June 24, 2018

Tongan Methodist community retains culture through faith and language

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By Atticus Agustin

It is Sunday afternoon and people are gathering inside the Japanese Church of Christ. But at this time, the impressive late Gothic revival architecture is hosting the  Tongan-American Free Wesleyan Church Group. 

In August, the organization will be celebrating one hundred years of existence by keeping many Tongan customs during their festivities.

The Tongan community in Salt Lake City is vibrant and made up of Latter Day Saints, Catholics and Methodists. The relationship between the three is generally peaceful. Intermarriage between the three faiths are not uncommon. The church primarily draws residents from West Valley, Taylorsville and the west side of Salt Lake City.

Tongans have been an immigrant group to the west side since the 70s, with a mixture hailing directly from California and Hawaii. Many of them have gone on to have successful careers in the NFL, but Tipiloma Pupua, pastor of the church, hopes that more in his community will branch into other fields. Pupua’s brother, Tau, is currently a New York-based opera singer.

They chose Utah because of the opportunities it provided. Tipiloma recalls the first time he saw snow when he was five years old: “I thought that if one stepped into the snow, one would melt with it.”

The church is intergenerational. Many of the older church-goers are primarily Tongan-speakers, while the newer generations are bilingual and in some cases, monolingual English-speakers. “It’s something every immigrant group faces [...] but language helps retains culture.”

Even though the meeting house is officially known as The Japanese Church of Christ, three groups share the place: Japanese, Kachin, and Tongan. The Tongan group is in the process of looking for their own place of worship. The pastor of the Japanese group, Pastor Brad, says that the harmonious relationship between the three groups brings a special kind of joy inside the church. There are combined services in the fall and the two choirs sing together in the winter

Wesleyanism was introduced to Tonga primarily from British missionaries. The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the only state-sanctioned of that tradition. In 1928, Queen Salote Tupou III established the Free Wesleyan Church as the state religion of Tonga.  

The service I attended recently was entirely in Tongan and some parts were sung in an a’ cappella style. Men and women wear a traditional mat wrapped around the waist called a “ta’ovala.” (The ones made in the west are made of cheaper nylon material). It is what Pupua says is “the tie of the islands.” It represents formality and is used for many special occasions.

Many women wear another fashion embellishment — an ornament girdle around the waist — known as a kiekie. “A good kiekie can take about a week to make. The tree bark fibers are placed underwater under sand and rocks, and then the fibers are weaved,” described one of the congregants during the lunch we shared afterwards at Golden Corral. An entire half of Golden Corral was filled by the flock. An opening prayer song rang through the restaurant. Congregants and church leaders made speeches throughout the lunch that centered on a biblical theme or spiritual advice. A final closing a’ cappella song concluded the dine-out.