Nov 26, 2020 Last Updated 3:47 AM, Nov 26, 2020

As a teenager, the atmosphere in our household every Sunday morning could either be described as a war zone, or a fiesta. It really depended on my mother’s mood, which was determined by whether we would be on time for the 10am mass or not. Scrambling for our Sunday Best (which really should have been ironed the night before), trying to gulp down breakfast one hour before mass started and remembering to take our contributions for the offering were just a few of the chaotic moments before a sense of calmness would settle us down, the minute the top of the Sacred Heart Cathedral came into view.

Days of worship vary in the Pacific, but the common thread that binds us together is that the peoples of the Pacific strongly believe in a higher entity, a God, who we serve through prayer, community service, environmental stewardship and contributions to the church.

This higher entity is the same God we turn to during tumultuous events. Recently, the Pacific has been hit with severe natural and climate disasters and COVID-19. Many Pacific Islanders have found solace in the church, and in their faith. In Tonga, at the peak of severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, 1,850 people took shelter in Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) church buildings.

Pacific Pays the Price

This year, the world fell to its knees as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world - showing just how connected and interdependent we are on each other. It’s evident now more than before that what happens in the more developed world, affects EVERYONE.

In the same way, if we look at industrial activity and carbon emissions - the Pacific Islands do not have any coal mines and contribute the least towards global carbon emissions - yet we face the brunt of the climate crisis.

Almost daily, media updates on how governments in more industrialised nations are bailing out the perpetrators of the climate crisis to cope during the global recession paint a dire picture of what’s to come.  The climate crisis seems to have taken a backseat to ensuring the comfort of the wealthy corporations who continue to invest heavily in fossil fuels. It is a sad realisation that the best interests of people are not front and centre for most governments.

Whilst G20 nations deliberate over bailouts and salvaging their own economies, the people  of the Pacific are steadfast in their faith and modelling all the Principles of a Just Recovery for a more sustainable, secure future.

The five principles of a Just Recovery are:

  • Put people’s health first, no exceptions.
  • Provide economic relief directly to the people.
  • Help our workers and communities, not corporate executives.
  • Create resilience for future crises.
  • Build solidarity and community across borders – do not empower authoritarians.

Churches Lead on Climate Action

The church has always been a source of hope and help for Pacific Islanders, including the Pacific diaspora in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. When it comes to climate change, I’ve learnt from Reverend James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), that churches have been saying the same things scientists have about climate change, long before it hit the mainstream.

As far back as 2004, the PCC met in Kiribati to discuss the effects of climate change on island nations, and produced the Otin Tai declaration, calling on industrialized nations to reduce fossil fuel use, acknowledge responsibility for climate change, and provide more adaptation funding, among other things.

Five years later, the PCC released the Moana Declaration which then led to the establishment of a Climate Change Unit within the PCC to push for the inclusion of climate change into sermons across the Pacific Region, and engage in more constructive dialogue with those most affected by climate change.

Practise What You Preach

A Proverb which resonates well with what what the PCC is doing amidst the backdrop of gloom and chaos is:

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”

The PCC and the Pacific Theological College’s Institute of Mission and Research are leading the discourse on seeking solutions to resolve the ‘ecological crisis’ facing Pacific Islanders especially its indigenous populations. Aptly called Reweaving the Ecological Mat, in collaboration with civil society organizations and academic institutions like the University of the South Pacific, it is building the foundations of an Ecological Framework for Development that will guide its engagements with its members and offer governments alternatives on development.

In April this year, with the double threats to livelihoods from COVID-19 and Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold, the PCC established its ‘Food Bank and Urban Farm’ in the heart of Suva City, as a model for replication in other Pacific countries. As the food is harvested it will be offered for free at a roadside stall. Some of the crops will be distributed to informal squatter settlements, homes for the destitute and aged care facilities.

Member churches have followed suit and utilised resources available under this initiative, including accessing training, seedlings and farming equipment to encourage communities to help themselves. The Tongan and Vanuatu national councils of churches have asked for support to form similar food banks and money will be sent to facilitate these requests.

