27 March – 7 April 2006
World Church Secretary - Asia Pacific
Visit to Fiji from 27th March – 7th April 2006
The purpose of this one nation visit in the South Pacific was to be able to spend a bit more time with our partners:
Methodist Church in Rotuma and Fiji (MCF)
Pacific Conferences of Churches (PCC)
Pacific Theological College (PTC)
South Pacific Association of Theological Colleges (SPATS)
Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA)
Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF)
Rev’d Dr David Upp - mission partner
The first few days were taken up with visiting the ecumenical partners listed above. Rev’d Vala Palu is the General Secretary of PCC and she was my overall host while in Fiji alongside MCF. It was a joy to meet with her again and to be able to see the close working of the PCC team under her leadership. She is a minister of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and has been in Fiji for six years. PCC is working towards its General Assembly, which will meet in American Samoa, September 2007. Over the past five years, the churches have been working together with animators to provide opportunities for greater involvement in ministry for women, youth and lay people. It has been a very positive experience.
WCC moved the Pacific desk to Fiji as part of their regionalisation programme. It is quite a successful move in some ways but it does mean that Fei’ Tevi, the secretary, travels to Geneva several times a year and there is overlapping work with PCC. However the relationships between the two offices is excellent, but, it is an area for further consideration as WCC evaluates its work and influence world wide. Unfortunately I was unable to meet with Fei’ as he was in Geneva following up on the Brazil conference.
I was glad to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with the principal of PTC, Rev’d Dr Fele Nokoise. PTC has been a victim of its own success in that there are now so many own country theological institutions that fewer students are attending PTC for first degrees. There has been something of financial crisis and there was fear that it may have to close down. However, there has been an acknowledgement by the participating churches in the region that PTC is a necessary institution for the Pacific and a plan for the services and courses it can offer has been formulated and owned by the member bodies. Time will tell how successful this will be.
It was good to be able to see David Upp in his place of work, on the campus and in his home. We were able to spend quite a bit of time together over the days I was in Fiji as he accompanied me as I travelled around the MCF islands. During his period as a mission partner David has made considerable effort to travel around as many of the island nations as possible in order to be a good tutor and make his teaching as contextually appropriate as is possible. He has an engaging and lively approach to his work and this has been valued while at PTC even though there have been some difficulties. He will almost certainly not serve another term in Fiji after this one is completed at the end of 2006.
Tevita Banaivana is the present director of SPATS and we were able to have a good meeting looking at the work-plan for the next few years for this institution. It provides a bridge between schools in the Pacific enabling good practice and making sure standards are met as well as providing some course materials. The most recent being a module on HIV/AIDS for theological education. SPATS also does a significant amount of work for women’s ministry through the Weavers programme.
ECREA staff were launching a booklet on voter education and rights in three languages the day I was with them. It was great fun to see the launch with the press and invited guests all informally chatting and milling about. Kevin Barr, the acting director, has been with ECREA since its inception and he has written a number of books on social issues affecting the Pacific and considering it from a theological perspective and using a faith based approach. They have close relationships with the other major faiths in Fiji and their work is well respected throughout the Pacific.
I was very pleased to be able to spend time with Akuila Yabaki as well and to see the way in which CCF is regarded in the country. I was told by a taxi driver, a hairdresser, and the Vice President that he was probably the best known Fijian in the country after the Prime minister! He remains committed to a multi ethnic, multi faith, multi faceted Fiji and campaigns for such with enthusiasm, commitment and wisdom. His office initiated an appointment forms with the Vice President which was a wonderful opportunity. We were able to have a wide ranging conversation over issues we both raised. It was towards the end of my visit so I could ask some of the more politically sensitive questions I had, especially as the elections were announced just as I arrived. I was allocated 25 minutes with him but after we’d been talking for over an hour he suddenly apologised to me that he had kept me from my other appointments!
It was an extremely useful time with the ecumenical partners.
