Altar setting, Exploration 2013, Denver Colorado. Photo: Gavin Richardson
EXPLORATION AND BEYOND
A Tongan American Young Adult’s Call
by Laura Wise
Sinaitakala (Kala) Salakielu, a second-generation Tongan American, is an active member of The United Methodist Church and a leader of Global Ministries’ Pacific Islander Ministry Plan. Last year, from November 15 to17, she joined more than 400 other young adults at Exploration 2013, held in Denver, Colorado. To attend, Salakielu traveled across the Pacific Ocean from her home in Honolulu, Hawaii, but she was also embarking on a long spiritual journey.
While Exploration 2013 was a time of learning and sharing among people coming from many different cultures, it also reignited Salakielu’s passion for work within the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan. For months after her brief time in Denver, she continued to focus on the thoughts and feelings stirred up by her rich experiences there. Through prayer, she began to explore where her new knowledge might eventually lead her.
A Traditional Upbringing
Kala Salakielu was brought up in the Methodist tradition. During her childhood, church became a familiar part of her life. For her, Sunday was a day for family bonding and spiritual renewal. As she entered into young adulthood, she recalls “going my own way for a while before finding my way back to the church.” Then, her faith being strongly rooted, she entered into a more meaningful fellowship with God. Back at her childhood church—First Tongan United Methodist in Honolulu—she began by serving as secretary for the local unit of United Methodist Women. Her secretarial duties quickly expanded to embrace many other church ministries. It was as a leader in her local congregation that Salakielu first met Myungim Kim, a member of the Global Ministries staff.
Sowing a Seed
Salakielu credits Myungim Kim—formerly Executive Secretary for the Asian American Language Ministry and the Pacific Islander Ministry Plan—for getting her to Denver for Exploration 2013. In a brief interview, Kim explained her motivation for getting Salakielu involved. “Young people are not the future,” she insisted. “They are the present. We need to address the present lack of young adults in church leadership.” When Kim first met Salakielu at a district event in Santa Ana, California, Kim was impressed with the leadership role she had taken in her congregation. Kim hoped that, while attending Exploration, Salakielu would be able to interact with young adults from all across the United States, learning new ways in which she personally could worship and serve God.
“My work was sowing the seed,” Kim explained. “I reminded Kala that it was her responsibility to learn what she could from the gathering. I only provided her with the opportunity. I see great potential in her,” Kim continued, “as a leader in her community and in the church.” Kim said she hopes that in the future, more Pacific Islanders will be represented in the young adult gatherings of the church.
Creating an Inclusive Church
Exploration is one of the largest gatherings for young adults in The United Methodist Church. Held every two years, it is a three-day event organized by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry—its prime purpose being to help young adults discern whether or not they have a call to ordained ministry. Thus Exploration aims to create a space where young people can enjoy fellowship with one another, participate in worship and in workshops, reflect on theology, and learn how to identify an authentic call to ordination. Exploration is a tool that helps young adults prepare for the next steps that God is calling them to take.
“ The worship services were a new experience for me. In the Tongan community, we don’t know the traditional Methodist hymns. That’s why I’m here—to open my eyes.”
Not knowing what to expect from her three-day trip last year, Salakielu packed her bags and headed to Denver with an open mind. She boarded a plane in Honolulu and arrived in Denver eight hours later. Once there, she found herself responding to the energy of the event. The electrifying worship activities provided her with her most memorable moments. “The worship services were a new experience for me,” she explained. “In the Tongan community, we don’t know the traditional Methodist hymns. That’s why I’m here—to open my eyes.”
There is no denying the hard work that goes into successfully crossing cultural boundaries, yet the effort is a necessary part of any ministry that reaches out to all. To be at one, we need to embrace the underlying thread of unity that all people share. So confronting cultural boundaries is a key component of The United Methodist Church’s ministry plans. The Pacific Islander Ministry Plan is one of four such plans assigned to Global Ministries. All four enable the development of racial and ethnic minority ministries within the larger church. Empowering young adults like Salakielu is a necessary means of linking culturally different communities together and creating an inclusive church.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged,” Kala says, “that I’m the only one fighting for my people. I want to connect—to be a bridge with and for my community and a bridge between
my parents’ generation and the rest of the church.” Exploration 2013 sparked Salakielu’s passion to become a bridge builder. It inspired her to see the church as being at the forefront of barrier breaking throughout the world. It also showed her the endless possibilities of service.
