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Reflections on a year in Tonga

Mrs Judy Morrison and Rev. Dr Alan Morrison
Rev. Dr Alan and Mrs Judy Morrison spent a year in Tonga from July 2006 to July 2007. Here are Mrs Morrison’s reflections on their time there.

The hour was late but the airport was alive with people – men, women and children moving, talking, laughing, looking – and everywhere the handshakes and hugs of meeting and greeting.

Our pale faces marked us, declared us clearly in a minority as we moved, bemused, through the sea of smiling, dark faces to be enveloped in the welcoming embrace of our first Tongan friends. The adventure had begun!

The next twelve months were full of amazing events – ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ for Tongans, but different and amazing for us.

We witnessed feasts, funerals, first birthday parties, anniversaries, celebrations, Sunday School services, special worship; we entertained visitors in our home – friends, relatives, local dignitaries; we visited many of the beautiful tourist areas.

And we worked – how we worked! Days began at 8 am with Chapel; lectures lasted for 2 ½ hours; and students called at the house at any hour of the day or night for help. It was a full-on involvement. But worth every minute of it.

During our time there, we wrote descriptively of many of the activities we were privileged to be involved in, but our reflections now that we have returned go far beyond that.

So what can we say to people in Australia to convey something of the enormity of the experience of serving God in another culture?

We went to Tonga for a year under the Uniting Church Partners in Mission scheme. This meant that the church in Australia paid our return airfares and the church in Tonga (the Free Wesley Church – the Methodist Church in Tonga) provided our accommodation and paid us a basic living allowance.

The purpose of the placement was to allow Alan to teach in the New Testament department at Sia’atoutai Theological College while Tongan staff from that department were completing post-graduate studies overseas.

In the second semester that we were there, I was also co-opted to teach English for Theology while the College was seeking a longer term placement.

The Tongans welcomed us as missionaries, a term of great significance to them. They accepted us as people who as a demonstration of their love and commitment to God had volunteered to come and give of their time and skills to help them in their need.

We were there to work alongside them, to assist them in their tasks, and to share with them ideas and thoughts as they planned for the continuing development of the College.

Our first task was to begin to understand the culture within which we were to live – to observe, to read, to ask questions where appropriate and to learn.

And learn we did – so much more from them than they were able to learn from us. We learnt something of their history, yes, but we learnt so much more about life.

We saw a different approach to material possessions: ‘things’ are really not the most significant thing in Tongan society. Family and relationships are much more important, and much of the social life of the people centred around family and church.

There was not a great emphasis on being entertained – life was about being involved in activities, not being observers only.

We learnt something of the great culture and tradition of these people.

We did not ever come to understand fully the way in which rank and relationships operate within the society (it becomes very complex to our Western minds) but we did learn to appreciate that things work differently in their society from the way they work in ours.

We became very aware of the inappropriateness of the common Western response: “You should do it this way!” and understood that they have to work it out in their own context.

So we became aware of the challenge for Tongans of working out just how much they want to absorb of Western ways to sustain their contacts with the rest of the world, and how much of their traditional practices it is possible and desirable to maintain in their own developing modern society.

It is a complex society, made up of people living on many different islands with varying degrees of contact with the rest of the world and this makes it even harder to manage a unified approach to what we call ‘development’. Not everyone wants the same level or speed of modernisation!

Yet despite the varied approaches to many matters, we learnt that one common and lasting aspect of Tongan culture is the importance of giving. There may be hardship in Tonga, but rarely did we see abject poverty: when someone has a need, family and friends respond to that need.

When the church asks for money it appears, even if the families then have nothing left for themselves. Whenever a service is provided, a gift is given in return. The importance of giving is deeply ingrained and makes the culture rich and the life secure.

Christianity has been deeply grafted onto the culture since the early nineteenth century and many Tongan families proudly relate their connection to men who went to other Pacific countries as missionaries sharing the Good News with other island people.

For a long time, the experience of Christianity has been filtered through Western eyes and Western practices. It was a real challenge for me to see how important it is for a people like this to reach their own theological maturity and work out for themselves what the Gospel message means for them within their own culture.

The whole issue of ‘contextualisation’ of the Gospel is a very significant one for them, but the awareness of this made me very aware of the ongoing challenge for everyone.

I found myself re-examining my own beliefs and asking the same sort of questions as they were asking: what were the messages behind the Gospel stories for the people for whom they were written originally and then what is the message for me here and now in my own culture in my own age?

It’s a question we all need to ask continually but sometimes it needs a significant event (like an encounter with another culture) to make us face up to it.

Thank you to Tonga and to Uniting International Mission for the opportunity to have this life-broadening experience.

This can be part of anyone’s experience too – there are many places which still need ‘missionaries’ as co-workers as they develop their own place in the world.

Judy Morrison is a retired teacher and Alan is a retired Uniting Church minister. They are now members of the Caloundra Uniting Church.

Photo : Mrs Judy Morrison and Rev. Dr Alan Morrison