Tonga travelers on their way

August 05, 2007

“Remember, what you don’t like here becomes a jewel in this other part of the world,” Pastor Sifa told his audience when he visited Gilroy United Methodist Church in preparation for a joint Volunteers in Mission trip. Six Methodists from Gilroy joined a group from the city of Sanger (near Fresno) on an adventurous volunteer mission for part of July and August to Rev. Sifa’s hometown in the Kingdom of Tonga, a group of islands that lie about a third of the way between New Zealand and Hawaii. 

In a country Sifa describes as third world, there is a need for many of the things we toss aside or take for granted here. For instance, prescription eyeglasses are hard to come by on the island, so Rev. Sifa took some castoff ones home on a previous trip. As many people were trying them on, an older gentleman began weeping as he found a pair which helped restore his eyesight. 

Part of the preparation for the trip involved 25 dancers and drummers from the Sanger and Fresno areas coming to answer questions from the Gilroy group. They perform a variety of Polynesian dances all over California and are known as goodwill ambassadors in their community. 

The Gilroy group welcomed them with a potluck at the church, organized by Sandy Aguilera. Semi-retired teacher Janice Krahenbuhl, who donated her school supplies for the trip, got a big laugh when she looked out over the huge spread of barbecued meat, salads, entrees, and desserts which fed about 200 people, and said, “It’s written in the Methodist Discipline that you cannot get into heaven unless you’re carrying a covered dish.” 

Four young women started the dancing off in yellow skirts and green blouses with black feathered necklaces on strands of black beads decorated with sea shells. They danced barefoot in the parking lot at the Methodist Church, waving yellow fans in their hands. Then it was a quick costume change as another set of dancers came out to perform in orange dresses wearing flowers in their hair and green leaf garlands that fell to their knees. They were accompanied by five drummers on tall wooden and red and white drums with decorative carvings. 

For a Cook Islands dance, the performers wore black accented by multi-colored leis of purple, pink, and orange around their waists and on their wrists. For the New Zealand dances, our visitors wore red and black headbands, and their beaded skirts had little pouches of sand hanging from them. The dancers swung the pouches on ropes and rapidly twirled them around their bodies as they moved. A Tahitian number was performed by the dancers in red and black grass skirts with striking red feathers in their hair. 

Pastor Sifa of the Sanger Methodist Church is heading the trip to Tonga, assisted by Pastor Alison Berry from Gilroy, as they return to Sifa’s hometown village of Leimatua to deliver two cargo containers full of items that were donated to help in Tongan classrooms and villages, including text books, tables, chairs, learning aids for the classroom (such as tools for teaching counting, etc.), plates, cups, flatware, computers, jackets, tents, a tractor, a boat, and yes, even an ambulance! They will be setting up a solar well and two high school libraries, as well as providing technical support for a computer lab and other agencies that need this expertise.

Tonga takes the adage, “It takes a village” to heart. Because Pastor Sifa is a local boy, the volunteers, including about 20 young people, will all be considered his children, and the local villagers will be looking out for them. He warned the young people that they will be expected to respect local customs and dress modestly. It is not okay to walk around town shirtless or in a bathing suit, for example. “Be careful what you admire,” he cautioned, “Because the local people will give it to you if you say you like it!”

On their visit, the dancers conducted a brief dance tutorial for their Gilroy hosts. After getting an 83-year-old Methodist mom, Vi, to move her hips from side to side and then in big circles to the music, Pastor Sifa declared, “Now all of you qualify to go to Tonga!”

The dancers donned black, white, and blue dresses for the final dance to “I Can Only Imagine,” a song about what paradise must be like. As their hands reached up to the heavens in slow and graceful gestures, we all experienced a little bit of heaven ourselves.
Kat Teraji, Gilroy UMC