Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Meeting on Migration and a Meeting at a Marae

Published in the Fiji Times - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan "The Struggle for Indentity" on Wednesday 11 August, 2010

Kia ora from Aotearoa! I write from Auckland where I am privileged to be participating in the 2010 Pacific Church Leaders' Meeting, to contribute to the discussion on the Pacific Churches' response to HIV and AIDS and at the same time try to gain some pearls of wisdom from the mothers and fathers of the Church in Oceania.

The Pacific Church Leaders' Meeting aims to bring together the leaders of the member churches of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) once a year to foster ecumenical relations (working towards visible unity of the Church) as wells as a sense of fellowship and ownership of the Pacific Conference of Churches Secretariat, based in Suva, and the ecumenical movement among them and their churches.

This year's meeting is aimed to assure the migrant Churches in Aotearoa/New Zealand the solidarity of the Pacific Conference of Churches' (PCC) member churches and national councils of Churches in the challenges they face by understanding the context and recognising the efforts that have made on what needs to be done.

It also aims to nurture ecumenical relations between Pacific migrant churches and the PCC member churches and National Councils of Churches so that no one is left out of our common search for a fresh way of expressing who we are and our place in this world as Pacific people.

The focus for this year's Pacific Church Leaders' Meeting is on the issue of regional migration.

In a country with a large population of Pacific migrants, the meeting in New Zealand is certainly an appropriate setting. Discussions focus on Migration in terms of Ecumenism, Trade & Globalisation, Human Rights, Gender, Youth, HIV and AIDS, Good Governance, Leadership and Climate Change.

Our Bible studies are being led by delegates from the World Council of Churches' Global Ecumenical Network on Migration who come bringing their own experiences of being or working with migrants in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. In these Bible studies we have reflected on the continuing process of migration - people who leave their homes, their country and journey to make their home in a new country.

Migration can be forced; through conflict, through injustice and oppression or through poverty, through environmental destruction, through natural disaster or, as is becoming the case, through the effects of climate change.

Migration can also be voluntary, in the search for greener pastures and better economic, health and educational opportunities for oneself and one's future generation.

Migration is an ongoing human activity.

The people of the Pacific are a migratory people.

In 2006 it was estimated that New Zealand's Pacific population was approximately 300,000.

This week's meeting has already heard stories from the Pacific Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand about the challenges a migrant community faces in terms of adapting and assimilating into a new world, the desire for acceptance, the fear of stigma and discrimination and the ongoing challenge to keep its tradition and culture in a country which has different and perhaps conflicting traditions and cultures.

We also heard about the challenges faced by migrant youth who are born outside of their "home-islands" and consider themselves "New-Zealand-born Pacific Islanders".

Their struggle with a restlessness of being caught between the culture of the society into which they are born and the culture of their parents is a struggle for identity.

It is also the struggle of different value systems.

The challenge to the Church in this situation is how to relate and speak to both generations, as it seeks to be a community and affirm relationship and fellowship.

Our common heritage as people of Oceania, regardless of our ethnicities, is that we are people who have travelled to these islands we now call home.

Over the last 3,500 years, whether by vaka, drua, sailing ship or waqavuka (aeroplane) our ancestors or we have travelled across the oceans in voluntary or forced migration.

My own ancestors were part of the forced migration, brought by the British indentured servitude to labour in the cane fields.

The blood of my children tell the stories of their migratory ancestors from India, China, England, Kiribati, Samoa and the i-Taukei of Fiji vwho also arrived in perhaps the earliest wave of migration.

I reflected on this as the Maori Synod of the Presbyterian told us their story.

The Tangata Whenua (people of the land) recognise their migratory heritage in their oral history, beginning with Maui, Kupe and Toi and tracing their roots to waves of migration 900AD to 1400AD from Tahiti, Rai'atea, Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

On Saturday we travelled for six hours by bus, south from Auckland to just outside of Whakatane, to a village called Ohope on the shores of the Bay of Plenty.

This is the location of the Marae of the Te Aka Puaho (translated as "the Synod of the Glowing Vine") - the Maori Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa / New Zealand.

We arrived in the dark and rain and ascended the hill to the Marae (the open space) where the traditional Maori welcome ritual began.

Following dinner we returned to the Whare (house) named 'Te Maungarongo' which means "to hold on to peace" or the place where peace is negotiated," where the traditional process continued.

During the korero, which is the sharing of our personal stories (followed by singing a waiata or song), both visitors and our hosts encountered each other.

This encounter, the opening up of ourselves, the sharing of who we are and what our hopes and fears are, and the listening and receiving in love of these sharing, helped us understand each other and the many levels, and unite us. This bonding into a whanau or family was further cemented as we all spent the night sleeping next to each other in the Whare Te Maungarongo.

This intimacy, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, also allowed us to be strengthened together.

This traditional model of negotiation and creating understanding for unity and peace through talking, eating and sleeping together is one of many islands of hope for the people of Oceania.

All we need to do is to purposely sail to these islands instead to washing ashore by accident or steering clear because it is unknown to us. May the rest of your week be blessed with sincerity, serenity, simplicity and spontaneity.

"Be still, stand in love, pay attention."

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

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