Who is My Neighbor? Tongan culture featured new series

May 19, 2022 | by JB Brayfindley

Who is My Neighbor? Tongan culture featured new series

Editor's Note: The Western Jurisdiction conferences are coming together to support Tonga relief efforts with their offerings received at annual conference sessions. Many local churches are also holding fundraisers.  Click here to give to the California-Nevada annual conference offering. 

In California-Nevada we are fond of claiming that we are the most diverse conference in the US UMC.  Yet, how well do we know our neighbors?
Who is my neighbor? is a new series of videos and articles presented by our conference Commission on Race and Religion that unpack elements of the many cultures across California-Nevada. Elements the series will cover include communitarian and individualistic cultures, examining different modes of conflict resolution, leadership style, decision making and worship styles including rituals around baptism and confirmation.  Understanding that no one person speaks for an entire ethnic group, panel discussion participants will be chosen by the community to ensure a balanced cultural representation.

Noting that May is Asian-American, Pacific Islander heritage month, Who is my neighbor? launched with an exploration of the Fijian culture. This, the second in the series, spotlights the Tongan Culture.

Click here access the video conversation panel on YouTube.  The video is divided into topic chapters and those are listed with the video on YouTube and posted here: 00:00 Start 00:08 - Welcome and Introduction 08:06 - Introduction to Tonga 12:25 - Religions of Tonga 16:32 - Heritage and Culture of Tonga 26:13 - Community, economics and values of Tonga 38:46 - Social Structure of Tonga 50:45 - Church as the center of Tongan life
Downloadable reflection questions are attached. The following companion article, video and reflection questions will be archived at the conference website News space and on the CCORR space.  


The taped panel discussion features two pastors and two lay persons. Rev. Sifa Hingano serves a Tongan congregation at Laurel United Methodist Church in Oakland, California. Pastor Iunisi Tovo is in a cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment at Sebastopol UMC and Forestville UMC churches located within 15 miles of each other west of Santa Rosa, CA.

Joining them is Lusia Mateialona ‘Olive from Hillsdale UMC in San Mateo. ‘Olive works with youth and young adults in her church. Vaituolo Finau is a member of Sacramento First Taulang-Ū UMC. Finau also serves as a member of the Los Rios District Committee on Ordained Ministry.

An archipelago in Oceania, Tonga consists of 169 islands, 36 inhabited with only three predominately housing the 100,000+ population. More than a thousand miles from New Zealand, it is surrounded by Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia and Kermadec.

“It is the only Kingdom in the Pacific,” states Finau. “That’s quite unique about the island of Tonga.” For thousands of years, The Kingdom of Tonga has been a thalassocracy having influence over large portions of the Pacific from the Solomon Islands in the east to French Polynesia in the west. The Kingdom never relinquished its sovereignty to any foreign power only changing from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2010.

“It’s flat. It doesn’t have any mountains,” Pastor Tovo explains. “When you heard about the tsunami this year—there were no mountains [to give protection].” According to the World Risk Report 2021, Tonga ranks third among countries worldwide in disaster risk, due to the exposure to ‘multiple natural hazards.’

“We say that the mountain of Tonga is in their hearts. We have the motto of the country, ‘God and Tonga are my inheritance.’ That means that Tonga has been lifted up by the first King of Tonga,” states Pastor Tovo. The first Christian Tongan King was Taufa’ahau (George) Tupou I, (c. 1797-1893) baptized in 1831. “…during the time of war [other Pacific islands] were looking for superpowers for protection, Tonga didn’t look for earthly superpowers but looked to God.”

Tonga is 98% Christian with 54% Methodists and 18% Mormon, 15% Catholic and 11% other Christian. “The Wesleyan Methodists came first to Tonga. The second came to Tonga is the Catholic church and then other churches later…” states Rev. Hingano describing how ensuing Pentecostal churches compete for members and divide families. “The very, very sad part in a small country, especially in the South Pacific, where Christianity came and divided the people rather than unite us.”

The family connection and Christian faith play an important role in Tongan society.

Families are raised in a multi-generational setting with brothers and sisters as well as cousins and uncles living with up to 13 people in the same home. Families attend church daily.

“It’s a second home,” agrees ‘Olive. She leads part of the youth program as part of a daily ritual of church activities common to members of the Tongan community. “I work during the day, but after work we go to the church.”

Typically, (pre-pandemic in the U.S.) the nightly activities may include a Youth band rehearsal; Bible study for men, women, youth, and children; volleyball; dancing; singing; rehearsing action songs and biblical plays to perform on Sunday; “hanging out” and eating together; collecting donations to help the needy; cleaning and setting up for Sunday; and leadership meetings. Sunday is a 2 hour long worship service in the afternoon following Sunday School and a meal. Hymn singing is a large part of worship. Laity involvement is important including preaching on Sundays.

“My job is to use what I have by motivating and training my lay preachers,” states Rev. Hingano who only preaches once a month. “They are very good—both men and women.”

To support the church, Tongan members do not give weekly pledges or donations to the church. Instead, they save up two paychecks or more to give on a special Sunday once a year to raise funds for the annual budget—which they usually exceed.

When expressing Tongan values, the panelists shared, “Most Tongans don’t have much in their bank account, but they believe in giving… sharing.”  “Tongans live by faith; we can give, and God will come through.” “There is no limitation. You can give until the last penny in your pocket.” “Everyone counts, everyone contributes.”

The panel discussed how things are done in their community and how that can be at odds with other cultures in the church because of the Tongan hierarchical leadership style and deep sense of community.

“The idea to help each other is the same but the way we do it is a little different,” states ‘Olive. She explains, “If you want to get to a place faster, go by yourself. If you want to go further you take everyone with you because everybody has something to contribute to the journey or to the task or work at hand. That’s very true of our community—everyone pitches in.” If ABCDE needs to be completed, they may only get A and B done.

“We try to get something done but we have a certain way of doing it,” adds ‘Olive. “We look if there is hierarchy at the table. Is there elderly at the table? …There’s that dynamic to balance that energy and balance that authority.”

The panel also discussed the challenges of loving people outside the Tongan family and those unknown and needy in the community.

“I noticed that [my generation] are kind of centered, are oriented around their own family and their own people,” states Finau. In the United States, “joining the United Methodist Church has really expanded our boundary of what we call the ‘neighbors’.”

Finau discusses her children’s eye opening experiences of seeing extreme poverty and other diverse needs here that are not a part of life back home. Raising her children here has given them an expanded view of the world and “has really enriched our lives [beyond] what we were grown up with … It opens your eyes. The UMC really enriched our lives—expanded us …to go beyond your blood family.”

JB Brayfindley is a freelance journalist.