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A statement from the President’s Conference, Fiji 2019

“For God so loved the cosmos” (John 3:16)

The good news of Christ is for the whole of creation 
and we are one with all creation in Christ. (Col 1: 23)

We, the participants of the 2019 President’s Conference, gathering in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Fiji have drawn together to bear witness and to draw courage from each other – here where climate change is most clearly seen, most clearly felt, by the people least responsible for its progress.

We acknowledge:

Our connection to Moana, Waitui, Wansolwara people, whose lands and hearts are bound by deep, blue Pacific waters.

We are part of the Pacific, a liquid continent where islands are connected and sustained by the ocean currents.

The need to listen again to the voices of our sisters and brothers, our friends, fellow members of the Body of Christ, the most vulnerable and most impacted, who also demonstrate great resilience, determination, hopefulness and commitment to work for change.

This has inspired us and challenged us to hear God’s call to costly discipleship and we lament the effects of the human sin of greed and particularly its effects on this planet, our home.

Together we affirm:

The Uniting Church’s commitment to the wellbeing of the environment arises out of our belief that God is the Creator of the world in which we live and move and have our being.

This ‘groaning creation’ is God’s ‘good’ creation.

Through our discerning of Scripture, we acknowledge the gospel of creation: all things were made in, through and for Christ and are being reconciled in Christ.

The Uniting Church believes that God calls us into a particular relationship with the rest of creation, a relationship of mutuality and interdependence which seeks the reconciliation of all creation with God.

The Basis of Union expresses this hope and situates it at the very heart of the church’s mission:

“God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end.”

Together we recognise:

The ongoing concern of the Uniting Church in Australia since its formation in 1977 for the wellbeing of our planet that has been expressed in numerous statements.

The unique place and wisdom of First Peoples of Australia in relation to the land. The Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church recognises that:

The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

The Churches of the Pacific, with whom we are a part of the Body of Christ, and the Pacific Conference of Churches, to which we belong, are leading the response to climate change. We hear their call and witness to us; and recognise their prophetic, practical and pastoral actions among their people.

Dominant forms of the Christian tradition have been complicit in the abuse of creation, often accompanied by the belief that the world is given to use as we please, and the perspective that “more is better.”

The island nations in the Pacific are being disproportionately harmed by climate change, and are among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels and climate change induced natural disasters.

Climate change induced displacement is already a significant challenge, and grief both to Pacific countries and across the world; disconnecting people from their homes, their culture and their identity.

Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and across the world, and to all of creation including plant and animal life.

The intersectionality of issues – how climate change disproportionately impacts the poorest communities and on women and children, people living with disabilities, people with different gender identities – calls for relational and inclusive justice.

As participants of this conference, we are called to be God’s co-workers, participants in the work of reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation. We believe that we have a moral responsibility to act, and that God is calling us to be bearers of hope.

Because of this, we commit to:

Working with First Peoples in Australia particularly through the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, sisters and brothers in the Pacific and other communities of faith to understand the impacts of climate change on traditional and contemporary ways of life and pay attention to the Indigenous Peoples’ wisdom of living in right relationship with land, sea and sky.

Being compassionate, active listeners to the environment and people living with the reality of climate change.

Being thankful for all we have, recognising we have enough, enjoying the beauty and bounty of God’s creation, resisting the pressures of consumerism and idolatry of material possessions.

Being responsible for our own actions and our impact on the environment, and calling for a renewed repentance, turning away from seeking more, towards a just sharing and harmony of all life.

Being a green Church by finding creative ways to engage our own communities in climate action, raising aspects of the environment in our worship, replacing disposable with sustainable products, reducing energy use and moving to renewable forms of energy.

Boldly raising our voices to advocate to governments to act on climate change and its effects in Australia, in the Pacific and the global community.

This statement was originally published on the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly website.

Read more about UnitingWorld’s work with Pacific partners on climate change and disaster risk reduction.

We were thrilled to receive a handwritten letter from a student who has been part of our Informal settlement school subsidy program in Fiji. Mira* just graduated and wanted to say a big thank you to the Uniting Church for supporting her education.

Many of you gave a ‘Set for School’ gift card last Christmas, supporting students like Mira to get through school on an equal footing with her peers. It’s great to see the joy and impact it can make.

*Name changed. We have reproduced parts of Mira’s letter below to remove references to names and specific locations to protect her privacy.

Full letter:

Suva, Fiji / 7 Feb, 2019
The heads/members. Uniting Church, Australia

I am glad to write this letter of appreciation for the support of the Uniting Church towards my education life.

It was indeed a proud moment for my parents to see their daughter graduate out of high school with having much burden on their shoulders to educate me. Furthermore, this attainment of education also moulded me to contribute towards the works of the church by becoming a Sunday school teacher.

The Uniting Church did not step back from helping us and provided support through means of buying uniforms, bags and shoes for us which was a need of school life.

All in all, I would like to thank the Uniting Church from the bottom of my heart for their endless support in helping the parents nuture their children.

A big bula vinaka vakalevu, dhanyarad and thank you from the children.

Yours faithfully,
– Mira

I travelled with my family as part of an Exposure trip through UnitingWorld to Fiji. One of the most meaningful experiences for me was going by speedboat to the island Ovalau, significantly damaged by Cyclone Winston in February of 2016.

Talking to our guide James Baghwan, we came to understand that the majority of the people on the island barely had the means to provide for their family’s basic needs. They don’t have the capability to move somewhere else, even to the main island, where they would be better equipped during times of cyclones. Even if they did, most are living on the land that their ancestors did, and so have significant cultural and historical ties to the land, which provides them with a sense of identity.

