If you want to be inspired about the work of the Uniting Church, go to the Tongan National Conference (TNC) and meet the Second Generation.
Every June more than 1000 Tongan members of the UCA gather at the foothills of the Blue Mountains in Sydney for three days of fellowship and sharing.
A standout feature of the weekend is the contribution of the young people, the “Second Gen”, to every aspect of the Conference.
From the rousing opening worship the Second Gen have a hand in everything, from the music and technical operations on stage, to leading faith discussions and providing input into decision-making.
This year more than 400 Tongan young people from 20 congregations all over Australia attended the TNC from 5-8 June.
The annual gathering is clearly a much-anticipated highlight for Tongan youth each year. Youth groups spend many months rehearsing choir and cultural performances for the different parts of the TNC program. This year there was even a video countdown to the Conference on the TNC Facebook page.
Rev. Charissa Suli heads up the Second Gen leadership team which includes representatives from every state and the ACT. Her role is to mentor and grow emerging leaders.
“TNC is a fun-spirit filled weekend that inspires young Tongan people to keep finding Christ in their lives,” said Charissa.
“It’s s an opportunity for the youth and young adults to bring the humour, faith stories and colour of Tongan culture to life through their singing, dancing, community building and testimony.”
The focus for the young adult leaders at this year’s TNC was to learn more about worship in the Uniting Church. One activity involved looking at the meaning of popular Tongan hymns and the specific metaphors that relate to Tongan culture.
“We found many of us didn’t actually understand the meaning of the words, even though we’d sung these hymns many times,” said Second Gen member Semisi Kailahi. “It’s inspired me to think about learning the Tongan language.”
Second and Third Gen leaders planned and ran the full youth program which included worship, bible study, community groups, team building exercises and group discussions aligned with the Conference theme: “God’s love is deeper than the ocean, Glory to God Forever”.
In the past five years, the Second Generation have taken on greater responsibility in the TNC, not only during the Conference but providing feedback to the Executive before and after the weekend.
“The TNC is an important event for encouraging and training emerging leaders in the Uniting Church,” said Rev. Suli. “They gain insights into effective leadership and new ideas for ministry to take back to their own congregation.”
Rev Suli said many Tongan young people face significant challenges that come from living between two cultures, “the Tongan culture vs Australian culture”.
“This can affect their identity growing up in Australia as young Tongans. Some parents who come from a clearly structured and authoritarian culture struggle to find frameworks that will assist them to parent in a society where choice is a predominant factor.”
“One of the things we explore through the TNC is how we build the bridge between first generation and second generation Tongans. We’ve done this by giving young people a platform to have a voice in the Conference. In society, we see this gap between generations widening because of the changing context, lifestyle, structure and culture.
“It is important that both parents and young people are able to stand within and across their culture of heritage and their Australian culture to be able to appreciate and operate within both cultures.”
Despite the challenges, Charissa said there was much to celebrate about the young Tongan members of the Uniting Church.
“There is so much more life, there is so much more joy, and so many good news stories about the lives of 2nd, 3rd generation Tongan Australian young people.”
“The wider church needs to continue to give space for these young people to tell their stories which encourages them to grow in faith, grow in leadership and grow their identity in Christ.”
“Helping our young people continue to find their identity in Christ helps them to realise that they belong to something bigger than just their own immediate family, clan, or culture. They are the body of Christ and they are part of the family of God.”
“It is when they find their true identity in Christ that their lives, the way they relate to others and the way they see themselves changes for the better. Their faith in Christ no longer becomes something they are part of in our Tongan culture but actually permeates deep into their soul and becomes a transforming experience where their lives are changed forever.”
Virginia Lavaki, a Queensland member of the Second Gen leadership team, thinks the TNC is “amazing”.
“For me it is a time of fellowship with our Tongan brothers and sisters. It helps us to grow spiritually and connects us (so we can) continue the Tongan culture and legacy.”
Kesaia Palelei from Beth Shalom Tongan Uniting Church in Western Australia said the TNC gave her the opportunity to spend time with other young Tongans.
“The first time I came to the TNC it was the most Tongans I’d ever seen in one place. It is great to spend time together with people in our own age group who are all going through the same struggles.”
“Being Tongan and growing up in Australia you go to Church all the time but you do not really understand what your faith is all about until you are older.”
Hearing these kind of sentiments, you realise how truly blessed the Uniting Church is by the space TNC provides for young Tongans to come to know and grow their faith. A deep ocean certainly separates Australia and Tonga, literally and culturally. But the love of God at TNC is bridging the divide.