From left: Reverend William Lucas, Jioji Soqoiwasa, Rev Gemill Sherwood, Rev Dr Ian Tozer, Rev James Bhagwan and Rev Steve Francis (seated). Picture: SUPPLIED
The Crossways community in Perth became the latest Cross-Cultural Church of the Uniting Church in Australia last month, as more than 30 members of the Methodist Church in Fiji were formally welcomed in a service of belonging, presided by Western Australia Moderator, Reverend Steve Francis.
The service, held eight months after a monthly Fijian worship was started at Crossways under the pastoral care of Rev William Lucas, a former divisional superintendent of the Indian Division in Fiji, who is one of the ministers serving at Crossways.
"I believe that today is a milestone for the Methodist family from Fiji," said Jioji Soqoiwasa who has been in Perth since 1996.
"We were looking and looking for a place of worship that we could call home." Mr Soqoiwasa, who became a lay preacher at a very young age while still in Fiji, shared a story with the congregation on how when he was only 19 years old he was appointed to go and serve on Vatoa Island as a lay pastor.
However because of his age, his father did not agree in the meeting and had the appointment revoked.
This caused a change in direction and vocation in Mr Soqoiwasa's life path but it did not weaken his spirituality.
The secondary schoolteacher learned to play rugby while teaching in Sigatoka and eventually moved to Perth to play rugby.
"Vinaka vakalevu to our Crossways family for allowing us to be a family, and letting us into your family."
This is not the first time that there has been a regular Fijian community worship gathering.
"When I came over in 1996, Rev Inoke Nabulivou, a former Methodist Church in Fiji president, was a Uniting Church minister in Perth and always held a Fijian service. I was blessed to work under him."
Although those gatherings were ad hoc and eventually became inconsistent, a seed had been planted for this community of faith.
"Sometimes we are hot, sometimes we are cold. But I am grateful for those who have helped us undertake a new exodus, just as our home church in Fiji is on their new exodus, and revive the community worship and strengthen our faith family as we join with Crossways."
Eventually the community held their first Fijian worship service at Crossways, and as I was passing through on mission work, I was honoured to preach the first sermon to the fledgling congregation, presenting them with a few Fijian-language Methodist hymn books.
When Methodist Church in Fiji deputy general secretary, Rev Ili Vunisuwai visited Perth in July last year, the community was strengthened and encourage to move further along in their journey.
While some members of the Fijian community, belong to other churches, the community worship allows the opportunity for gathering in the Fijian way — through worship and fellowship.
"My wife and I are elders in a Pentecostal Church," said Mr Soqoiwasa.
"But my heart was always burning for our Fijian community to worship together, the way our fathers and mothers worshipped."
Members of the Fijian community shared their testimonies of their years of searching for many of the Fijian community in Perth for a faith community which would not only welcome them but also allow space for worship in their own language.
One of the new members received during the service was former government minister and politician Ted Young, who had spent time also working in the Uniting Church's Frontier Services.
Frontier Services is a national charity working on behalf of people living in remote areas, which covers 85 per cent of Australia. Frontier Services supports the Uniting Church in Australia, through its network of Patrol Ministers, in their pastoral work with indigenous communities, isolated properties, mining sites and other remotely located communities.
In his testimony during the service, Mr Young shared about the opportunity to serve in these remote "outback" areas with Frontier Services, based in South Hedland, serving the whole Pilbara region in Western Australia, which has some of the world's most ancient natural landscapes, dating back two billion years and stretching more than 400,000 square kilometres.
"This was one of most remote areas in Australia, and I worked with predominantly Aboriginal (First People) communities.
"I must thank God for giving me that opportunity and utilising me to share my experiences to help my now fellow Australians living in very harsh conditions in the 'outback'."
On relocating to Perth to be closer with his son and grandchildren, Mr Young asked some fellow diasporic Fijians in Perth whether there was a Fijian language service anywhere.
He found out that unfortunately, after a number of attempts, the community had ceased gathering for worship in the vernacular.
"They told me that there was no service and I felt in me that we must try and gather our Fijian-speaking congregation because it was important that we worship together, particularly for our children and grandchildren growing up in Australia, so that they can experience how we worship back at home so that when they go to Fiji and attend worship they won't be lost."
The search for a church hall to worship in began, as did the search for a minister.
"They told me that Rev William Lucas from Fiji is here and I said I must find him and seek his help. So on my next R&R from the mines where I now work, when I came down to Perth, I was invited to drink kava.
"I went to my friend's house but while everyone was gathered, there was no kava. I asked my friends 'where is the kava?' and they told me we were going to Rev Lucas' home."
Mr Young could not hold back his desire and asked Rev Lucas straightaway for his help in starting the Fijian-language service.
"I thank the Lord and Rev Lucas for immediately saying yes and offering Crossways as a place that we could gather. I am very grateful to the Crossways community for their welcoming and acceptance of our community to be one of them."
As members of Crossways, they will attend the weekly English service and also hold fortnightly Fijian language services.
During the service the Fijian-speaking choir sang an anthem conducted by young Jeremy Vuniwaqa.
In his testimony during the service, Mr Vuniwaqa, who came to Australia from Fiji as a young boy, said he had found Crossways as a place to continue the family legacy of sacred music, as the new conductor of the Fijian choir.
"My father wanted his talent in music to be used as a service to God when we came to Australia.
"We spent five years in Melbourne, where my father was the choir master with the Fijian congregation there, and then we moved to Western Australia four years ago.
"It is a precious gift from God. And that is why my family and I will not stop using this gift and preaching the Word of God, by teaching His people the correct way to sing."
The Crossways community has welcomed their Fijian sisters and brothers with open arms, as was evident in the fellowship that followed after the service, which included a traditional Fijian ceremony in which the new members presented a tabua (whale's tooth) to Rev Frances.
The tabua, the most prized possession for Fijians, was a symbolic offering of themselves as members of the UCA and WA Synod.
The fellowship lunch shared by all was a time of making new relationships.
The reception of Fijian members in the Uniting Church was the first since the signing of a partnership agreement between the Uniting Church in Australia and the Methodist Church in Fiji.
Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan signed the partnership agreement at the Methodist Church in Fiji annual conference last August.
The agreement commits the two churches to work together in sharing their life and mission, affirming the shared Methodist heritage and history.
"Through this partnership agreement, we call on all our sisters and brothers, who have settled in Australia and who are members of the Methodist Church in Fiji to transfer their membership to the Uniting Church in Australia, which is our sister church, and with whom we have had a very long relationship.
"You will no longer sing the Lord's song in a strange land. You have found a home," said Methodist Church in Fiji president Rev Dr Tevita Banivanua in a congratulatory video message to the congregation at Crossways.
In his sermon, Rev Frances urged the new cross-cultural church to be devoted to each other and practice the unconditional love that binds all believers.
"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.
Babasiga (pronounced bambasinga) is the dry land of Macuata in northern Fiji - our place in the sun in Fiji. Peceli is from Fiji from the village is Vatuadova and the beach is Nukutatava. Peceli Ratawa passed away on 27th December 2015 so this is Wendy's blog now. Wendy is an Australian and today live in Geelong, Australia.