Prime Minister of Fiji welcomed by Fijian congregations across California and Nevada at First Santa Rosa UMC

March 09, 2023 | by Jorge Domingues,Selby Ewing

Prime Minister of Fiji welcomed by Fijian congregations across California and Nevada at First Santa Rosa UMC

The Honorable Prime Minister of Fiji, Sitiveni L. Rabuka was welcomed by Pastor Janette Saavedra, and Mr. Isimeli Radrdro, the Vakatawa at First Santa Rosa, and the Chairman for The Council of Vakatawa. Hundreds of Fijians from across our California-Nevada connection joined the Santa Rosa faith family for worship, followed by a banquet and a town hall meeting on Sunday March 5th.  Interim Bishop Sally Dyck, Director of Connectional Ministries Jorge Domingues and Los Rios District Superintendent Shinya Goto represented the California-Nevada Conference office on this historic occasion.

Invited to give greetings, Bishop Dyck welcomed everyone saying, "I can only imagine how exciting it must be for you to have the Prime Minister of your homeland be with you in worship today. Are you excited? I'm kind of excited and I'm not even Fijian!". As the applause subsided, Bishop Dyck continued, "We share this wonderful family history in following Jesus' way of Methodism, and I look forward to being a part of your community today. God Bless you Mr. Prime Minister on this trip to the United States and may it be productive and good for you and your country."

Pastor Janette shared, "It was such an honor to host Prime Minister Rabuka and the diverse Fijian community across California and Nevada.  We had very little notice and time to make all the necessary arrangements, and it is a testament to the faith family at First UMC Santa Rosa who made the event possible. Santa Rosa UMC was transformed into a center of healing for Indo and Indigenous Fijians and for that I am honored and grateful."

Vakatawa Radrdro said, "Like any Methodist function lots of speeches, beautiful singing and yes lots of food and Pacific style dishes and everyone tucked into the nice food.  After lunch there was a question and answer time with the Prime Minister and the Fijian Community really utilized this time well, asking the Mr Rabuka many questions on Fijian Development, Education, Business, Rights, Social Security, Health, etc. Later there were some light moments that the Mr Rabuka shared with the Community, talking to some and taking photos with them."
"We acknowledge the presence of Bishop Sally, Jorges and Shinya," continued Radrdro. "Thank you all for worshipping with us. We like to thank the Pastors Janette & Peter, and the congregation and Fijian Community  for their support. We would like to thank Bob Cheal, Mike Young and Elizabethh Walton all of Santa Rosa FUMC whose support we could not have livestreamed the events. The event was truly historical and unique as it may have been the first for us to host a Head of a nation. All praise be to God."

"With the slogan of “Let Love Shine”, Fiji’s new coalition government led by Sitiveni Rabuka has paved the way forward for a new era of politics in Fiji after 16 years of autocratic rule by Voreqe  Bainimarama, who led the 2006 military coup," said Tikiko Lesuma, who serves as the Congregational Development Mission Focus Area Convener, and as Pastor at Wesley UMC in Sacramento. 

Lesuma continued, "The Prime Minister’s most recent trip to Santa Rosa meant so much to the Fijian communities because most of these folks were first generation Fijians who had to retire early at the age of 55 under the previous regime and had to search for greener pastures like the United States to work and support their families and loved ones in Fiji.  Mr. Rabuka delivered one of his campaign promises which is to increase the retirement age to 60 which now relieves the stress from the Fijian communities who now resides in the US and other overseas countries as well. The other fulfilled campaign promise was to remove 3 years base contracts for all civil servants. Now all government civil servants are able to get a mortgage and purchase homes since their employment as government civil servants are more secure than the 3 years base contracts which was implemented by the former regime. In a nutshell, personally Mr. Rabuka recent visit meant so much and as folks gathered in hundreds at Santa Rosa with a clear message saying, thank you Mr Rabuka for letting Freedom Ring in Fiji and it’s people. "

