Going to church in Fiji

15 Oct

I promised to tell some more about the holiday in Fiji.
It’s almost three weeks ago, and so quickly the benefit of a holiday is overtaken by busyness.
This is a worry!

But I do want to reflect on the experience of going to church in Fiji.
We spent 6 days on Waya Island, where we stayed in a place called Octopus Resort. It is just stunningly beautiful. The resort describes itself as being at the lower end of the market, which it is, but it was comfortable, the food was pleasant and healthy, and the people friendly and always helpful.
Most of the Fijian people who work in this resort come from a small village, just 10 minutes’ walk away.
When you arrive on the Island, you will be invited to a welcome ceremony, hosted by a man called Lai, who is the ‘mayor’ of the village. He is the son of the chief, who is now elderly and does not perform these functions. Lai is 50 years old, and for some reason he and I got on well, and had several good talks over the days we were there.
Lai invited us to visit his village, and he showed us around. We also went there to go to church.

Three hundred and twenty three people live in Nalauwaki village, and all of them belong to and attend the Methodist Church.

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The church building is the best building in the village by a long, long way. The community hall, and the chief’s house have none of the quality and care of this house of God.
It stands at the head of an open ‘square’ or central area.
Inside, the building is like most churches" it has pews, a pulpit, a communion table, and a choir area.
What was lacking is any musical instrument. These folk don’t need it! They sing with such fabulous natural harmonies. More of that later.

Lai told me that they were fortunate on Waya, that there was only one denomination, the Methodists. In other places there are church rivalries, but not here.
I could not agree with him more. Here, there was a common communal respect for and engagement with the church. On Sundays, there are three services. This allows those who have to work, early or late shifts, to have at least a half-day of sabbath rest and worship.
Lai also informed me that none of them cook on Sundays. It is their day of rest, so they cook on Saturday, and eat cold food on Sundays.
They are devout and committed Christians.
The service I attended was conducted by the local pastor, but the preacher for the day was the visiting circuit minister of the Methodist church. I was advised that this is perhaps why we did not get the expected ‘fire and brimstone’ style of sermon which is common there. However, I cannot be sure that it is really like that, as the sermons are always in Fijian. Maybe the preacher is simply rather more animated than visitors are accustomed to.
In the service, there was an orderly form, rather akin to the style of services I knew as a child. But what was different was the music. The choir sat in their white robes, many of them people I recognised from the resort. When a song was announced, someone began singing, before the announcement was ended—basically striking a note; and then it proceeded, in beautiful harmonies. They sing without written music, and all the people join in.
The choir presented a song, but then later in the service another, smaller group from within the congregation came to the front, and they stood in a circle, facing each other, and sang another item. They were so good, we wondered why they weren’t in the choir!
Still later, a group of children came and presented an item too.
The church in Fiji is an important part of the society still. While we were there, we saw news items on TV  in which church leaders had a prominent place, commenting on political developments.
There is a real effort being made, by political leaders, to effect reconciliation between the different communal (that is, racial) groupings. Church leaders have a powerful influence on this process. Some are being very helpful. Some seem to be having a less helpful influence, though I would not presume to judge.
What was and is challenging for me is to see the church still vibrant and meaningful in the lives of the people. Yet this church seemed, in many of its forms, really ‘behind the times’. The music and forms of worship seemed to me locked in an earlier decade.
Is this a bad thing? Does it imply that when they ‘catch up’ with the rest of the westernised world, their church too will become marginal and less meaningful? I hope that none of this will happen to them.
Rather, I am challenged to think of how we might somehow recapture the sense of integrity and meaning that they have in their faith. It is a more simple life, to be sure. Maybe that’s part of it. A simpler life, more centred, more related to each other, to the earth, and to God, and more open to welcome others and to share the simple joy of life.
It’s a fading memory, but maybe it should remain a constant hope.

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