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Tonga Tag

Last week I had the great privilege of attending the Annual General Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWC) with Uniting Church President Dr Diedre Palmer.

The day we arrived in the capital Nuku'alofa we were swept up in the famous hospitality and fellowship of the Tongan people. Our church partners invited us to feast with 3,000 of their members and then join in worship among a thousand choristers.

The sound of their harmonies soaring over a massive brass band is something I’ll never forget.

Along the way I was blessed to meet some of the leaders and members of FWC; hear their stories, hopes and struggles, and experience the great wisdom and dedication they have to offer.

The conference was an opportunity to connect with our partners in fellowship and share in the life of their church. Among many issues raised, the important matter of the Uniting Church’s decision on marriage at the 15th Assembly was discussed with openness, honesty and integrity.

Re-elected FWC leaders, President Rev Dr Ahio and General Secretary Rev Dr Tevita Havea reassured us that they have been on the same journey with their New Zealand and United States partner churches, and that our partnership is built on strong foundations of respecting difference while holding to unity in Christ.

They affirmed that Tongan members of the Uniting Church were under the oversight and authority of the UCA and shared our joy in the vibrant life of the Tongan National Conference. They manifested their love and partnership in the honour and recognition they showed Dr Palmer and I throughout the conference.

Dr Palmer reaffirmed to our partners the Uniting Church’s commitment to respect and protect the rights of all members and partners to hold differing views of marriage and make decisions based on those views.

Dr Palmer and UCA General Secretary Colleen Geyer issued a short statement after the discussions.

It was the first official visit to Tonga for both Dr Palmer and I, but the warmth, trust and the good faith that was extended had very little to do with us personally. We were embraced as members of an extended family, our forebears and theirs had built a strong bond of respect and friendship and we were but the latest embodiment.

Holding partnerships like this is a privilege that I treasure deeply and sometimes feel the huge weight of. But I’m reassured in the knowledge that some connections are already far stronger than anything I might manage to mess up.

Malo

-Sureka

Dr Sureka Goringe
National Director
UnitingWorld


Tonga was part of the Methodist Church of Australasia from the early 19th century until 1977 when the Uniting Church in Australia was formed and the Wesleyan Church gained its autonomy (thus the "Free" in its name). In Australia, the Tongan National Conference within the Uniting Church has grown to become the biggest of the twelve national conferences. Read more

Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson
National Disaster Recovery Officer
Uniting Church in Australia Assembly

As the plane lifted off from the Kingdom of Tonga, I had a familiar twinge of the heart as the island left my line of sight. While I was returning to the comfort of my own home with reliable power, phone and internet, and clean water, there are so many people in Tonga that won’t have access to these things for some time.

On Monday 12 February, Tropical Cyclone Gita devastated the islands of Tonga, with winds of 230km/h whipping the Southern Coast of the main island of Tongatapu. Locals had taken warnings seriously and prepared as well as they could, but lightly built houses were no match for the monster storm. The fact that it struck at night probably saved scores of lives, as people were bunkered indoors and avoided injury from flying roofing iron and falling trees. The negative is in the lasting memory of families who huddled together through the terror of a sleepless night of pitch darkness and screaming wind, hoping and praying their place of shelter would hold together.

With the dawn’s light, people ventured out to assess the damage and found this particularly confronting. Many houses lost all or part of their roofing, torn metal and splintered wood, thousands of trees felled and palm fronds scattered. Rain continued to inundate many houses that had escaped the worst of wind damage.

Power poles leaned precariously or snapped off completely, and power lines lay across muddy roads. In the centre of the main city of Nuku’ Alofa, the walls of Parliament House were blown out and the roof crumpled to the ground, a state of emergency was declared which included curfews to keep people from the CBD as many shops were emptied of ruined goods.

There are no cyclone shelters in Tonga so while most people remained in their homes during the storm, the most solid gathering places are in the church buildings that play a prominent role in Tongan community life. The people’s faith in their church communities means there is a place to come together and share their experiences of loss and hope.

Red Cross, Caritas and other groups are doing important work in delivering supplies to the most affected – food, water, and temporary shelter, but it is the churches that are at the forefront of bringing the community-building psycho-social support which will restore hope.

I flew into Tonga two weeks after TC Gita with Rev. Nau Ahosivi. Nau is a Tongan-born minister in placement at Concord Uniting Church. It had been our second trip together; the first – in 2015 – also had Rev. Alimoni Taumoepeau. This first trip was an initiative of UnitingWorld, at the request of our church partner, the Free Wesleyan Church Tonga, to train a network of chaplains to support people in the event of disaster or crisis.  From this first training course, which included a ‘train the trainer’ component, the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (TDRCN) was born.

The training course is an ‘islander’ variation on that used in NSW/ACT and South Australia. It has also been used in supporting the churches in Fiji and Tuvalu. It covers a range of subjects including: the nature of disaster, how it affects communities and people, how people react and are affected by critical incidents and trauma, calming and communication techniques, vicarious traumatisation (how the carer can be affected by the work) and self-care.