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Rabuka attended the 2 day Our Ocean conference in Panama City, Panama. He was among 600 leaders from across the globe who came together to discuss the impact of pollution, mining, overfishing and climate change on the world's oceans.  While there, a friend asked him to come and be with the Fijian community of Santa Rosa UMC. The prime minister is a lay preacher of the Methodist Church in Fiji and has visitied other churches in the California-Nevada Conference in the past.  "This Sunday is Father Sunday and Harvest Sunday in Fiji', noted Rabuka. Harvest Sunday is when farmers' first harvest from the previous year's planting is offered to God in the church. Father Sunday is when pastors return to their home churches during the school holidays and prepare for Methodist Conference.    Rabuka said, "Because of Covid-19 we have not been having the Conference and also because of the the previous regime and their views, they stopped the Methodist Church in Fiji from having the annual conferences." He noted that because of the change in government, the Methodist Church would be allowed to have Conference this year and preparations were underway in the hopes that it could be organized for 2023.  "I'm glad to be here. This looks like a mini conference", shared Prime Minister Rabuka, "where a number of congregations have come together with their ministers and Bishops" Rabuka went on to describe Harvest Sunday and the traditional presentation of the once delicate yam crop for God's blessing. He noted that now, with the help of science and new fertilizers, there are many strains of yams that can be planted at any time during the year.  The effect of these fertilizers on local environments in Fiji and their contribution to climate change in the world was among the topics discussed in Panama City earlier in the week.   "We've been talking about blue ocean. We've been talking about green energy. We've been talking about all these things that would mitigate or prevent the bad damaging effects of climate change." Prime Minister Rabuka was asked to unveil the new logo of the Fijian Language Ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa. The Fijian language ministry in Santa Rosa is celebrating 20 years this year, and the visit of the prime minister was an opportunity to celebrate the history and the achievements of this ministry. 
Interim Bishop Sally Dyck led a blessing for the Prime Minister and his people saying,

"Oh God, we thank you that you call all of us to be in your service. And we thank you that you equip us to be in your service. And sometimes that service is in the church, sometimes that service is through our work lives, throughout all of our communities and society and we know that you also call people to be in your service with important tasks of leading a nation. And so we pray, Oh God, that you will send your Holy Spirit upon this, your servant. And that you would give him wisdom and guidance as he seeks to guide this country and to help it to be strong, and to help it to be good, and to help it to be one of blue oceans and green grass and able to supply food for all on the island. We pray that you will guide him in being your wittness, not only to the tasks at hand, the technology and science of it all, to the theory and strategy, but to the goodness of God, and that that might be a wittness. Be with him and with all of those who serve with him. May their hearts be as gold, pure and refined, to care for the people in all the ways that they seek to lead. May the people be the governing body of guidance for all the decisions that are made. That you love your people in Fiji and use your servants to care for them. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen." 

After the service, the Fijian Language Ministry of Santa Rosa invited Prime Minister Rabuka and all the worship attendants to a lunch in honor of his visit and to celebrate the 20 years of the ministry. More than 300 people joined the celebrations which later turned into a "town hall meeting" with many of the participants lining up on the microphone to welcome PM Rabuka and to ask questions of interest of the Fijian American community in Northern California. The prime minister and his team answered all the questions and offered to continue working with his cabinet to respond to the needs of the Fijian community in our area. According to a member of Prime Minister Rabuka's team, there is an estimate of clolse to 50,000 Fijians and descendants in Northern California. 
DS Goto and Rev. Domingues shared with the prime minister that California-Nevada Conference maintains a Bilateral Agreement with the Methodist Church of Fiji. As part of the agreement, the conference has created a Fijian language Lay Servant Ministry training, contextualized and led by Fijians clergy and lay members of our conference. Some of our local ministries have also organized volunteer in mission trips to Fiji to support the Methodist Church in Fiji, its congregations, schools and ministries. A mission team is being organized to visit Fiji this summer, and Prime Minister Rabuka offered to meet with the team when they arrive in the island nation. 
Rev. Domingues expressed to Prime Minister Rabuka that the "California-Nevada Conference was honored by his visit just in the first three months of his term. The Fijian Language Ministry of our conference is a result of the partnership between our churches, and we hope to continue and expand this relationship in addressing the needs of the Fijian population, as well as inviting them to continue to be in mission with the church in Fiji through our mission teams." This is an opportunity to reaffirm our calling to be followers of Jesus in our lands and with our siblings in Christ here and across the Pacific ocean.  

Rev. Jorge Domingues serves as the Executive Director of Connectional Ministries with the California-Nevada Conference.
Selby Ewing is Director of Communications at the California-Nevada Conference of The United Methodist Church.