United Methodist Committee on Relief

Faith and Resilience in Tonga: A Visit After a Storm

By Thomas Kemper

I’m always amazed by the resilience of people who come through devastating natural disasters and face the task of rebuilding lives and communities. I saw that in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year, among Syrian refugees in the Middle East a few years back, and again just last month when I visited the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga, still reeling from the impact of Tropical Cyclone Gita in February.

I was there with a staff member and a director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief to show solidarity with the Tongans and to strengthen a post-Gita partnership, which will likely include the rebuilding of schools and churches. One of the strongest Pacific storms on record, Gita was reported around the world but did not hold the headlines long. It represents a disaster of passing interest to major media but gains a place on the UMCOR radar.

A Visit to Tonga

Mele Faiva Manu Blagojevich, an UMCOR and Global Ministries director from the California-Pacific Annual Conference, who is originally from Tonga, alerted the agency to Gita’s rage and accompanied me and UMCOR international relief executive, Laurie Felder, on the solidarity trip to the islands May 24-June 1.

Our primary partner is the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, an autonomous Methodist denomination, which constitutes approximately 30 percent of the population of 107,000. Churches overflow with children and young people.

Along with resilience, I also experienced the strong relations between Tongan culture and Methodism. The first Methodist missionaries from England arrived in 1822, and by the mid-19th century, the whole population was Methodist, including the ruling royal family. Tonga today is a constitutional monarchy (Kingdom of Tonga). King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u are prominent church members. Religious freedom is official policy.

Sunday in Tonga is a day of worship, rest and celebration. Worship is lively with a contagious spirit of joy that carries over into everyday life and work. Tonga was an annual conference of the Methodist Church of Australia until 1977 when it became “free.”

Tonga and Cyclone Gita

The kingdom is made up of 169 islands -- only 36 inhabited -- within a surface area of 290 square miles scattered over 270,000 square miles of ocean. Seventy percent of the people live on the main island of Tongatapu, which sustained widespread damage from Cyclone Gita on Feb. 12, destroying or damaging 2,000 homes, causing extensive evacuations, disrupting water supplies and electric service and wiping out crops. Eighty-eight Methodist churches and a dozen church-related schools were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Recovery from such devastation is always slow because more than a cup of soup and a tent is required. Along with homes and schools, jobs and infrastructure must be replaced, and some of the people and families evacuated always decide to relocate. Today, short- and long-term international relief efforts must be carefully planned, with attention given to avoiding harm to local incentive and economies. One objective is to strengthen local and regional economies, which is a major reason UMCOR prefers to purchase relief supplies and construction materials locally when possible rather than shipping them from the U.S.

UMCOR initially made a modest emergency grant of $10,000 to Tongan relief. A substantially larger grant will follow detailed planning and projections with the Free Wesleyan Church.

Tongan Diaspora

Out migration, some for economic reasons, has been a factor affecting Tonga for years. More Tongans live outside of the country than in it, the largest concentrations in New Zealand and other parts of the South Pacific.

Tongan and Tongan-American Methodists are numerous in the United States, notably in the West, with sizeable populations in the California-Pacific, California-Nevada and Desert Southwest annual conferences.