In search of the Māori Jesus

Fifty years ago, James K. Baxter headed to Jerusalem . . .

‘I must become a Māori in my heart’

Today E-Tangata has published my reflection on James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem years. They were years of mental, emotional and spiritual turmoil for the poet. “I am lost in God’s mountains. Pray for this poor dead man,” he wrote to the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand, explaining his reasons for wanting to create “a paradise for the poor” on the banks of the Whanganui River.

As I write in the reflection, Baxter believed he was being called to encounter the Māori face of God—a face he hoped to find in the people at Hiruhārama/Jerusalem and in the lives of the young people who joined him. Did he find what he was looking for? It is hard to know, but many of the poems from this short-lived sojourn (less than three years) show the poet moving determinedly towards the tuakana, the spiritual and cultural “older brother” who had been denigrated and mangled by Pākehā society.

A poem Baxter wrote three years before moving to Jerusalem shows the direction his life was taking. Called “The Maori Jesus,” you can find the opening lines written in concrete and lapped by the tides on Wellington’s waterfront (photo above). The setting is appropriate. Baxter grew up within sight of the sea. He wrote: “The sadness of the sea carried me always on its breast like a floating bundle of kelp.”

The words at the water’s edge are these:

I saw the Maori Jesus
Walking on Wellington Harbour.
He wore blue dungarees,
His beard and hair were long.
His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa.
When he smiled it looked like the dawn.