Mountain Sky Conference: Where You Belong More
While many United Methodist churches declare youth are the future leaders of the denomination, they are leaders now at Tongan United Methodist Church.
In the middle of the worship service, the Rev. Tevita Ofahengaue touched Sekope Fainu
on the shoulder, put the microphone in front of his face and asked him to pray.
Without hesitation, the 16-year-old responded with a heartfelt prayer that resonated with the congregation.
“Perhaps he is called to be a preacher,” Ofahengaue said to the delight of the people gathered in the sanctuary.
The Rev. Tevita Ofahengaue breaks the Communion bread during a service that features both the English and Tongan languages. In the background is Christiana Uesi.
Later, speaking about the great influence the youth of the church have on the congregation, Ofahengaue said he could have asked any young person in the youth group to pray and they would have been ready.
“Our church is formed from the love of our young adults and their worship is found in music and dance,” Ofahengaue said.
Most services include a dance choreographed and selected by the youth. Using large gossamer flags of gold and white, the youth danced to “How Great Thou Art” at a service in November.Fainu and three other youth members talked about how central the church is to their everyday lives. None of the young people attends the same school, so the church binds them together.
“We are more than a youth group, we are like family,” said Sepi Lokotui, 15. “We know each other and that’s what I love.”Ofa Vake, 16, said she has been a member of Tongan United Methodist Church all her life.
“We do a lot, last summer we were living here every day. We go out and perform cultural dances, hulas and all that. We get opportunities to go out and perform in public places like festivals and for conferences. It is a lot of fun.”
Fainu said he thinks everyone is called to be a pastor. The others nod in agreement.
Lokotui, who joined the church a few years ago, said the welcome she felt from the other youth members was amazing.
“They welcomed me like bringing me into their own house. All positive, no negative vibes.”
Eseta Tuifua Sii, 16, was baptized in the church. She said the group has its breakdowns sometimes while preparing for a dance concert but added that they always pull through in the end.
One challenge was over a skit for Easter, she said. It was a very emotional skit and they felt too much pressure from the congregation. But they talked it over and came through with a performance they were all proud of.
“We had a lot of support and it turned out great,” she said.
“What I like is how the youth can put together a program and keep the kids here. They actually converted my daughter to come to this church. Once she came and got to know them and seeing the program they do, she instantly converted to this church,” Fungalei said.
Masima Tuifua said the youth “keep me going.”“If we as leaders neglect to concentrate on the youth, we are going to lose them to the world and they will lose track of God’s plan for them,” she said. “We are here just to help them, to keep that love of God growing within them,” she said.
Another aspect of this church that is helping the younger members grow in their faith is that Ofahengaue preaches in English and in Tongan.“Before, I saw the youth and young adults didn’t understand, since mostly our teaching is in Tongan,” said Christiana Uesi, who is in the process of becoming a certified lay minister.
“For the future of this church, we need bilingual. It helps our children and helps us too,” she said.Tongan culture is important in this church, Ofahengaue said. “The culture is based on respect and the love of God. We have so much respect for our elders.”
Laughing, Ofahengaue said that often when the youth visit American United Methodist churches they are shocked by how different the cultures are.
“In Tongan culture, you have to take care of your parents, be quiet in church,” he said.
Fanga Fisilau, director of children ministries, said, “We have new kids all the time, people are being born all the time.”
Smiles of welcome are visible everywhere, even for visitors, during the Sunday service at the Tongan United Methodist Church.
Church school is held on Thursdays and about 200 children usually attend, Fisilau said.
Vake, Lokotui, Fainu and Sii said there are no cliques, no groups; everyone is treated equally.
“We hope this gets passed on to the next generation,” Fainu said.
Smiling, he adds, “We love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”