Paynesville Press - February 22, 2006

Guest Column

Religion plays vital role in Tongan culture

By Dan Starken

First of all, I would like to thank Mr. Bob Stone-burner and Ms. Star Putzke for their comments on my reports from Tonga.

The last report I sent, which elicited the response from Ms. Putzke, was definitely in poor taste and I am disappointed both in my actions and my choice to write such a negative piece. It's not representative of my experience here, and I regret that I allowed myself to behave in such a manner.

I'm not about to try and justify making a face at the little girl in church as I believe, as Ms. Putzke indicated, it was wrong and disrespectful on my part, plain and simple. It is not my routine behavior in church and while I'm unable to understand most of the Tongan church services, I use the time instead for my own spirituality in the Catholic faith.

Also, I would like to apologize if it was suggested in my article that I was dismissive of Tongans' faith, which was certainly not my intent. Religion is such an integral part of Tongan culture that if I were to dismiss this, I would be categorically dismissing the Tongan culture as a whole, which I absolutely do not.

I find tremendous beauty in the Tongan culture and feel incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to live here. It is difficult to truly appreciate the full effects of what is happening during church services here because of the language barrier. Though I can hold basic conversations in Tongan, the level of competence needed to follow the cadence of speech and wide vocabulary of a Bible reading or a sermon here is not something I possess.

Further, even the Peace Corps volunteers here who've extended their service into a third year and who are far more skilled in the Tongan language than I, admit that they still can't understand most of the language used in a Tongan church service.

I've refrained from writing much on the role and significance of religion and churches in Tonga to this point because I wanted to try and gain a better understanding of them, since it is such an interwoven part of life here.

The dynamic of churches in Tonga, specifically the Free Wesleyan Church (FWC) in my village of Ha'akio is the following. Families do not sit together; the men and women sit apart as well as the children. The children, loosely defined as ages 3-12, sit in the front rows on the left-hand side of the church.

The children are free to play with one another and move about so long as they don't become loud and disruptive. They are not expected to pay attention to the church service as in Tongan culture, children of those ages are considered "valevale," (vah-lay-vah-lay) which translates to unlearned in proper Tongan etiquette and customs. Moreover, it is expected that the children are still in the process of learning and not yet expected to exhibit appropriate "anga faka-Tonga" or proper Tongan acculturation.

Church services at the Free Wesleyan Church in Ha'akio are conducted three times on Sunday and once on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week with occasional exceptions. Tongans in general expect their fellow parishioners to attend church services multiple times during the week. There are variations on this, of course, but the average Tongan adult will go to church at least twice on Sunday and also at least twice from the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday services.

Tongan children ages 3-12 generally attend church when their parents do. Tongan youth, generally defined as ages 13 and up so long as they are unmarried, attend church with less frequency, maybe once on Sunday and maybe once during the week.

The expectations of me, as indicated to me by the head of a neighboring family, who is also the Free Wesleyan Church choir director in Ha'akio with whom I'm very close, is that I ought to go to church on Sunday once or twice and that's enough. They understand that I'm unable to comprehend the services due to the language barrier, but that it's still important to go to church to be with the people of Ha'akio, most all of whom are Free Wesleyan.

My average church attendance in a given week has been going twice on Sundays and also attending the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday services. I also alternate my Sundays by going to the only other church in Ha'akio, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has about 10 to 15 members. In fact, I enjoy attending the church services which is why I've chosen of my own accord to attend more than even most Tongans in Ha'akio.

The response to my attendance has been universally positive from Tongans, and they understand that the reason I go so frequently is that I want to be with them and share in the things that are important to them.

Another thing that is incredibly important to Tongan culture is music. It is common to hear people walking down the street singing in full voice completely unembarrassed or self-conscious, though Tongans are in general very conscientious and humble people. The average church service at the Free Wesleyan Church has at least three long hymns along with several other portions of the service being sung.

One of my first purchases when I moved to my village was the Free Wesleyan Church hymnal, which has proved an invaluable item and provided endless enjoyment in participating in the beautiful Tongan singing.

It's easy to love music here as Tongans almost universally have outstanding voices and hardly ever sing off-key. Upon the urging of my neighbor, the choir director, I've played the banjo and sang during several church services at the Free Wesleyan Church. The Free Wesleyan Church youth and my neighbor family also sang Kum Ba Yah as I played the banjo during one particular service, and I've never heard singing so beautiful as that which emanated from them.

Once again, I would like to thank Ms. Star Putzke for calling me to task on my recent article and helping me to realize the error of my actions. I hope this provides a little more context on the situation regarding the church makeup in my village of Ha'akio and in Tonga generally.

My next article will likely be about the recent tragic death of one of our Peace Corps volunteers on my island of Vava'u in early February and the remarkable experience of a Tongan funeral.

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific.

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