Brian Tamaki offered me a husband and a beer, and a perch on a pew. He thought I’d enjoy one of his church services. Two of these offers were a joke.
I offered him a cigarette. This was also a joke because he gave those up, with the beer and the swearing – “my tongue changed” – when he was 21 and God knocked him off his feet.
The story of his conversion is much longer than this, but that summing up is accurate, although he might not agree.
The pastor doesn’t agree with anything much the media write about him, and he spent a great deal of time telling me how the media twist things.
“If you print it how I say it, it’ll be fine,” he says of the story of how God came to him.
I could, but it would take up an awful lot of space. He is an energetic and entertaining story-teller – that’s his job. He is also a teller of long stories and all his stories lead back to God. Oh, and how the media twists things.
This is tedious, not to mention, well, twisted. He says, for example, that the media banged on about how angry people were at the Enough is Enough march in Wellington this week, and that, actually, nobody was angry. So why hadn’t the media spoken to the police about how “it was the most well-mannered and most ordered march they’ve ever had”.
I think there might well have been quite a few angry people at that march; that it is possible to be angry and well-behaved. And that perhaps the anger was coming from those marching against the Tamaki message.
“I wasn’t angry. I didn’t see any anger.”
He says that when he went on the telly this week, his wife, Hannah, “Told me to be nice that day. She said ‘be composed and nice’.”
He is being so today: “Always.”
Why wouldn’t he be? He is always right because he can’t be wrong because God tells him what to do. Take his opposition to the Civil Union bill. “It was a God initiative and I know people are going to laugh and mock and criticise but let them. It was a God initiative that prompted me. He speaks to me like that, I get that impression.”
You do not, by the way, interview Tamaki on his own. He and Hannah are a team. They have been together for 28 years and married for 25.
They talk about life before Tamaki’s Destiny Church as the “secular” life.
He has just been singing her praises when she comes into the room and settles herself on one of the big brown leather couches.
She says Tamaki “is the boss but sometimes he lets me be the boss”.
She is certainly the boss of the business, the financial brains.
They used to live in what they call sin. One of their three now grown children was born out of wedlock. This is bad, but also good. Because “see, we’ve walked that path. We’ve been there. I’ve had to face the same things, people pointing the finger at me.”
Having walked that path, “I’m catching a whole generation of young ones with the ideal. These people, these kids, do not have to go through the jumps I did.”
I ask him whether he’d have accepted it if any of his children had announced they were gay, thinking that the answer would be that he’d love them no matter what.
But no. It would never come up because “they wouldn’t. It’s an impossibility, they’re all happily married. They’ve got principles”.
Tamaki says smugly about gay relationships, “Well, they don’t last long.”
What rubbish, I say. He says, “They go through partners like water.” He’s talking for effect now, and I tell him he’s in his pulpit again.
He laughs and says, “It’s wrong though, isn’t it, this whole Civil Union Bill, isn’t it, Michele?”
From the couch, Hannah giggles: “He’s just provoking you.”
He has provoked a lot of people, and he knows it. He says he’s not a bigot (who would admit it?) “But they probably say that because there are a certain minority in this country who want to legitimise by law, their sexual perversion. And I still believe that. They can call me a bigot for that, but call me what you like I’m not changing my statements”.
One sure way to provoke the “composed and nice” Tamaki is to ask about money.
He says it is the media who are obsessed with how much money he’s made and what he looks like. He says he was once reduced to retorting “I can’t help it that I look so good”.
As for the money, the media have “treated us like criminals, yet there’s nothing there. They constantly want to say it’s wrong for a pastor … to have a nice house and drive a car and have a boat”.
He says the media always want to talk about his jewellery. They never want to hear about the good works.
In response to criticism of the church’s 10 per cent tithing system, he says, “Hannah and I are giving almost 50 per cent of our income back to the work of the Lord”.
Doesn’t it all end up back in the same place, the Destiny coffers? No it does not, he says. He draws a “set salary”. What’s that then, Brian? “Well, you know that you can’t ask those sorts of questions. I’m not a public servant.”
So, “nice watch”, I say. He is good humoured about this and holds it up for inspection: “It’s a Rado.”
This is a flash watch with diamonds and it was a present from the other pastors for the 10th anniversary of the church.
“Well, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh. No thanks. I’m not going to have that.”‘
Of the interest in his finances: “I think the point is bigger than we’ve really given credit to. God is changing something that I think religion has presented in the past that has not been altogether correct.
“It’s okay for you to do well as a Christian. God wants you to have a positive faith but he also wants you to do well financially.”
All Tamaki wanted to do was “to make it in the pulpit. But God’s been behind this. He’s had another plan”.
Somewhat oddly, at Destiny HQ in Mt Wellington, the plan seems to have been to create an almost entirely secular environment,
Hannah’s office is done out in zebra-striped upholstery. The meeting area is more like somebody’s idea of a gentleman’s club sans bookcases but with decorating magazines, and frame after frame of pictures of Brian and the family. I didn’t see a cross or a picture of Jesus.
Tamaki didn’t want steeples or hard wooden pews or stained glass windows. The pews in his church downstairs (it seats 1400 and they are planning renovations because “it’s full to bursting”) are the cherry red of Hannah’s pointy-toed boots and as soft as a pew can be. This is a church for “a new breed of Christian”. Although Tamaki calls himself a visionary – “should I have said that about myself?” – this is God’s “thinking”.
He claims to not be bothered by some of the things people call him, “no, because I’m happy with me”.
I’m not convinced. All that complaining about the media indicates that he is bothered.
He says: “The media have the power to present something to people. If it’s balanced then at least people can make a decision about it when it comes out.”
That seems fair enough. “So, Brian, are your views balanced?”
He thinks this is very funny. “Oh yeah. Ha, ha, ha. Tell me where it’s unbalanced?”