Friday, November 2, 2012

Church in Tonga

I've attended two church services while in Tonga. Although I am not a regular church goer at home, I wanted to attend a Tongan service to hear the legendary singing of the choir. I had also received some bad news from home, and I thought church not a bad space to send some loving thoughts out towards my family. I do not consider this behavior hypocritical because in my view, if there is a god, he/she/it would welcome anyone into his/her/its house at any time. In fact, one of the things that alienated me from the Catholic church (the religion I was brought up with) was the image of a wrathful god metering out judgment and the polarized world view that image engendered. People are either good or bad, saints or sinners; and when you die, you go to heaven, hell, or purgatory. As an adult, I have learned that I don’t believe in any of those things. While most villages house a large Catholic church, we attended the “local” Tongan church, a Wesleyan branch.

While visiting the village of Falevai near Port Maurelle on a Saturday, a local woman invited us to church on Sunday. We did return to the village for church the next day. We had made prints of the pictures we took of the Tongan woman and her children and brought them along with us to give to her. As we have seen elsewhere, although the village was small, it had multiple churches. As we arrived for our service at the Wesleyan church, which started at 10:00 a.m., we could hear the singing from at least one other church that was already in session. There are really no words that can describe the Tongan singing in a church service. While the villagers may be materially poor, the richness of their spirit radiates through their singing. Tongan church singing is the definition of rejoicing.

Church in Tonga is a formal event. Everyone comes dressed in their Sunday best, which, for the men and women include the pandanus waist mat---called a ta’ovala---worn as a sign of respect in Tonga. In Neiafu, despite the heat, men wore button down shirts and suit coats over tupenu, men’s wraparound skirts which are worn past the knee, and ta’ovalo; and women were dressed in long skirts, blouses, and ta’ovalo. Many women fanned themselves with pandanus fans during the service. Black seemed to be the dominant color among the formal dress of men and women in Tonga. Children---even the youngest baby present---were dressed more colorfully in elaborate gowns or party dresses as if for a formal occasion such as a wedding.  

The members of the choir sit in the rows of pews in the middle of the church. In Falevai, the choir members wore red scarves around their necks, but I didn’t see this in Neiafu. The choir’s part in the service is carefully orchestrated and led by a choir leader with a tuning pipe. Tongans seem to have perfect pitch and the strength of their voices resonates loudly within the church and beyond. The church on Falevai was very austere but had amazing acoustics, rendering the choir awe-inspiring and the sermon intimidating.

Another interesting aspect of the Wesleyan service is that in both local Tongan churches I attended (Neiafu and Falevai), there was a church elder whose role in the service consisted of a “call and response” type affirmation of the minister. As the minister was going through the Bible readings for the day, this church elder would periodically call out, “’Io!” (Yes!) or “Malo!” (Thank you!)  I noticed only one member in each church had this role. In addition to the minister, one member of each church also performed a separate reading. I like how the congregation was included in the service.

There were some differences between the large church I attended on Neaifu and the small congregation at Falevai. In Falevai, all the children sat in the pews on the right side of the church with respectful behavior, while at Neiafu, children wandering in and out of the service and changing pews to sit with someone else during the service were tolerated, as long as they remained quiet. Men and women’s seating was strictly segregated in Falevai (I supposed so people could focus on holy thoughts…), while in Neaifu, it seemed okay to break the strict segregation of genders when late-comers needed a place to sit.

At the end of the service in the small village of Falevai, Patrick and I were welcomed as visitors by the choir leader and were asked to introduce ourselves to the congregation.

After mass, the choir leader came up to talk to us. By the time he was finished, another activity (perhaps Sunday school?) was in session in the church. Some of the members of the congregation had left, while others---including the woman we had brought the pictures for---remained behind. I didn’t know if it would be rude to interrupt the current activity to hand our friend the envelope containing the pictures, so I asked the choir leader about that. He said, “I will give them to her.” As I left the church, I saw the choir leader rifling through the contents of the envelope I had prepared with the photographs and then handing the woman only some partial contents. That left me with a distasteful feeling. I regretted not simply handing the woman the envelope myself.

As we walked back through the village, we met a very friendly Tongan woman we had seen in church. She was the person who told us their church was a Wesleyan branch. She also explained to us the contents of that day’s sermon, since she knew we couldn’t understand it. The gist of it was that people should renounce material goods and the ways of merchants and focus on spiritual life with Jesus. On one hand, I could interpret this message being delivered to a very poor congregation as a way of making peace with the way things are; on the other hand, I have to wonder if it keeps people from striving for a higher standard of living? 

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