Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tongan Churches: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As I’ve surely said before, Tongan churches and their ministers wield great power in Tongan society. There are parts of this religious power structure that I think are alright, on the other hand, there are parts that make me roll my eyes and wonder how much Jesus would appreciate this.

One of the best things about religion on my island, and presumably for other parts of Tonga as well, is that it gives people something to do. The churches – Wesleyan, Free Church of Tonga, Church of Tonga, and Mormon – all organize activities for the members. The Mormon church is especially active with their quarterly women’s group preparing a program about a month before the event, putting on dances for all members of the community, and encouraging youth to study and prepare for their mission. Other churches prepare activities like choir concerts, too, not to mention the daily church services to attend.

Sometimes the church is supportive of kids’ education, paying school fees or buying uniforms. Though almost all the main churches (Wesleyan, Free Church of Tonga, and Mormon) have their own church-sponsored high schools, the Mormon church, backed by their coffers in Utah, have an incredible, opportunity-filled high school. The students stay on campus in dorms (absolutely unheard of to not live with your family!) and have access to computers and internet. Many of the classes are taught by native English speakers, so usually students who complete the course of study (through Form 5, or 11th grade) have great working English. Then, a number of students get scholarships to go to BYU-Hawaii.

Despite some great things the churches in Tonga do for their members and their communities, there are other times that I wonder if society might be better off without them. After just attending Misinale, the annual money-donating event, I feel especially averse to the way churches handle money. The amounts that members donate is announced to the whole church, which inevitably created a “keeping up with the Joneses” situation. Sure enough, families were donating hundreds, if not thousands of pa’anga. Families who had a member who died in the past year are expected to be especially generous. As if the passing of a loved one weren’t traumatic enough, they were then supposed to give $3000 pa’anga to the church!

I remember the story of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Pangai:

A Tongan asked for $200 pa’anga because he was broke, and, I think with the expectation of being paid back, the PCV gave him the money. A week later the same Tongan asked the PCV for another $2 pa’anga to buy bread. When the PCV asked what happened to the $200 pa’anga, the Tongan replied that he had to give it to the church.

I was sitting in church a few months ago with a fellow PCV when a mini-Misinale happened. Families gave money, and the church announced how much each one gave. My PCV friend who was in my village for the weekend quickly flipped to the appropriate Bible passage:

Matthew 6:3-4
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

It’s impossible to truly “live by the Bible,” though Tongans have told me they do, but the way the churches function often seems blatantly contradictory to the Good Book.

I’ve tried to rationalize why Tongan churches do things the way they do, especially Misinale. Maybe many years ago, they were worried about corruption, so they wanted everyone to know how much people gave to be sure the treasurer wasn’t keeping any of it. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that, and Tongans just like to know everyone’s business. Thus telling everyone how much everyone else gave just saved people the trouble of talking about it.

I understand the value of religion in a place where there isn’t usually a lot of hope. In a place where life is static and people are inured with this lack of progress, their religion is the place where they can anticipate something better. Though sometimes the hope of reaching a paradise in the afterlife can seem like a way to evade work now, if the Tongans can say they are satisfied with their churches and God, what can I do? So I’ll go to church. And I’ll sing those hymns like nobody’s business.

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