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Yours faithfully: Comedian James Nokise's take on religion

Yours Faithfully, TVNZ OnDemand, Sunday. Photo/Supplied

James Nokise brings a lighter touch to a series that looks at faith in New Zealand.

There is a common thread to religion, says James Nokise, and it’s not necessarily an overarching belief in an interventionist god.

“Every religion has food,” says the performer, writer and comedian. “It’s a lot easier to talk philosophy and theology when you’re eating really tasty food.”

Nokise presents eight-part series Yours Faithfully (TVNZ OnDemand, Sunday), in which he explores a range of religions, including Rātana, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and the Latter-day Saints.

The series begins with Islam, although Nokise and series creator Robert Anthony were halfway through filming that episode when the horrific events of March 15 unfolded in Christchurch.

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“That gave another emotional beat. We’d been in the community, we’d met people, talked with people, we’d been at a wedding with a family just the weekend before.”

However, it was decided that, apart from a supportive message at the beginning, “we didn’t want to make the Islamic episode massively different. We didn’t want it to be about the trauma, we wanted it to be about people.”

Nokise, who spends his time between the UK, Australia and New Zealand, grew up in the congregation of Wellington’s Pacific Islanders Presbyterian Church, which made him the perfect host for the series.

“Many people know that in the Pacific community, the church is a gathering place for the entire community. We get that across in the series: a lot of people get into religion because they’re seeking some spiritual uplifting, but quite a few people are in religion because it’s part of the community. The spiritual and the cultural are interwoven.”

Nokise says Anthony also wanted him as host because comedians can “make heavy things light”. In May, Nokise won the NZ International Comedy Festival Fred Award for a show addressing serious issues.

“Religion can be quite a heavy topic,” he says, “but if I’m just dressed in the same outfit walking around talking to people, that would be a nice way to show viewers that it’s not intimidating and it’s not as scary as you might think.

“The joy for me was just learning and finding those common links. Everyone has their own way of finding stillness and the place that they go. Everyone’s got their rhythm and those rhythms aren’t that different.

“I’m also happy to say my favourite part of each episode was ending up in the kitchen.”

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.