Salakielu also left the Exploration gathering with a new understanding of and respect for the diversity already present within the church. While at a worship celebration, she was touched when she heard a member of the clergy speak out about how boundless God’s love actually is. Opening up during an interview, Salakielu revealed that she has two brothers who identify themselves as being gay. “I hate it when I hear people bashing them,” she said. “It’s hurtful because they are my family.” Recalling one particular worship service at Exploration, she reported that “I heard a pastor affirming God’s love for all people, including our LGBT brothers and sisters. It made me proud.” She added, “I can accept my brothers for who they are. That pastor’s message really opened my eyes. It helped me to understand in a new way that we are all part of God’s kingdom.”
For Salakielu, the three-day weekend she spent at Exploration in Denver came and went much too quickly. She describes her experience there as life-changing. The gathering allowed her to join in community with other young adults from highly diverse backgrounds. Exploration provided her with a space where she could dig deeper into her faith as she sought to discern what God was leading her to do. In fact, Exploration 2013 began a process that confirmed Salakielu’s decision to enter into fulltime ministry.
Hearing the Call
The end of Salakielu’s Exploration experience was also the beginning of her journey into ministry. When she returned home to Hawaii, she entered into deep contemplation. “I’m a leader here in my church,” she realized, “yet the older generation doesn’t recognize me as such. When I returned home from Denver, I began to pray about that moment of calling I felt. In the following weeks, my prayer confirmed, I want to be a pastor.” Yet, even then, Salakielu was not ready to consider seminary. There are no
Methodist seminaries in Hawaii, so pursuing her dream would separate her from her family.
Tongans have developed a family-oriented culture in which it is customary for children to live with their parents until they leave to marry. The Tongan family structure is also very close-knit and communal, placing the well-being of the whole family before an individual’s personal needs. Salakielu has many strong ties to her home and family in Honolulu. If she left Hawaii, she would be diverging from tradition. So she had to keep tradition in mind while contemplating her next steps.
Starting with this realization, Salalielu began to explore how her gifts and passions could be used in ministry. “I want to work with youth,” was her conclusion. She loves kids and has been working as a teacher in Honolulu. Her passion for young people and ability to work with them is one of her special spiritual gifts. Still, though she immediately began looking for lay or staff positions at nearby churches that would enable her to work with youth, she searched to no avail.
Doors Open Suddenly
It was at this point that Salakielu turned to deep prayer about her calling and her future in ministry. God answered by directing her attention to a well-known Bible story about an earlier leader called to follow God’s will.
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. (Genesis 12:1-4, NIV)
Salakielu received this message with divine clarity. “You need to leave and grow,” she realized. She knew at this moment that she was being led to apply to seminary, even though she would have to leave home to do so.
Shortly after this revelation, Salakielu was invited to a district event held in Hawaii, in which she gladly participated. The Rev. Dr. Jeffery Kuan, president of Claremont School of Theology in California, was speaking. Dr. K n said that in an effort to increase access to theological education, Claremont would now offer classes online for people interested in pursuing a ministerial degree while in Hawaii. This was yet another clear message confirming Salakielu’s call.
Salakielu has finally applied to seminary. She knows now that Exploration 2013 and the events that followed were set in motion by God to place her on the right path to her destination. She has taken the events of recent months to heart and can now see the larger picture—the importance of accepting her call. Having been blessed with the desire to work on cross-cultural dialogue in the church, Salakielu extended her search for the right theological education to other institutions of higher learning on the East Coast, along with Claremont.
Kala Salakielu is an exceptional young adult with a key asset: a willing spirit. While Exploration 2013 was the catalyst that set God’s plan for her life into motion, she has been willing to step outside her comfort zone, her culture, and her family traditions to seek God’s plan for her life. “I left Exploration 2013 feeling proud,” she says, “knowing that my dreams are valid. I saw the importance of being a cultural bridge to bring the Tongan culture to people who might not know who we are.” She adds: “I need to grow. I must let go of some of my cultural beliefs to be the bridge-builder I want to become.”
As she moves forward, Salakielu is thankful to have had the opportunity to attend Exploration 2013. “I think about Exploration every day,” she says. “I’ve never forgotten my time there, and the experience will continue to push me forward.” She also hopes to take more young Tongan Americans to Exploration in the future. Every day, she comes a step closer to realizing her goal: to help others cross cultural boundaries while using the church as their guide.
Laura Wise is serving as a Mission Intern with the General Board of Global Ministries. Originally from Texas, she served in the Philippines with InPeace for the first half of her Mission Intern assignment. She is now completing her service in the United States, interning with Global Ministries’ Communication and Development unit. This article originally appeared in New World Outlook magazine, July-August 2014 issue.
A pastor prays for one of the participants at Exploration 2013, Denver Colorado. Photo: Courtesy GBHEM
A worship service, Exploration 2013, in Denver Colorado.Photo: Gavin Richardson
A welcome sign at Exploration 2013, held in Denver, Colorado.Photo: Courtesy GBHEM
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