Meeting John the Baptist in New Zealand

Symbolic moko (tattoos) have long had an honored place in Maori culture. (Bob Sessions photo)

One of the things I love about traveling is how being in a different place can trigger epiphanies that startle and challenge me. On a recent trip to New Zealand, for example, I was surprised to meet John the Baptist, who appeared to me in the form of a tattooed Maori man.

I first saw Gazza on a ferry ride to an island where I would join a tour on the culture of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Even among the hundred or so people who crowded the boat, this man was difficult to miss, for he was literally covered in tattoos. Every visible part of him had been inked with elaborate swirls and colored patterns, including his face and shaved head. He was also muscular and stocky, a man you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

So it was a surprise when we reached the island and I learned that the Tattooed Man was not only part of our group tour with TIME Unlimited–he was one of our guides. And in speaking to him, I found that he was not frightening at all. In fact, he is a gentle and deeply spiritual man.

It turns out that the tattoos I had seen as bizarre and frightening were in fact the result of a religious vision. Gazza said that four years ago he had been visited by an eagle in the night, a bird so huge that it filled his bedroom. The eagle came back to him five nights in a row, until finally Gazza gave in. He knew what he was being called to do, because at 20 years of age he had received an earlier vision, one that had showed him the tattoos that would one day cover his head. “I held out as long as I could,” he said.

Gazza went to a tattoo artist and had his face, lips, and head marked with elaborate designs, which in the Maori language are known as ta moko. In doing so, he was following a long Maori tradition, for tattooing has been a valued part of that culture for many centuries. And because the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body, to wear tattoos on the face is the ultimate statement of one’s Maori identity.

As Gazza told his story, I became more and more fascinated. He explained the symbolism of his markings, describing how one arm told the story of his mother’s lineage and the other that of his father, and how his facial tattoos were patterned after those of Maori warriors of the past and how they symbolized the flow of the spirit from the sky to his mind and out through his mouth. He told me he is employed by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to teach Maori culture in Aukland schools, and how he mentors Maori adolescents in the criminal justice system.

As he spoke, I realized that Gazza is an evangelist for his tradition. And I thought of another evangelist, John the Baptist, who also startled people with his wild and unconventional appearance. Both Gazza and John the Baptist remind us that following the path of the spirit sets us apart from others. We may be judged—and misjudged—as a result of the marks we bear.

Back home in the U.S., I find my thoughts returning surprisingly often to my encounter with Gazza. Like many Episcopalians, I hesitate at proclaiming my faith too openly. We shy Anglicans feel that evangelism is best done discreetly, so as not to run the risk of making anyone uncomfortable.

I want to remember the example of Gazza, this man who proclaims his Maori identity to the world so boldly, unafraid of how people will judge him. And I ask myself this question: how would I react if an eagle showed up in my bedroom one night, asking me to proclaim my Christian faith in this way?

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