.”

Rev. Donald decided to resign from his work in the Anglican Church while he is still stable, mobile and independent.

“This condition has made me focus on priorities — it is degenerative and incurable. It is time to make sure I do the things on my list.

“We are in the middle of planning renovations for our house to ‘future-proof’ it, with some widened doorways and an ensuite disabled bathroom, with a level-access deck and a ramp into the garden.

“When I say renovating, I mean supervising — I can’t drive in a nail anymore.”

He has plans to travel and is considering further writing, given his vast collection of historical notes on the Tolaga Bay area taken down over the years.

Rev. Donald has seen much change during his time in the church.

Back in his early days the Anglican Church was very much seen as “the National party at prayer”.

“That is not the case now. During the 1980s and 90s we often led calls for peace and justice in wider society. Now there is an aging of membership and we’re struggling for survival, and seen by many as rather anachronistic and irrelevant,” he said.

“I came in to the church during one of the peaks and I have hope and certainly believe that in the future, the church will remain a place of both refuge and challenge.

“I may not be around to see that, but so be it.”

Rev. Stephen Donald. Picture by Paul Rickard