In Tonga Sundays are holy by law. The three main activities are lotu (church), kai (eat) and mohe (sleep). Although I have a strong bias against the Christian church (thank you fanatic Inner Mission preacher from my childhood), I found that there was little else to do on my first Sunday in Tonga, so I decided to give it a go.
The choices were so many that it made me dizzy, but in the end I went with my French room-mate Thibaut’s idea of going to the official state church – the Free Church of Tonga – where the King was supposed to be.
Where Is The King And Who Paid What?
Like a true Tongan, though, the King doesn’t always do what is culturally expected from him. With that many cultural rules you really can’t blame them. Instead, the King mostly frequents the Methodist church which is conveniently located near the Royal Palace. But the Prime Minister was there and I know that, because he picked up Thibaut as he hitch-hiked into town after the service!
And what a service it was; the singing was incredible. Not only was there a super professional large choir and brass-band, the whole congregation sang with full voices in perfect pitch. As I found out later, this church is the most conservative in all of Tonga and this was reflected in the fact that every single person was wearing black.
Thankfully I always travel with a dark suit (you’d be surprised how handy that is when you’re boarding a flight with a guitar that was supposed to have been checked in) and so I managed to blend in somewhat. Thibaut and myself were the only whites there, but as Thibaut had donned a shiningly white shirt I felt like he got most of the looks, so I felt safe enough to sneak an audio-recording of the fantastic harmonies into my little recorder.
During the end of the ceremony, the obligatory money-collection took place and, sure enough, 5 somber clergymen gathered around a table where, in Denmark at least, an altar and Jesus icon usually presides. Here they proceeded to count all the donated money and finally to loudly proclaim who gave what in the order of highest sums first. Despite my anti-religious stance, I surprisingly felt that this was a seriously profane thing to do.
Getting High On The Bible
The night before Thibaut and myself had also been challenged a bit in our cultural foundations. We went to a kava-club, where local men gather to drink the narcotic juice made from the Kava roots. Giggling and expecting some kind of a ‘trip’ we entered a large new building, built for the sole purpose of drinking kava.
But instead of a raucous bunch of semi-conscious guys, rolling around on the floor, we chanced upon a quite serious bible-meeting! There were 5 older men there and although they welcomed us and even said that we were now officially members of the club, it was clear that they were there for anything but indulging us with a party.
As the kava got served from a large plastic tub into our coconut-shell cups, in the ceremonial way of the furthest man first to be served, Thibaut and I were never really sure whether the ‘drug’ was even working or whether we were supposed to even talk. In Tonga, the person of the highest rank (based on age, gender and societal strata) is always right and when that person speaks, everyone else shuts up.
We could never really work out who that was and so there were plenty of awkward moments when we just kept talking until we felt everybody’s annoyed gaze on us.
The Catholics Do It Too
My second Sunday in Tonga found me on the remote island of Foa in the Ha’apai island group. Here my host, the lutheran German Jürgen (or Uki, as his name is pronounced in Tongan) always frequent the Catholic church (!), so I went with him to mass.
I’ve always joked that if I was forced at gunpoint to choose to be either protestant or catholic, that I would go for the latter. There is just a bit more colour to a catholic service, what with the incense, the Latin chants, the pompous processions with the cross and the book and so on. This one was no different.
At the strike of the bell, the whole congregation started a monotonous chanting in Tongan, followed by some impressive singing by the eager choir. As the altar boys paraded a wooden cross and two large candles, the salty breeze whiffed through the open doors and carried the sounds of a crowing rooster and some grunting pigs.
The priest was a friendly looking fella and apparently quite a stand-upper as he had the whole church in stitches several times. The whole hour and a half was conducted in a mix of Tongan and Latin, so I never did understand what was going on, except for the one English sentence; “you become what you eat”, which didn’t exactly enlighten me…
What was clear, however, is how important these Sunday rituals are for the Tongans, regardless of their denomination. In a society where the 7th day of the week is holy by law and no one is allowed to work (not even swimming or doing your laundry is OK) going to church is the one activity that unites the Tongans and provides a meeting place and a continuous re-establishing of their belonging to the community.
After the service I noticed how all the girls were gossiping in one spot, while all the boys were smoking cigarettes and discreetly ogling the girls from another spot. Men and women shook hands and conversed, and undoubtedly this post-mass mingling was as important as the mass itself.
White Folks Can’t Sing
Unsurprisingly, Tonga’s expat community is largely Christian too. There are, of course, plenty of missionaries and other church-related envoys, but even among regular professionals, being a Christian (or at least going to church) seems like a prerequisite for living in Tonga. I guess the fact that I went to church 4 times in a month – after not going for years – is a case in point. Christianity here is as much a cultural phenomenon as a spiritual one.
For my last Sunday in the Kingdom, I chose to go to an English speaking service in the capital, Nuku’alofa. My wonderful host, Jasmin, and her equally great friends had invited me but with one warning; the singing was going to be awful. They weren’t kidding 🙂
Nevertheless, it was nice to actually understand what was happening at this service and quite intriguing to witness how a bunch of Palangis (Tongan for ‘white people’) worship God in his own island Kingdom.
It was a wonderfully relaxed event, with a Tongan speaker telling us about his work at a Christian radio station and about his journey into becoming a preacher, all to the backdrop of kids playing at the back of the room. In this small and dedicated congregation, the members take turns in conducting the service and this day it was the New Zealand born Evelyn, who is married to a Tongan.
She started her talk with a most graceful and (in my opinion) truly Christian topic; acknowledging the beginning of the Muslim fasting time – the Ramadan. This, she said, is an important time for Islamic followers, a time where many seek to be closer to God, and she later lead a prayer for the followers of Mohammad.
For many reasons, I left the service feeling inspired. My comment in their guest book was; thank you for allowing me an opportunity to (finally) be proud of my Christian background. And although I don’t expect to attend a Christian service for years to come, I do feel that my stay in Tonga has modified some of my crass prejudice towards Christians and given me a better idea of what it means to be a true Christian.