02 May 2010

Not your average American service

As we've written before, church is incredibly important in Tonga, a deeply Christian country since Methodist missionaries came in 1822. Among the handful of
denominations, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the oldest, and the root of the newer Free Church of Tonga and Church of Tonga, hearkening back to the days of the first missionaries. We both teach in Free Wesleyan (FWC) schools, and so naturally, we go to the agriculture school's little FWC chapel every Sunday.

Every Sunday is almost exactly the same, not only across time, but across locations as well. Every church in the FWC denomination follows a liturgy that extends even to during-the-week bible studies and school assembly messages. Also, almost everyone in our town and school goes to one FWC church or another, so you can always say 'hey how about that message this morning' and even if they went to a different church, they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

So, every Sunday morning, we usually sleep through the 5AM bell (for 5:30AM service), have breakfast, and then at 9 and 9:30, we hear the bell ring for the 10AM service.

Church dress is the most formal out of every-day dress, so men wear a collared, button up shirt with a ta'ovala (the woven strip tied around the waist) and a tupenu (a tailored man-skirt that looks like someone took a pair of slacks and fused the legs together).

We walk across the cow field from our house, and turn around to look back at it from across the field.

Then, we continue through a corridor of pines that strangely always reminds us of Oregon. Women wear a puletaha (a matching skirt and top with elbow-length, puffed sleeves), and a longer tupenu (the woven wrap). This is the only time that women wear a tupenu other than when they attend funerals or are in mourning for the death of a loved one. Otherwise, you wear a kind of decorated belt called a kiekie.

We walk up to the little chapel just as the last bell is ringing. Contrary to popular stereotype of "Tonga time", Tongans are always on time to church, and if we walk in right at 10, we are already "late"- the last ones in!

During the week, the chapel is used for anything from school-wide assemblies to school singing practice. It gets well-loved.

The bell might look familiar- it's an old cooking gas canister! Very few churches have traditional gonging bells; most use a metal stick on an echoing empty gas canister. The smaller, squat canisters are always hung up near school buildings- a mystery to us when we first came to Tonga until we realized that those were the school bells- to ring the switching of periods.

The ringing goes on for two- three minutes, and at the last ring, church starts. Everyone pays attention from chatting with their neighbor, sits up, and the minister comes in to announce the first song.

The kids always get dressed up very smartly. The girl in this picture is wearing a kiekie, appropriate for younger women and older girls. Kiekies are also worn throughout the week to work by everyone, young and old women alike. Especially to work, it doesn't have to match your outfit, and it doesn't have to look new, as long as you are clean and modestly dressed.

In church, however, everyone looks their best.

We sing standing up, singing from little Methodist hymn books with tunes that sound strangely familiar but have Tongan words and rhythms. She's singing from one in her hand. Behind her is the song director, the head Prefect of the school, who conducts the congregation.

After each verse, the song leader reads out the words of the next verse, and someone in the back starts the tune again. This causes a very interesting auditory rhythm of song - speech - one person singing - everyone singing - speech etc.

All the kids sit through the service, keeping mostly quiet and good. Several of the young ones always break loose and run around the building until an older sibling is sent out to quiet them.

Tonga has a truly surprising number of ministers, and we were surprised to find out at the beginning that one minister does not do all of the sermons a church. Although each church usually has a minister, any number of ordained people from the community may be asked to preach at any time. We have never heard the same person preach twice in a row.

At the agriculture school, the principal, deputy principal, head tutor, and machinery manager are all ordained, and take turns giving the message.

Church ends promptly one hour after it begins.

After church, everyone streams out and slowly makes their way home to eat the most important meal of the week- Sunday dinner. Every other family on our campus spends the first few hours of Sunday morning preparing the 'umu, or underground oven.

First, they heat up stones in a fire pit with a fire while the sweet potatoes are skinned and the lu (meat wrapped in taro leaves with coconut milk) is prepared in foil packets. Then when the stones are hot enough, everything is piled into the hole, and covered with banana leaves and old blankets.

By the time church is out, everything has been cooking in the umu for an hour or two, and everyone is hungry, the kids especially.

We go over to the principal's house with his wife while he finishes drinking kava with several of the other men, and hang out with them and their two kids.

Even though everyone almost always has the same thing- lu (taro leaves + meat + coconut milk) and sweet potato or some other root crop, everyone always exchanges a plate of food with their immediate neighbors. The principal's wife always receives two or three plates of food, slides the food onto another platter, and places- often the same thing- on to the plate and returns the plate full with the kid who brought it. (this is the entrance to their house)

Several students also come to eat at their house, so we always have a fun time around the table, laughing, talking, and eating good food. Finally, stuffed, we roll home, and sometimes, drag ourselves up from afternoon laziness to attend the next service at 4pm.


  1. Thanks for sharing! I love the pictures, the detailed descriptions of clothes, food, the ritual of Sunday mornings. They all bring Tonga more to life for those of us that haven't had the chance to visit.

  2. Thank you, this is awesome. Well done you two.

  3. "Show & Tell" at its best! -- Ted Stannard


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