After TC Gita hit, the Free Wesleyan church deployed the chaplains we had trained in 2015. Valuable work done by Michael Constable of UnitingWorld had assisted them in pre-disaster preparedness, mapping the areas of need and making assessments. Chaplains were able to respond to people who needed them most, but this was not easy for them as conditions were far from ideal. The weather this time of year is hot and steamy. The cyclonic winds had dropped to dead calm and the heat and humidity from the water brought with it discomfort and the threat of mosquitoes bearing Dengue Fever and the Zika Virus. The chaplains spoke of how shocked they were by the damage to both the natural environment and the villages they visited, of talking to people as they sat under plastic tarpaulins or in the tents in which they now live. The chaplains themselves have stresses in their lives, many having endured the cyclone and having their own homes flooded, before leaving to care for others.

Our first afternoon with the group involved debriefing these chaplains, allowing them to share their experiences and process them together. The next two days were spent on the training which melded their understanding with the context of their experience.

The church had requested identification vests for the chaplains which allowed them to (as with other aid workers) show who they are and what they are doing. I was able to work with a local Sydney manufacturer who put in extra hours and made these from white cotton (allowing for tropical heat) at less than cost price, donating the cost of their labour to support the effort. The chaplains are out again, working in teams, supporting local ministers as they visit and listen to cyclone-affected people.

My work

I have been working in the area of emergency ministry and disaster recovery for some time now.  Ordained in 1993 and becoming a Rural Fire Service Member and chaplain in 1996, I have worked in in the Welfare area of the state response for many years. In 2007 I helped to establish the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network which I continue to oversee (this is a ministry of the UCA NSW/ACT Synod). In my role as National Disaster Recovery Officer, I support the development of disaster recovery preparedness and response from the church and its agencies. I work with the Synods in supporting the development of ecumenical disaster response chaplaincy, peer support (looking after ministers working in communities affected by crisis) and supporting disaster recovery long-supply placements with Presbyteries, assisting community recovery.

Sustained support

I am acutely aware that disasters come and go with the nightly news. A cyclone hits, a fire damages a community, an earthquake causes loss and damage, and then something else happens. We may be mindful for a time – but then a new crisis demands our attention. This is an understandable reality.  The problem is that, for the people involved, recovery may take years and their needs actually intensify over the first six months to a year – as their lack of resources and frustrations become more apparent. This is when they need sustained support. How can we best support the sustained effort?

Prayer is mightily important. I had some conversations with people of the church who spoke to me about how important it was to them that they were remembered and supported in prayer by the brothers and sisters in Christ from nations far away.

Giving is vital.  Often our first reaction is to gather goods, clothing and food to send. I believe this comes from a need to send something tangible to people. Unfortunately, this has its limitations: what is sent is not always needed. There is, at present, no food shortage in Tonga, while some crops were damaged, fishing continues and supplies from New Zealand and elsewhere continue to flow unabated. Donated goods may actually damage the local businesses and economy; for every item sent from Australia, a local Tongan business will lose a sale and locals may lose work. Containers cost money to send and fees at the wharf. They also take time to empty and sort. During my time in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam, they spoke of the wastage of time and effort in transporting and emptying the containers.

The greatest need at the moment is cash that can purchase new building materials through local suppliers, employ local workers and support a damaged economy.

Thank you to everyone who has so generously given to support our friends in Tonga as they recover from Cyclone Gita. Below is a letter we received from the President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Rev. Finau P. ‘Ahi, expressing his heartfelt gratitude.  You can donate here to support the ongoing recovery efforts.

 

6 March 2018

Stuart McMillan
President of the Uniting Church in Australia

Dear Mr McMillan,

Apologies for the late response to your letter of love and prayers, but have only just had computer access due to power failures. Electricity has been on and off almost every day since cyclone Gita visited Tonga.

On behalf of the Methodist Church in Tonga (a.k.a. Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga), I thank you for the expression of your love, prayers and donation of gifts for the rebuilding of the Church and its people life on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia. Your expressions of love, prayers and partnership with us in this time of bringing life to normal mean so much as you remind us that we do not battle alone. We have partners and supporters like you who are holding the ropes for us and thereby having a direct share in our Church ministry. You are graciously willing to share with us in this practical way and we are already feeling the benefit that your love, prayers and gifts are bringing to our life.

Please continue to pray for us in this time. No doubt we will have many battles ahead in trying to restore Church people emotions and faith that have been lost in this devastating cyclone. We believe as you pray for us we will be able to stand strong in the power of His Might to resist the enemy of doubts and worries and to encourage people to enter into the victory that is ours in Christ. “ Fear not, for I am with you, says the Lord”. My Wife Loukinikini and the family join me in thanking you that you still remember us.

With love and prayers,
Rev. Finau P. ‘Ahio
President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

See original letter here