Cyclone Winston was expected to completely miss the island, and so the people were unprepared. You can imagine the chaos, panic, and terror they would have experienced in the mad rush to secure what little they had with heavy materials and find a place where they might be safe. The damage was strong enough to beach a ship, lift up and move water tanks as well as destroy houses and buildings.

James told me people would probably have run up the mountain and lay on one of the ringing roads, holding onto whoever or whatever they could. They would have stayed like this for many hours, desperately hoping and praying that they wouldn’t be blown away or hit by debris, all the while listening to the terrifying sounds of everything they knew being ripped violently apart.

We can only begin to imagine the fear, panic and desperation they would feel and how psychologically damaging this would be. Their whole lives dictated by this fear, trapped in this cycle of working to repair what is lost only to see it destroyed the next time and have to begin again.

This fear would only be intensified by the threat that global warming places on them – of bigger, more powerful, more unpredictable cyclones. Add to this the sheer frustration they must feel watching the powers of the world – who could do something to help them or to help prevent global warming – yet who debate that it exists.

After this conversation, I began to wonder: in the midst of all of this, how do people on that island find true peace and happiness, when they are under such threat and have so little? And the people that we met did seem happy and were welcoming.

And it reminded me of a Bible passage from Matthew 6:19-24: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Thanks to sixteen year old Hannah for allowing us to share her reflection with you.

If you’re keen to find out more about what the Pacific church is doing to protect against cyclones and how they’re working to save lives in disaster, read more about the project or make a donation here.

 

Fiji’s recovery from Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston is a great story of what partnerships can achieve:  partnerships between government, local church and people from all over the world, including Australian Uniting Church members who provided over $500,000 toward recovery efforts.

Six months on, we look back.

When Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji on 20 February, 2016 it was one of the strongest category-five cyclones ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Winds over 300 km per hour flattened villages and cut a path of destruction across the country, taking the lives of 42 people and displacing more than 62,000. At the height of the disaster, there were more than 120,000 Fijians in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and more than 540,000 were affected by its impacts.

At least 28,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, and in the hardest-hit towns, up to 90 per cent of structures were completely destroyed. In just one night the cyclone caused over a billion dollars in damage (approx. half a billion USD).

Fiji was well prepared, with vital disaster management measures in place before the storm. Early warning alerts and disaster mitigation policies saved countless lives. People were able to get to

MCIF volunteers packing relief supplies in Suva

evacuation shelters well in advance – most of them in schools, churches and community halls.  In cooperation with church networks, government services communicated effectively to get the word out about where and when people should move.

After a state of emergency was declared, relief began to be distributed and countries around the world pledged their assistance, including Australia. Our partner, the Methodist Church in Fiji (MCIF) immediately organized a fundraising drive within the country, asking for donations and goods from people in unaffected areas. People generously helped their neighbors, sending in food, clothes, blankets, cooking utensils, kerosene stoves and lamps, solar lights, and other essential living items.

The MCIF then organized hundreds of volunteers and Methodist youth to help sort and distribute goods in the days following the emergency, ensuring the relief supplies were quickly transferred to where they were needed most.

After setting up an office to coordinate disaster relief and responses, the MCIF used their existing church networks to assist the Fijian government in assessing and mapping the extent of damage across Fiji. Building assessment teams were then deployed to identify where to allocate resources for the recovery efforts.

Working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, the MCIF has been purchasing food crops and helping people re-establish their livelihoods.  The Church is also working with civil society organisations on long-term disaster risk reduction strategies.

The work of the MCIF has been helped by the generous donations of people in Australia. In response to an appeal launched by UnitingWorld, Australians raised over $AU 500,000, which is going a long way in the rebuild and recovery efforts. MCIF are committed to a ‘build back better’ approach, ensuring new buildings are more resilient to extreme weather events.

The spirit and perseverance of the Fijian people never faltered, even as Cyclone Zena closely followed Winston, threatening to make relief efforts even harder. Miraculous stories highlighted their courage, like the women of Naveiveiwali village, “heroines” who saved 22 lives.

A social media campaign quickly sprang up in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston. The hashtag ‘#StrongerThanWinston’ started to feature in all that related to the disaster recovery, a rallying call for a strong and resilient people not to despair – and a reminder that together they would overcome the odds.

Six months on, this strength and character were on show at the Rio Olympic Games, with their Rugby Sevens squad routing every team they faced to win Fiji’s first Olympic gold medal! When the final whistle blew, the Fijians boldly sang a hymn together in the middle of the field with characteristic Polynesian harmonies.

There are still many challenges facing the people of Fiji as they work to rebuild. Thousands lost their homes and their sources of income. Many are struggling to access food and essential infrastructure after it was wiped out, and is yet to be rebuilt or repaired. Remote communities have been especially slow to recover, with fewer supply runs reaching them. It is unclear how long it will take for Fiji to fully recover, but they they are well underway.

We are grateful to God for His love in helping us in rebuilding the lives of the victims across Fiji. It is anticipated that it will take 4 to 5 years to recover from this situation and I appeal to you today that we need to stand together and work together – Rev. Dr. Epineri Vakadewavosa, General Secretary, Methodist Church in Fiji.

Thank you for helping the Fijian people get back on their feet by supporting the great work of our partner, the Methodist Church of Fiji. As the partnerships agency of the Uniting Church in Australia, we’re heartened to tell you this story of people working across all sectors to build back better.


Please continue to pray for Fiji and the work of MCIF. You can continue to support their work by donating here.

Cover photo by Fiji Government
Other photos by MCIF