A Home in The United Methodist Church: The Pacific Islander Ministry Plan
By Monalisa Tui’Tahi
The Pacific Islander Ministry Plan, which was approved by the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, was developed over a four-year period by a committee of Pacific Islanders and Global Ministries staff members. The study explored ways to empower Pacific-Islander United Methodists to fully participate in the life of the church and to be agents of Christian love and service within the world community.
Having been approved by General Conference in 2012, the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan is the youngest ministry plan for Global Ministries and also the newest plan for the church as a whole. The people that the plan seeks to enable and empower have been recent immigrants to the United States, relatively speaking. The first generation is just beginning to get older now. My parents, who arrived from Tonga in the mid-1970s, were part of the early
Pacific-Islander migration—which really boomed
in the 1980s.
According to the 2010 US Census, there are about 1.1 million Pacific Islanders in the United States today. Those who come from Methodist traditions are the Samoans, Fijians, and Tongans, and, to a lesser extent, people from the Marshall Islands and US Pacific territories, such as Guam. The primary concentrations of Pacific Islanders in the United States are in the West. Hawaii and Los Angeles are the natural doors for this immigration. After people arrived, they migrated and settled in pockets of the West—Hawaii, California, and Utah. A big pocket settled in Utah because of the Mormon Church. There are also a good number of Tongans (10 congregations) in the UM Rocky Mountain Annual Conference.
They come with an already well-developed sense of their faith experience, and that is a big part of who they are and a defining part of their identity as new immigrants in the United States. As soon as they settled, they formed churches—Wesleyan in tradition. Methodism came to the Pacific Islands as early as 1822 through the Methodist Church of Australia (which is now part of the Uniting Church of Australia). Some of these congregations have tried to align themselves with The United Methodist Church, but they have not had much success.
As a result, they formed more in line with their native Methodist counterparts, from whichever country they came. While The United Methodist Church forms partnerships with some of these Methodist denominations, there are no United Methodist churches, as such, on the islands. So the United Methodist structure and network connection is unfamiliar.
As recent immigrants, Pacific Islanders have great language-resource needs. Most Pacific Islanders speak only their native language and understand very limited English. However, their numbers are not sufficient enough to demand much attention from local governments and existing community services. Therefore, there are very few resources available to them.
Family and Community
Like most Pacific Islanders, neither of my parents spoke English, and they lived very much a Tongan life on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. My dad, who had immigrated to Hawaii a little earlier, found a group of Tongans in relationship with a little church on the North Shore called Kahuku United Methodist Church. When we settled there in 1976, we immediately moved into that congregation, which had a Tongan language ministry. We didn’t miss a beat in our faith experience—we walked right into a home church.
That was the grounding for my life and for the life of my family. Here was a church that sounded like home and did everything we had done in Tonga. We had our children’s Sunday, we had our choir—we dressed as if we were going to church in Tonga. So this little church became the grounding place for all of our new immigrant experiences—not just for our family, but for many of the Tongan families that were there in the 1970s and 1980s. Kahuku UMC fed the spirit of those who wanted to attend church as they had known it, but who also needed to be a part of, find an identity with, and be connected to the church in the United States. I grew up living into and experiencing the fullness of that kind of church. There were several other Tongan immigrant families who also lived into the fullness of this experience, including the `Ulu`ave family. I grew up with the `Ulu`ave siblings, the Rev. Linita `Ulu`ave Moa, the Rev. Dr. Kalesita `Ulu`ave Tu`ifua, and the Rev. Solomone `Ulu`ave, all of whom answered a call to ministry that began in this little country church in Hawaii. I think that experience has been the driving force for my own involvement and work in Pacific Islander Ministry.
Kahuku UMC also had immigrants from the Philippines as members, as well as Japanese members. Each group worshiped in its own language, but we were all members of one church. Pastor Roy Kasaki was the pastor there for 20 years. It was in his person that the UMC became a reality for a group of Tongan Pacific Islanders back in those days. Looking back, I now see the foresight of our parents in finding that place to connect—so we had a church home. That really helped my generation, the second-generation, to feel connected.
Seeking Full Inclusion
The catalyst for the work of the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan has been to bring into alignment this people, whose whole identity and life has been wrapped around being involved in the work of the church in a different setting, and culture, and language. We see this action by the General Conference in approving the plan as a big first step. That endorsement was one of the first tangible manifestations that Pacific Islanders should be considered as part of The United Methodist Church. To have denominational support—not just in words, but in tangible ways, such as funding—says: “your participation as a faith community is valued, and we want to enable you and empower you to be part of the work of making disciples for the transformation of the world in this particular setting.”
So, for the first two years we are still in a growing process. The plan is moving forward, but as in any beginning, we don’t yet know where the road will take us. We’ve been through a real process of education concerning basic things—what is a plan, what is grant writing, what kind of grant can be requested? We’ve been learning about programmatic things that the plan can support and how to identify non-programmatic things that can’t be supported. In many ways, we’re just learning the language.
We have concentrated on leadership development this year. These different churches have leaders in place who have formed congregations and ministries, but our work has really been to retool and equip those leaders as United Methodists. That is an ongoing process.
We have sponsored three leadership events so far: two in California, in San Bruno and Santa Ana, and one in Hawaii. They were all well attended. The hunger and the need for connection were so apparent.
The Pacific Islander Ministry Plan structure has been developed and there is a process for applying for and receiving grants for Pacific Islander ministry projects. We started out in 2013 with a Global Ministries’ staff coordinator, and we have formed a Pacific Islander group that is very involved in drafting and birthing the plan. That group continues to be the liaison between the Pacific Islanders and Global Ministries.
Ties That Bind
Tongans and other Pacific Islanders have a big tie to their first generation. Because family connections are valued, you’ll often find three generations in the pew together. We are really trying to reach that second generation. It is not uncommon for them to be attending worship without any real commitment to the work of the church. People of the first immigrant generation are there because they are committed. But often the second generation is there out of respect for their elders—just because they are told to be there. Now is our time to make the church more relevant to them—to help them connect. That connection was made for us by our parents. But now we have to make that connection for ourselves and the next generation.
At the end of the day, I realize that the work I do to establish and develop the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan has been a work of advocacy and giving voice to a group of people that does not have voice, for one reason or another, within the United Methodist connection. The United Methodist Pacific Islander Caucus was actually the driving force for bringing the plan into fruition. It was the work of the caucus—advocating, pushing, and actually drafting the plan.
Monalisa S. Tui’tahi is an attorney in California and a member of the Pacific Islander Caucus of The United Methodist Church. Her husband, the Rev. Dr. Siosaia Tui’tahi, is the pastor of First UMC of Santa Ana in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. This article was first published in the July-August 2014 issue of New World Outlook magazine.
Dancers from Creation Dance Production, a multicultural dance troupe from Genesis United Methodist Church in San Jose, California, perform in the lobby of the Tampa Convention Center during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference.
Photo: Kathleen Barry/UMNS
Tongans from across The United Methodist Church give the invocation during the worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Pacific-Islander study was overwhelmingly approved. Photo: John C. Goodwin/UMNS
Dancers from the Creation Dance Production, a ministry of Genesis United Methodist Church in San Jose, California, perform a dance of hospitality to open the evening worship celebration at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Photo: Mike Dubose/UMNS
Monalisa Tui´tahi, representing the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan, addresses the pre-General Conference news briefing at the Tampa Convention Center in Florida. Photo: Mike Dubose/UMNS
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