‘A journey of love’: How 1 Latter-day Saint couple in New Zealand changed a Maori community

It’s been well over a decade since Evelyn and Des Ratima decided to move to Whakatu — a small suburb of Hastings, New Zealand — with the intent of helping the community.

For Des Ratima — a native of the area of Maori descent — Whakatu was home. But home hadn’t been the same ever since the 1980s when a major industry in Whakatu shut its doors and employment plummeted, leaving devastating poverty in its wake. And with drug use, divorce and suicide rates climbing, the “bubbly, noisy, active community” Des Ratima remembered became silent.

He and his wife were on a mission to change that.

So, after Des Ratima had completed his service in the New Zealand Army as an electrical instructor for 25 years, he and his wife packed up and moved to Whakatu with one purpose — to do good.

And now, years later, both husband and wife have been recognized by the New Zealand government for their service to the community. In 2018, Des Ratima received the New Zealand Order of Merit. And most recently, Evelyn Ratima received the Queen’s Service Medal, which she will be awarded in Wellington, New Zealand, on Sept. 19.

It’s not the awards, though, which matter most to the Ratimas. It’s how they’ve seen the predominantly Maori community grow throughout the years.

Credit: Joseph Tolman

“The village of Whakatu (now) has a reputation for resilience and a determination to have its voice heard and achieve results that prove … this community can restore itself to full health,” said Des Ratima.

From reducing crime to cleaning up waterways to being a part of regional councils and health boards, it seems there’s hardly a part of the community that hasn’t felt the Ratimas’ influence. But while the couple is now an integrated part of the community, the road to serving others hasn’t always been an easy one. Evelyn Ratima, who runs the local Kohanga Reo, or Early Childhood Centre, teaches Maori to the children there — but gaining the trust of the people has been a slow process.

“This took a total of five years — a trial in itself, a journey of faith for both my husband and myself,” she said. “Through working with children at our Kohanga I was able to really get close to our families and gain their confidence and trust, which was required to assist my husband in his work with the building up of the community.”

To establish more trust in their community, Evelyn Ratima said they started an annual event free to the public called “Christmas in the Park.” The festivities include entertainment, prizes, Christmas carols, and treats such as candy floss (cotton candy) and sausage sizzles — a community barbeque common in Australia and New Zealand. The Christmas celebration has long been a favorite in Whakatu for years.

Additionally, the Ratimas visit prison inmates and often sing with them, an uplifting experience for both the couple and for those they are serving.

Good leadership, patience, good communication and trust coupled with a bit of faith and a whole lot of love is the recipe for a community to flourish.

“The inmates … need to be uplifted spiritually,” said Evelyn Ratima. “I pray that is what we give them when we visit because they need hope and they need to know that someone cares for them as well.”

Serving in their community has also been an opportunity for the Ratimas to represent their faith as members of the Church.

“(Our) faith guides how we engage with our community,” said Des Ratima. “Providing leadership in a diverse community is strengthened by the knowledge that we are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This conveys confidence and assurance to everyone. Our faith guarantees honesty, truthfulness and humility. These are religious and cultural values and qualities our community expects from us as members of the Church.”

Seeing the strides the Whakatu community has made over time, Evelyn Ratima added, has made the years of service worth it.

“Our community of Whakatu has taken charge and has found its voice,” she said. “We had achieved what we set out to do … giving our children great memories of growing up in a thriving, safe community where everyone knows everyone, where families support each other … and the river and streams are healthy and full of fish and people enjoy the walkways and it is a great place to grow up.

“This journey is a journey of love, giving hope to a dying community then watch as it grows. Good leadership, patience, good communication and trust coupled with a bit of faith and a whole lot of love is the recipe for a community to flourish.”