Boarding my flight back to Auckland from Sydney in March, I had only two things on my mind: Bruce Springsteen and Brother Murrihy.

Seeing Springsteen in concert two nights before was a big deal for me. I had seen him in Auckland ten years before—to the month—and had waited an impatient decade for him to complete his promised return. Well, he didn’t return to New Zealand, but I didn’t hold that against him for long and I made the trip over the Tasman. It was a terrific night for this acolyte—singing the Boss’ lyrics, calling out “Bruuuuuce” after all the classics, initiating my friend Chris, a Beatlemaniac, into the world of E Street. Totally worth it—although I still have to sell a few more books to pay it off.

Brother Murrihy was on my mind too—in fact, there were lots of reasons for me to save money by not attending the concert, but the number two worry in my mind was that I had jeopardised or at least delayed a book launch. Independently publishing a book hasn’t cost me a lot, but there is an initial investment that doesn’t materialise easily from a teacher’s salary.

Like Conrad in the novel, I don’t strike up conversations easily with strangers on trains and planes, so I was content to close my eyes and ride out the trip home peaceably. However, this plan was interrupted, politely enough, by a young man who, after stowing his luggage away above me, crossed behind my seat at the centre-rear of the plane only to reappear on my left side.

Realising the vibe I may have sent out to cause him to do this, I apologised to him, acknowledging that I should have moved to let him in from my side of the aisle. He said it was no problem and, without anything more I could do to prevent it, conversation was initiated.

The next three hours proved to be one of the most amazing serendipitous encounters of my life.

Shannon Said is Youth Leader at Calvary Life Outreach Church in Minto, South West Sydney. That in itself would have intrigued me enough to carry on talking with him on the plane, as I have enough background in Christian circles to recognise a sincere man of God and am curious to see what is happening in churches in other communities, let alone countries. For the past few years, my engagement with church groups has been limited after a decade of more intense involvement, so I admit that, while I was intrigued, I was also guarded, aware of some Christians’ agendas in encounters such as these and also aware of my own backsliding of late.

But Shannon caught my attention immediately, not as a youth pastor, but as a fellow student. You see, Shannon was traveling to New Zealand as part of his doctoral studies in Music. He told me that his focus was on Maori Christian theology as expressed through worship in the form of music.

This is what stunned me. Having just completed Brother Murrihy, I was amazed to meet someone with similar interests by seeming chance. Here was a man living in Sydney, Australia who was worshipping with a generous population of Maori congregants. Not only that, but Shannon was also of immigrant descent – his family are from Malta.

We spoke of te reo—the language—and of hymene, old and new; and we spoke of tangata whenua, and spiritual gatekeepers, and of covenants between man and man, man and God, man and place. We spoke of poropito—prophets—and I asked him if he knew Cindy Ruakere and he said he was meeting with her in a few days’ time as part of his research. We talked of family and culture. He gave me some CDs that served as his Honours’ project.

As we spoke, I reflected on where I was at with church and the things of God. I won’t share all the details in a blog, save to say that I came away from the conversation knowing that the work I was doing with Brother Murrihy had “been church” for me in the previous months—not just a separate and selfish endeavour (it has been that too), but a work representing a culmination of my experiences—spiritual, religious, cultural, familial and personal—over the past seventeen years.

I went to Sydney looking for another Springsteen experience, to follow the voice of a writer and artist I admire deeply. But it was essentially a selfish journey, the pursuit of a fan, the pilgrimage of a consumer adamant about chanting the words of his idol. In his song, Death to My Hometown, the Boss commands, “Now get yourself a song to sing, And sing it ’til you’re done.” My meeting with Shannon clarified for me that, in Brother Murrihy I have sung my song—not for sales or in imitation of others, but as a human being and follower of God with his own voice, his own story to tell.

Thank you Bruce Springsteen and thank you Brother Shannon. I wish you all the best on your journey.

Ka kite anō au i a koe.

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Shannon Said’s CD Whakanuia on iTunes. Redeeming Brother Murrihy on Amazon

Bruce Springsteen is still terrific at brucespringsteen.net

Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s)

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