As Pacific Islanders, just like our faith, we share similar challenges and are resilient to help ourselves, when our governments are not in a position to do so. It is through building solidarity across existing structures that we can face both the climate crisis and the global pandemic, and we don’t have to look far for living examples of how to do it.

Patricia Mallam is the Senior Communications Specialist at 350 Pacific

patricia.mallam[at]350.org

Church to set up uni

THE Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma will establish a Methodist University that will cater for students who don’t reach tertiary education. The proposal - which aims to provide Methodists, and others, with a choice to study in a Christian tertiary institution of quality and to strengthen Christian values - was endorsed by the church’s annual conference which met in Suva last month.

Presented by the former chairman of the Fiji Higher Education Commission, Dr Richard Wah, who is now chairman of the church’s strategy development committee, the proposal is based on the economic situation in Fiji and the large percentage of push-outs from the formal education system. Dr Wah said the concept of a Methodist University in Fiji has been part of the dreams and vision of early missionaries and their mission work in Fiji since the 19th and 20th century.

“However, it has never been addressed directly by any of the early missionaries up to the time of modern Fiji and has since then continued to be a dream.” Once a prominent education provider in Fiji, the standard of the church’s education system has dropped. While it still operates and manages primary and secondary and vocational schools across the country, Dr Wah said there was great need to revamp the system.

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Tongan upgrade

FOR the first time in more than a century, the Anglican Church in Tonga will have its own bishop. Although men with Tongan heritage – Bishop Jabez Bryce and Archbishop Dr Winston Halapua – have led the Diocese of Polynesia, Tonga has always fallen under the leadership of a primate based offshore. Last month Halapua – only the second Pacific islander to head the church since 1908 – announced he would step down in August 2018.

That means the Diocese of Polynesia’s Electoral College will meet over the next 13 months to choose a successor, most likely from priests from its Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand congregations. A popular candidate is the Vicar of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Suva – the young, charismatic, Father Claude Fong-Toy.

There is also expected to be a push for a bishop from the ethnic Solomon island community to which the church has ministered since they were black birded in the 1800s to work on cotton and coconut estates in Fiji. Also in contention are women candidates Sereima Lomaloma and Amy Chambers who were among the first female priests ordained by the church in the Pacific.

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The rot under scrutiny

Faith leaders told to address social, political ills

LEADERS of faith-based organisations must address corruption and the unequal distribution of national wealth if social and political crises are to be averted in the Pacific. Bishop Jack Urame of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea has spoken out against division within the Christian faith which has led to stagnated development.  

And he has accused church leaders of seeking short cuts using religion and religious values. “Instead of addressing corruption and unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth which lead to development stagnation and social crisis political leaders attempted to create political holiness to solve social and development issues,” Urame said.

In a paper delivered to leaders of PNG’s main churches at the Melanesian Institute in Goroka, Urame pointed to a number of local approaches including the destruction of cultural symbols in the name of God and for the sake of development. These included the importation of a 400 year old Bible from United States, the supposed dedication of PNG as a nation to God after a mass national repentance and the removal of traditional carvings from Parliament House.

“(The) National Speaker, Theo Zurenuoc, claimed that Parliament House was decorated with motifs of bad spirits,” Urame said.

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Churches fight Indon abuses

A NEW-LOOK Papua New Guinea Council of Churches has vowed to step up the fight against human rights abuses by Indonesian security forces across the border. After more than a week of talks and years of negotiations, leaders of PNG’s mainstream churches gathered at Goroka to discuss the revival of this ecumenical movement which had been dormant for a decade.

Immediately after the gathering the leaders of the Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and United churches issued a joint statement calling for unity, cooperation and rethinking of ecumenical relations. In a powerful statement the leaders vowed to call on the PNG government – long an ally of Jakarta out of fear of the Indonesian military, a need for economic support or a combination of these factors – to consider supporting full membership of West Papua in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Along with Fiji, PNG has for the last three years blocked attempts by Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands to allow Papuan dissident groups into the MSG.

Pacific Conference of Churches Programmes Officer, Sirino Rakabi, was a key figure in bringing the PNGCC back to life and was critical of the Fiji-PNG stand on MSG membership.

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