When I was a youth leader, and sabbath school teacher at a Samoan church we attended together, he was one of the few parents which totally trusted in my leadership. His confidence in me did a lot to confirm my ability and how far I could stretch my leadership to his children. Our relationship only got better after that.
In recent years he became a mentor to me. Other than my father, he was my go-to man to receive advice, and knowledge on my Samoan identity. He was conveniently two minutes away too, and it was always a pleasure to enter into these transactions with him.
The reason why I enjoyed learning from him, was because of his knowledge, experience but especially his candid and naked explanations of our cultural history. If you knew me personally, you would know I like to keep things real, and don't like to dilly dally with unnecessary jibber jabber, that is why I liked Vao's approach to teaching me.
He gave me the background knowledge and experiences of how things were in Samoa. The parts that aren't written in tourist brochures, and exposed to the world as the heart of the pacific. As much as I agreed with these statements, looking at how we are today with relationships I just knew there was something behind the smiling faces. I would tell him what I was learning through books from "Western" anthropologists, ethnologists etc. And He would verify some of the accounts, or tell me that this was just plain rubbish, or he wasn't sure and I should ask others too.
I remember one conversation in particular where he verified a mysterious statement in a book I read, which mentioned the offensive way of determining a girl's virginity. He verified it, and it led onto our discussion about Samoan youth and sex. Although the topic of sex is taboo for the Samoan youth to discuss with their parents, they were obviously indulging in it. This is evident in the prevalence of secret relationships, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The conversation gradually got him asking me (translated from Samoan to English)
"So what do you think we're doing wrong?"
My answer, "I think Father's should teach their son's about relationships and sex, teach them the pro's, cons, consequences and Mother's should explain similar to their daughters etc"
His response "That's ridiculous, how can I show my Son? These activities are not for a child's eyes"
This resulted in a long to and fro perspective-exchange about what I meant, and what he thought I meant, as I elaborated on biblical counsel, my personal experience and other books I had read.
The concluding remark will forever be the most amusing and memorable thing he said to me...."Ahhhhh that's what I should have done with Joe" His third eldest child, and second eldest son. We both laughed (Sorry Joe)
I felt awkward at the time as, we were discussing a taboo topic (especially from a senior to a less senior) and also, I was teaching him something. But that's the thing about Vao, he's willing to listen and learn too! A lot of older Samoan men would find it insulting that I would want to impart knowledge or experience to them. But not Vao, that's why he became my mentor and friend and I was willing to learn from him.
Beyond this, I learned from observation and stories through his Sons, that he was a devoted Husband to his wife Naula and a dedicated Father to his children. He was always supporting our Youth group events and projects, and he was respected by his wider family, and villages in Samoa as a Matai (Chief)
Most importantly he is the son of our Heavenly Father, and for now, Vao will sleep, and will be awoken on the day of our "blessed hope". His presence will be greatly missed, but the repercussions of his life testimony will live forever.