Brusquely, her son asked, "What is your agenda?"
Rangi Parker answered softly, "I don't have an agenda. The Spirit directs me."
Her son, the driver, rolled his eyes and started the car.
Sister Parker of New Zealand was in Los Angeles with her son Phillip, on yet another long Pacific trip, all part of her 20-year vision to collect photos and journals from early New Zealand missionaries.
"I think we need to go to the temple," she said to her son. "I have a feeling we should stay another day and go to the temple."
The car moved forward and arrived shortly at the destination. They weren't at the temple for more than five minutes when a woman approached Sister Parker.
"Are you Rangi Parker from New Zealand?" the woman asked. She explained that she had seen Sister Parker's photo in the Ensign. This woman remembered it because her husband's grand-uncle, a John Edward Taylor, had been a missionary to the Maoris in 1896. In 1974, shortly before he died, he made a tape in fluent Maori and in English of his experiences. He also left a journal and photos in this woman's possession. She had the material now and wanted to hand it over to Sister Parker.
This is but one of hundreds of experiences of this avid amateur historian who has collected more than 33,000 photos and accompanying journals of early LDS missionaries in her homeland. These photos not only document missionary work, but also preserve the history of an indigenous people during a critical — and otherwise wholly unrecorded — period.
During that time of the Anglicization of this part of Polynesia, American Mormon missionaries were the only ones who took cameras into the bush and lived with the Maoris. They ate with the Maoris. They spoke with the Maoris. They worshiped with the Maoris. They taught them to read. They blessed their sick children. They built meetinghouses. They grew to love each other in an unusually strong brotherhood that carried on for a lifetime. And they took photographs and kept journals. Among their reminiscences are the miracles associated with early missionaries, including Elder Matthew Cowley.
Today, the photos and journals fill a lost niche of Maori history, prized by descendants and a now culture-conscious nation. It isn't unusual, said Sister Parker, for someone to see the likeness of a forebear for the first time in the old missionary photos, as she has. Sister Parker recently acquired the collection of Elder Rufus K. Hardy, another early New Zealand missionary and later a member of the First Council of the Seventy. In his journals is commentary that goes along with the photos. Rare motion pictures of Elder Matthew Cowley, and histories of the Church schools are also in her collection. She has been assisted in her work by returned missionaries, including Elders Glen L. Rudd, Douglas J. Martin, and Rulon G. Craven, the late Robert L. Simpson, New Zealanders David and Jennie Atkinson, now living in Bountiful, Utah, and Steven Kenyon. She is grateful for all who have contributed photos.
One of Sister Parker's goals is to provide photos, including early home motion picture films, for a Maori documentary to be shown worldwide on public broadcasting channels. A three-part book on missionary work, Church schools and the Maoris is being prepared by a group of young BYU historians. One of those involved is Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, a history professor at BYU who has specialized in historical photo collections. He said the New Zealand Educational Foundation is also interested in the photo collection "because it preserves Maori culture."
"One of the struggles historians have is matching the photo record with the written record," he said. "Her collection brings the narrative to match with the photo itself. The sheer numbers of material, letter reminiscences, and documents and photos have allowed her to connect the dots in ways, that unless someone is going to give their lives as she has, could never be done."
He explained that she has photos behind the main historical event — a conference, for example — such as the cooks and the people who put up the tents. "I have never seen that before," he said. "It is an amazingly comprehensive view of what is going on."
She has a remarkable array of material, not just what white, North American missionaries see, but also from the perspectives of the Maori people themselves, he said. "It is nice to get beyond the 1830s and 1840s to an area where there is a lot of work to be done, and there is a rich repository of primary sources."
He praised Sister Parker for preserving material "that could have easily been lost due to neglect, or fire or flood, and donated it to institutions for long-term preservation. My guess is that she has saved 40 percent of the material that is out there that could have eventually been lost.
"I have been doing Mormon history since 1985 and I have never seen anything like it."
A Maori herself, Sister Parker listened as the old tape of Elder John Edwards Taylor of 1896 opened history — shining a spotlight on life a century ago. Elder Taylor spoke of a time upon the ferned face of New Zealand's Northland, when the Maori culture was still dominant. It was a time of tattooed Maori men, whose haka war chant was more precursor than show. Living in villages isolated in the bush, they were led by a chief as they protected their families.
Elder Taylor's narrative began at the end of his three-years' mission among the Maoris. After living far away among the Maoris, he visited his mission president, introduced himself, and notified the president that he, Elder Taylor, was about to return home. But the mission president, Ephraim Magelby, slipped away for a short time. When he returned, he told Elder Taylor that he spoke Maori too well to be released just then.
So President Magelby took Elder Taylor with him on a trip by horseback. As the two rode through the thick, emerald pinnate-leafed brush, President Magelby explained that they were going to meet two Maori chiefs, men regarded as prophets. The two lived in Parihaka, a tension-filled village where soldiers were trying to move villagers to a new area. White men were not allowed in the village. Two white men had recently been killed in this area.
"We need to take the gospel to these people," President Magelby told Elder Taylor.
As their horses clip-clopped through the foliage into the village, Elder Taylor and President Magelby were taken to the more European house of the Maori leader-prophets, Te Whititi and Tohu, standing on higher ground. They were very angry that white men had come into their village. They demanded to know why they had come. Elder Taylor gave his answer in Maori. When spoken well, Maori is a chanting, poetic language, indirect and respectful. The chief softened. "I have never heard a white man speak our language so beautifully," he said. "You may come in."
They were well-treated and allowed to preach the gospel. Elder Taylor served an additional year and eight months before returning home. Years, later, his children said, that as he grew old, they had to remind him that he was speaking Maori instead of English.
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