The MCF decided this time that it would be good for me to see some of the historical church sites as well as meet people in villages and the city and it was very good. First of all I visited the island of Ovalau where the first white settlement in Fiji was established and it is here that the oldest Methodist church stands in the town of Levuka. It is also is home to the oldest school in Fiji, Delana High School which is situated atop a hill overlooking the Coral Sea and captures magnificent sea breezes as well as stunning views. It is a poorly equipped school but the principals of both the primary and secondary schools are obviously determined to keep their standards high. I was invited to speak to the school assembly following several unaccompanied hymns and traditional songs sung in glorious harmony. I wondered what would be a good staring point and I remembered Nelson Mandela's words ' the greatest barrier and fear we have is that we can' and used that as my starting point. I talked of his determination while in prison to make the most of his surroundings and then began asking them questions
- it was wonderful when after a couple of questions to one lad he got to the point where I had stretched his knowledge and he just answered 'I don't know madam' and sat down. It was perfect; better to admit lack of knowledge than pretend and get in deeper and deeper mud!
The colonial town of Levuka has a preservation order on it and all the shop fronts cannot be altered in order for the town to protect its heritage. They are intact but they are not well maintained. The town also has a characteristic pong! This is thanks to a large fish cannery. The cannery has changed hands several times over the years since the Japanese first built it but the Fiji Government now owns it. This ensures all profits are returned to the country, and of course it provides much needed employment.
We were welcomed onto the compound of the (Tui) chief of Levuka and they provided a sumptuous feast for us. The wife of the Tui is renowned for her friendly chatty manner. She is the daughter of another Tui and is very familiar with protocol and the expectations of hospitality in such a setting. She is certainly a gracious host.
The island has a crater in the middle, which as you can imagine is immensely fertile but it was from this place that the first missionaries encouraged people to come to the town and at that point were sold into slavery. Not surprisingly they held a grudge against the church for some considerable time even though it would seem that the minister (missionary) encouraged them to leave their village in good faith not knowing that slavery was the intended outcome. We visited the crater and were greeted with warmth and respect which was very humbling. The lush growth was
fantastic and with mountains (of the Welsh variety, ie not all that high!) circling the valley it was like a little lost paradise. Unfortunately our visit to Ovalau was marred when our return flight to Suva was cancelled – after a two-hour wait at the airstrip! Fortunately we were able to stay in a comfortable hotel and enjoy a meal at Air Pacific’s expense! Even if we did have to put on the same clothes we’d been wearing all day in the heat, humidity, salt air and in the lea of the cannery! This did change our plans somewhat for what was planned next.
I received a formal welcome to MCF at Davilevu Theological College where the Methodist Brass Band treated me to a stunning performance. The band leader is an NMA and the musicians are certainly very committed and dedicated and good. The gathered students had been waiting all morning for us to arrive following our unexpected stay at Ovalau, they were very good natured about it all and spectacular rainstorms didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiastic singing when we finally drove up fours hours late! There was a good opportunity to spend time with the senior members of MCF when we met for an extended meeting to discuss matters of mutual interest and concern.
It was very good to be able to visit Bau and Viwa islands. These two islands have considerable significance for MCF. On Viwa, Rev’d John Hunt settled with his wife and child. He translated the New Testament but before he began work each day, he walked to a point on the island where he could see the Chiefly Island of Bau and there he would pray. He had a poor reception in Fiji at first and the Chief was not at all open to the gospel or the white mans ways. Fiji was a cannibalistic society so it with considerable wisdom that John Hunt prayed daily for several years. When he was finally allowed to travel to Bau it was a moment of joy.
Bau remains one of the most important of places in Fiji history as it is where the chief Cakabau resided and he was the person who formed the first government 150 or so years ago and his direct descendent became the first
President. I met his son, the current Tui of the village, a delightful man. The stone on which heads were chopped off now sits in the church as a memorial to conversion and renewal of the mind and spirit. The island is tiny but significant.
Fiji is such an amazing place with the strategic role it plays within the South Pacific region as well as being a flawed and fraught and fragile democracy. It is also a place of hope and compassion and good humour. I see such signs of hope of moving towards an understanding of multi-ethnic identity BUT it will take time. Their elections in May will be interesting to observe.
Tevita Banivanua (SPATS)
Formal Welcome at Davilevu
Delana High School Assembly
Children in Ovalau
Pandanus preparation for making mats