The Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Lopini Filise, visiting the surviving passengers of the Christmas Eve bus crash in Gisborne Hospital.  Photograph: Melino Maka.

Peace in the new year

The Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Lopini Filise, visiting the surviving passengers of the Christmas Eve bus crash in Gisborne Hospital. Photograph: Melino Maka.

The media round-up of 2016 was marked by one narrative above all others – death.  The Kingdom of Tonga did not escape the death toll.  In New Zealand, 2016 witnessed three sets of caskets flown to Fua’amotu International Airport where the deceased were car, boat, and bus fatalities.

Let’s be honest about what 2016 signalled for us as a people.  This was the year Tongans stopped looking to politicians for wisdom, good sense, and responsible leadership on where the country is headed.

Since the 2010 political reform two different governments – one led by Tu’ivakano and the other by Pohiva – have done one thing in common.  Both administrations have made sure politicians are plainly on the out.  No one believes them anymore.  People have had enough already.

MPs on both sides of the House have played themselves a bad hand by gaming the system.  Shameless self-promotion for reasons that are all about them and not about the people, has scored an epic fail on parliamentarian test results.

Serious question: when Tongans lose faith in political leaders, who do they turn to for truth, solutions to their problems, and a purpose to keep moving forward in a system of power they feel is keeping them down?  Answer: church leaders.

The counter jab is what happens when church leaders fail to show responsible leadership for being caretakers of the dead before burial?  And this is a sombre issue for Tongan people who believe the bodies of their deceased are sacred.  If the dead are not buried by the correct church protocol, then that very act is seen as a breach of social taboo.

Because here’s the thing: when the churches have a falling out, how on earth is this resolved, considering it’s the last bastion of hope that Tongan people place their trust in for truthful leadership and honest guidance?

The Christmas Eve bus accident near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand claimed the lives of three Tongan nationals.  Two died at the crash site on December 24th, one being an eleven year old boy.  While the second woman passed away in Waikato Hospital on New Year’s Day, January 1st 2017.

This is a defining moment for 2016 because if the politics resulting from the tragic event are left unresolved, it could leave an enduring strain on inter-church relations.  Tonga doesn’t need one church trying to outdo the other.  That kind of political drama is already performed badly by MP actors in parliament, media, and on social media.

To contextualise the facts of the matter, the Methodist Church was sponsoring the bus passengers, who represented a school brass band from the Vava’u Islands in Tonga, to play a fund-raiser concert in Gisborne.  However, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the Christian denomination to whom all the bus crash passengers belong.

The issue at hand is that the bodies of the deceased should have been given to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga to carry out the correct church protocol and proceedings in Auckland for returning them to their families and church brethren in Tonga.  This did not happen, and Tongan people, especially the immediate kin of the deceased, deserve an explanation as to why.

It’s straightforward to give details of the fall-out, but difficult to decipher the motive underpinning the conflict.  There are missing pieces in the information flow critical to understanding how, and who, triggered the communication breakdown on the part of the Methodists to the Wesleyans.

In his role as the New Zealand Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Lopini Filise visited the deceased and survivors in Gisborne hospital during the Christmas period.  Before leaving on December 27th, he gave clear instruction that the bodies and passengers travelling back to Tonga would be received by the Wesleyans in Auckland for preparation to return home.

Two former Presidents of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, now residing in New Zealand, had been appointed the responsibility of conducting a church service in Auckland that was to take place on Friday the 30th of December.  Moreover, representatives of the church clergy would accompany the bodies and returning passengers back to Tonga according to Wesleyan protocol.

Tonga Methodist Vahefonua Tonga o Aotearoa Faifekau Sea/ Synod Superintendent Rev Tevita Finau. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Somewhere in between the instruction Reverend Filise delivered to the people in Gisborne on behalf of the Wesleyan President and Royal Chaplain, and the transporting of the travelling party to Auckland for their flight to Tonga on Saturday the 31st of December, communication broke down.

Proceedings were not carried out to plan.  Church convention was taken out of the hands of the Wesleyans.  Compounding the situation was that Reverend Tevita Finau, the Chair of the Tongan Methodist Church in New Zealand, did not return Reverend Filise’s correspondence inquiring what, pray tell, was happening with the church service in Auckland?

Wesleyans have their own set of customs conducted on behalf of the deceased that Reverend Filise had to observe as church clergy.  An important protocol is appointing ministers of the church to escort the deceased to Tonga.  It is believed that due to the circumstances of death and because the bodies are in a sacred state, they need to be properly accompanied by ordained clerics.

Reverend Lopeti Taufa, the former President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Reverend Filise literally went to the church office of the Tongan Methodists on Dominion Road in Auckland with the former President, Reverend Lopeti Taufa, to seek answers from the Methodist clergy.  They spoke with Reverend Vaikoloa Kilikiti.  Reverend Tevita Finau, whom they had hoped to discuss matters with, was not there at the time.

When the Methodist Chair finally telephoned the Wesleyan Superintendent on Thursday December 29th before the Tongan Methodists hosted a church service that same evening, the response was he did not know if there were clergy accompanying the bodies to Tonga, apart from immediate family.

Our resolve is straightforward: sort this out properly.  For the Wesleyan clergy to be obstructed from performing their duty to church brethren as guardians and leaders is one problem.  But not to be given sufficient opportunity to thoroughly discuss and decide on proceedings, or even be part of the Auckland church service is just bad manners.  It is seen as a reckless political act resulting in fractured relations, which did not need to happen.

Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.  Reconciling the grief and pain of parents who have lost their children is what concerns us most.  We truly empathise as Tongan parents who have both buried children.  Teena lost her second daughter Ani, and Melino his eldest son, Leon.

There is nothing natural about watching your child’s casket get lowered into a grave.  As Tongans, our Christian upbringing teaches us to hope and pray that our children will bury us in old-age, and that we will live long enough to see our grandchildren.  When that doesn’t happen, as in the case of eleven-year-old Sione Taumololo, it is a parent’s faith that is not only tested, but is, beyond doubt, a solid foundation holding up a family home shaken to the core.

Reverend Vaikoloa Kilikiti (left) standing next to Reverend Tevita Finau at the Methodist church service held in Auckland on Thursday December 29th. Photograph: Melino Maka.

On that solemn note, all we can do as fellow Tongans is ask that the Methodist Church in New Zealand reflect on the situation that has unfolded.  And if it is warranted, make amends by speaking with the Superintendent of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere, Auckland.

By taking this pathway, Reverend Lopini Filise will be able to report back to the Wesleyan Church President in Tonga, that any tensions that may have arisen, have been appropriately worked through and settled.

At this moment in our nation’s history, our wish for every Tongan at home and overseas is earnest.  Peace in the New Year.

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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