My first immersion into the Tongan community

While I was working in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to meet Teppola, among my colleagues. She is from Tonga but moved to Auckland with her family when she was ten years old, and they have been now leading their life there.

My meeting with a fervent believer:

One day, she invited me to go to her church service. It was kind of her for inviting me because the difference between her and myself is her sincere belief while I’m an atheist, although from a Catholic family. She knew that as we talked about religion several times, but she just wanted to share one of the most important things of her life, so I was immediately convinced.

On a Saturday morning, we went to her Tongan church, both wearing a dress since the tradition doesn’t allow women to put on a pant. I was so charmed by the kiekie she lent me, a skirt handmade with strips of hibiscus, to dress around the waist above of my clothes.

My stupefaction was much when I discovered we arrived in a simple building! But inside…a big room adapted to welcome a church service: two parts of bench lines, in front of a stage, a piano on the right and a projector in the middle of the wall. I was a little bit embarrassed to take place when the ceremony had already started. I could notice later that people are free to leave and come back whenever and as much as they want. Women were all beautiful, some of them getting a kiekie as well and some men wore a Polynesian tissue skirt.

The priest was on the stage, making a speech, almost all time in English. The singing part between each preaches moved me. Everybody stood up and sang in Tongan language. Even if the words of the song appeared on the projector, I couldn’t pronounce these in spite of my attempt! I was soundless and attentive, what my friend Pola have noticed: « You can take some pics and videos » she told me, like obviously, what surprised me again. « Really? With my phone? » I’ve got a weak experience with religion in France, but I can’t imagine being allowed to using my cellphone during a service. Finally, I did it, feeling first like I’m naughty, with the fear to be caught in the act until I noticed the others people doing the same. One moment, to conclude his preach, the priest invited a group of women to join around the pianist. They stood up among the public, including Pola and went to sing close to the piano, this time in English. The next group to sing was composed of children and some men.

More and more traditions…

The morning mass ended, so we left the place, not to having lunch yet, but to going in the next room. There: two sides of benches, whose lots of chamber pots were put in front of it. Women went on a side while men joined the other one. I’ve seen people constituting couples: one was sitting while the second washed his or her partner’s feet in the chamber pot. It means that every first Sabbath of the month, they wash their sins away to start a new journey until the next month. I didn’t want to offend my friend by refusing her invitation, but I preferred to staying an observer to being part of this process. The couples exchanged their position, still singing a Tongan song. The participants will then eat bread and drink a grape juice to complete their purification.

 

Just one word: sharing!

After that, people started installing on tables the different meals brought by followers because here the Church offers us to sharing the lunch time. It was the occasion to meet Teppola’s family and friends, who all have been welcoming with me. They finally decided to eat and take a rest at home. I was amused by Pola’s worry to make me eating lamb, a typical meal in New Zealand, thinking I won’t like it. We talked then about family, and I have to allow how much impressed I was to hear she was living with her parents, sister, four brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews in the same house. « You mean you’re never alone ! » was my first reaction. Indeed, when she explained to me it is frequent a Tongan family live together, I remembered the usual way for a French family. It is quite the opposite as children have to be able to live on their own after their studies, and it is considered as a shame, for example, for a thirty-year man or woman who is still living at parents’ home.

This week was special as the ceremony lasted the whole weekend. So, after having lunch, we went back to the church. We met the same believers, but the program differed from the morning mass: neither song nor preach this time, to let everyone free to speak in front of the public. A woman especially touched everybody in sharing how she did lose her first baby. And she continued talking despite her tears.

They then proposed a game about liar and truth. Afterward, it was an intimate ceremony, which invited people to laugh and to cry. I could notice all day how much important it is to share with this community, particularly in after religious service, when people concluded the day with another meal, by drinking a tea and helping themselves in a rich buffet, prepared by everybody. Teppola tried to teach me few words in Tongan language, and I’ve met there some friends of hers.

Why was this day enriching for me?

Finally, my friend dropped me off to my accommodation, and when I was suddenly alone in my bedroom, I felt exhausted but grateful for this whole day. Teppola made me understand how much helpful her community was! As Pola told me, mainly while she had some bad phases, she could take back the life way she wanted. I may never become a believer, who knows, however, I’ve just learned great values and won’t forget this day.

   
   Malo ‘aupito, Thank you very much,

 

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