The meaning of Christmas for 2016

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni, visiting passengers in Gisborne Hospital who were aboard the bus crash on Christmas Eve, 2016. Photograph: Melino Maka.

It is plain uncomfortable to have to spell out the meaning of Christmas to the Kingdom of Tonga, a Christian Pacific Island state.  The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has the largest membership, with the Church of the Latter Day Saints in second place, and the Catholics third.

We don’t intend to preach on.  How could we?  Neither of us are church-goers.  Teena’s a lapsed Catholic, and Melino’s an ex-Tupou High School rugby player who gave up Wesleyan service every Sunday when he arrived in 1970s New Zealand.  We are in no position to self-righteously judge any person’s faith – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu – which ever religion they have chosen.

However, the meaning of Christmas for 2016 has to be given voice and heart.  Because here’s the thing: in most free countries people generally have the constitutional right to choose whether or not they want to practice a religion, a denomination, a set of beliefs based on biblical scripture, spirituality, theology, mysticism, canons, codes, doctrines, Sharia laws, the Torah – the list goes on.  But they can’t entirely choose when they get to die.

Death is something that happens to all of us.  It’s meant to be a natural part of the human life-cycle.  By this, Christians pray for longevity, meaning that one will have a long life.  But what if they don’t?

The death of an eleven year old boy, Sione Taumololo, one of two fatalities in a bus crash near Gisborne on Christmas eve, of all times to die, has shaken the island nation of Tonga.  The population is just over one hundred thousand.  When a child dies overseas by accidental death, in a nation that small, it cuts to the very core of being Tongan.

People are precious.  For a poor country, people are all we really have.  There are so few of us in the big wide world, we can’t afford to lose any before their time.  When we do – in such circumstances as a child dying while travelling across New Zealand with his brass band from Tonga’s outer islands of Vava’u to raise money for his school – church protocol kicks in hard.

It has to for the very reason it’s the one anchor that settles people; holds their heads above turbulent water; keeps their faith strong that the death of this child was God’s call taken out of our hands as mere mortals; a devastating call that his parents’ faith helps them come to terms with.

New Zealand media broke the tragic story on Christmas day with a flood of successive updates, including the latest New Zealand Police report confirming that 53 people were aboard the bus, two had died, with ten still in hospital.  Tongan media drew on New Zealand news items, supplemented with social media comments from family members in Tonga, and images of the deceased and the crash site.

There is no doubt that the outpour of support offered by the New Zealanders and Tongans, coupled with the government delegations from Wellington and Nuku’alofa who arrived in Gisborne on Christmas day to comfort the survivors, has shown goodwill exchanged between close countries at a time of need.

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni (3rd from left), and New Zealand’s Minister for Pacific Peoples, Hon Alfred Ngaro (right front) at the bus crash site near Gisborne. Photograph: Melino Maka.

But the question of church protocol for the service conducted in Auckland before the deceased and the surviving passengers are flown home to Tonga has to be settled.  Tongans apply Christian procedures earnestly when it comes to a national tragedy such as this.

All of the bus passengers are members of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.  And although they were travelling to perform for a sister-denomination, the Tongan Methodist Church, this does not automatically mean that the latter has the right of way to singlehandedly steer proceedings for a community service in Auckland.

And this is where time is of the essence.  A church service has been earmarked for the evening of Friday the 30th of December.  But communication about the venue and protocol on the part of the Chair of the Tongan Methodist Church, Reverend Tevita Finau, to the Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Lopini Filise, has not been forthcoming.

The cutting question is, if the left hand is not talking to the right, then how is the work being coordinated between the pair?  Only God knows, in this case.  Our two cents worth is simple: talk to each other.  Sort it out urgently to alleviate additional stress for the people involved, especially the surviving passengers who should not be subjected to any more heartbreak and anguish than what they’ve already endured.

Reverend Lopini Filise has made a concerted effort to get a clear line of communication with his counterpart from the Tongan Methodist Church.  But if the correspondence is not returned, then one has to ask in an honest-to-goodness manner, what is going on?

Tongan Methodist Church service in Gisborne on Christmas Day. Photograph: Melino Maka.

The surviving passengers, their families and church brethren in Auckland, the Tongan community at large, our people at home, all need straight answers about the church protocol presiding at Friday’s service.  We take Christian conventions seriously when it comes to praying for the souls of our dead, and burying them with dignity. 

This is not the time to grandstand, or even worse, keep people guessing.  The Kingdom of Tonga and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has solemn business to take care of.  Let the people know how the service will be conducted, where, and by whom. 

Right now, this symbolises the meaning of Christmas for Tongan nationals raised to believe in our South Pacific Kingdom’s dictum, God and Tonga are my inheritance.  What’s so hard not to understand here?

Authors

Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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