I spent today in Suva representing the Uniting Church in Australia as our partner church, the Methodist Church In Fiji and Rotuma, mourned the death of its beloved, visionary President, the Rev Dr Tuikilakila Waqairatu; giving heartfelt thanks for his life and ministry at a service in Centenary Methodist Church and then burying him in the grounds of Davuilevu near the Baker memorial Hall. More than a quarter of Fijians identify as Methodist and so the whole funeral was broadcast live on TV and radio. It was a long day and many thousands of people participated. I felt privileged to be one.
Now I’m pretty tired and I need to get some sleep before my early morning flight tomorrow. But I’d like to reflect briefly on the experience.
One of the things that stood out to me was the way the church across the Pacific and around the world entered into this private space of grief and loss, manifesting the unity of the body of Christ in this critical moment for the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma. Letters of condolence were read from churches and ecumenical bodies that could not be represented at short notice. Leaders and members of many others simply set aside their plans and commitments to be here. Some of us were privileged to deliver brief eulogies.
Sitting with Kerry Enright, the National Director of UnitingWorld, we soon became aware that the Fijian community within the Uniting Church in Australia was well represented by members from congregations in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Fijian-Australian, Australian-Fijian: the connections of family, friendship and faith are rich with life.
When Western eyes turn to Oceania, they tend to see the oceans as barriers that separate island peoples from each other. But from the perspective of island peoples the ocean, its tides and currents, connect them to each other. As I sang decades ago – only half understanding what I was sensing after moving back to Australia:
We are races and nations
We are family and friends
Our communion is shared on the tide and the wind
[“The Pacific” http://andrewdutney.bandcamp.com/track/the-pacific%5D
This is true for the peoples of the Pacific. And it is intensified within the body of Christ. The ocean connects us. And Christ unites us.
Kerry Enright drafted a short address for me to deliver during the funeral. I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to preach it and want to share it again here:
My dear sisters and brothers, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Head of the Church, I bring you greetings and deep sympathy on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Apostle Paul wrote, when one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer.
We in the Uniting Church join with you in grieving the death of your President. We share your sense of loss, at a life ended too soon, leadership of great promise concluded too quickly, personal friendship that crossed seas not able to continue.
We think especially today of Ioana and Salote and the extended family. We offer you our love and prayer.
Tuikilakila had a special relationship with the Uniting Church in Australia. While undertaking study in Melbourne, he was minister of one of our congregations. Salote studied in Brisbane and Tui would worship with us when he visited. We interacted with him in many forums including the Methodist Consultative Council of the Pacific. And when he became President, he showed particular concern for the many Fijians in Australia, last year taking a grueling journey with the General Secretary to visit congregations in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
We grieve … but as those who have hope, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that what is of God is not lost, that what is of truth and justice and reconciliation continues in the Spirit of God.
Tuikilakila was a leader of courage, going to the Bible for inspiration and teaching, that women and men were equal in relationship, in marriage, that our Lord desired unity among Christians, and respect for people of other faiths, that the Church should be above partisan politics, and that deep divisions in the Church and the nation could be overcome through the power of reconciliation. He was supremely, a reconciler.
We in the Uniting Church stand with the Methodist Church in these convictions, praying that the windows Tuikilakila opened, may continue to let in the fresh spirit of God for our Church, and for yours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ.