“Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands.”
(Isaiah 42:12)As we approached for landing on the main island of Tongatapu, two things made an impression on us concerning Tonga and her people. From the air we saw her magnificent blowholes. It seemed to us that no one could live alongside such beauty and not be deeply affected in their souls by its splendor. We also saw her patchwork of dark, volcanic farmland. Considering their 2016 General Conference theme was to be, “FLASHPOINT: Having a Mind to Work,” those rich, fertile furrows assured us that these people were definitely no strangers to hard work.
Tennessee Missionary Sis. Crystal Reece, was awaiting our arrival, having been in Tonga for the past three years on her first appointment. On the same flight were fellow Tennesseans, Missionary Evangelist Monte and Sis. Diane Showalter along with Tennessee Global Missions Director, Gary and Sis. Pat Vick. Pacific Regional Director, Roger and Sis. Becky Buckland would be arriving later that day.The Tongan people are very hospitable. We were honored with a Welcome Feast when we arrived at the UPCI Headquarters Church and Bible School. The team was overwhelmed and humbled by platter after platter mounded with food that they had sacrificed to prepare.Services didn’t begin until Thursday evening, allowing us a few days to see the sights and get our bearings. A van had been rented, enabling our group to travel together. It was during this time that we first visited Tonga’s acclaimed blowholes at low tide. Here, ocean waves crashed into porous channels of volcanic rock, and blew skyward for twenty to thirty feet, in a great symphony of spray and sound. We were also able to drive through the countryside, taking in the sights, sounds and culture of these wonderful people.Even though they have little in the way of money or material possessions, they utilize every natural resource to enrich their lives. One example of this is their beautiful Tapa Cloth, which they make by pressing the bark of trees into paper-like sheets and decorating them with dye made from local berries. These are coveted pieces of artwork that are given as gifts in friendship and are also essential to the foundation of Tonga’s tourism. Missionary Crystal Reece said it best, “Tongans think they are so poor, but they are really so rich, and have so much to offer.”Once the conference started on Thursday evening, sightseeing was put to the side, and pressing into the Spirit became our focus. Bro. Showalter was the day speaker. With each session he laid a solid foundation of Apostolic teaching on the New Birth. Bro. Vick was the night speaker, focusing on moving forward into new levels of faith and commitment. Sis. Showalter and Sis. Vick ministered in the ladies’ service on Saturday. The Lord had prepared each speaker with messages that built upon the conference theme, “FLASHPOINT: Having a Mind to Work.”From the first song in the kick off service, it was apparent that the Tongan Church loves to worship. They are a naturally joyful people. This was manifested again and again, whether it was through their colorful clothing, the smiles on their faces, their beautiful voices as they harmonized in song, or their eagerness to dance with zeal in praise and worship. Since modesty is a cultural norm in Tonga, their long, fully-covered style of clothing allowed freedom in worship. The atmosphere compelled each of us to join in with exuberance.Each message had to be translated from English to Tongan. Bro. Showalter was overjoyed that his translator was the same man who had translated for him fifteen years before as a young man. What a joy to know he was still thriving in the Church and in ministry.
Bro. Vick’s translator and his family had travelled from the Tongan island of Vava’u (where he pastors) by ferry for twenty-four hours on rough seas to come to the conference. It humbled our hearts to realize that many did not live on the main island of Tongatapu, but had been so desperate for the Word of God and the fellowship of the brethren that they had come at great risk and sacrifice from the outer islands by boat. You might recall a story in the news from several months ago of a ferry that capsized with several hundred souls lost to the sea. This happened within fifty miles and could have been any of these precious saints of God.The structure of the conference was the same as one would expect at our North American General Conference. This is important to note because the United Pentecostal Church work in Tonga is only forty-five years young. We were blessed to meet eighty year old, Sis. Ofa Manu. She, along with her late husband, were the first UPCI converts in 1971 by Missionary Don Dobyns.Because of the strong structural foundation that was laid over the last forty-five years, there is a strong Bible School presence in Tonga today. We witnessed three new Bible School students graduate and be presented at this year’s conference. Sis. Crystal has worked tirelessly over the past three years in the Bible School on her first appointment, as well as several years previously in the Associates In Missions program under the leadership of former Pacific Regional Director, Bennie Blunt.
Friday was Missions Night. There was great anticipation from the beginning of service. When the offering was taken, a spirit of giving flooded the sanctuary. The congregation began to flock to the altar to put their offering in the baskets provided. The giving was not done grudgingly, but with a joyful expectancy that God would use every single pa’anga for furthering the gospel.
In the spirit of sacrificial giving, one Tongan minister brought his ta’ovala and placed it on the altar as his offering. The ta’ovala is a woven mat worn wrapped around the waist on formal occasions. In the fashion sense, it is comparable to men’s neckties in North America, but with a great sentimental value. It is woven with many strands to represent community and tied with a four-strand rope to represent family. It is usually one of the only possessions of monetary value that a Tongan man would own, and is passed down from generation to generation.
It took only a few seconds for the congregation to realize what had just taken place before there was an explosion of praise, worship and more giving. Another Tongan minister, who had just received his Local License in this conference, walked to the front and placed his shoes on the altar. He worshipped the rest of the service barefooted. The image of the baskets of pa’anga, the ta’ovala and the shoes of a barefoot worshipper are seared into our minds.
Being the final day of conference, Sunday was a full day. We arrived to find all the beautiful children dressed in their very best, eagerly waiting to go in for a Sunday School presentation. They melted our hearts as they quoted scriptures and sang, “This Little Light of Mine in both Tongan and English.That evening, we were privileged to witness as Pacific Regional Director, Bro. Roger Buckland gave the charge to a minister and his wife receiving his Ordination License.The 2016 Tongan General Conference concluded Sunday night with twenty-two people having been filled with the Holy Ghost. That final worship service was phenomenal as the people praised God for all they had seen and experienced. After all, it had to be enough to carry them back across the sea until the next time they could gather with their brothers and sisters in the Lord.Monday came all too soon with the team members heading in different directions, some preparing to go home and others traveling on to scheduled conferences. The week had been so full that we hardly had the time to wonder how we would feel when the conference came to an end. Old friendships were rekindled. New friendships were forged. In both old and new, hearts were united for the cause of Missions.
Our one last trip to the blowholes was at high tide. What had been beautiful was now so much more. With the rising of the tide, every distinguishable characteristic had been enhanced. It was so majestic and powerful that at least one of us wept. However, in all of its glorious splendor, even this natural wonder could not compare to the glory of the Church in Tonga and around the world.