Participants at the 2010 Pacific Church Leaders' meeting
As I sat in the plane on my way back home following the conclusion of the 2010 Pacific Church Leaders' Meeting in Auckland, I found myself trying to fathom the impact of the church leaders' cry to "'sing a new song'; to discern and proclaim afresh of God to ourselves, our people, our whenua (vanua or fenua) and our governments."
The cry was based on deep theological reflection on Psalm 137, led by eminent Fijian theologian, Reverend Dr Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere. This psalm refers to "singing the Lord's song in a strange land," made popular by the song By the Rivers of Babylon originally recorded by the Melodians and then by Boney M.
As the meeting was centered around the theme of migration, this cry was certainly a spark meaningful discussion, especially when the discussion was expanded to explore the understanding of the term oceania. The term 'oceania' was first used in 1831. In the context of the meeting it was used to refer to the context and people of the region of the world commonly known as the Pacific. This shift from Pacific to oceania is made to indicate identity and selfhood of people and nations in this region of the world and their commitment to be actively engaged in the work of expressing the visible unity of the church.
The cry of the Pacific church leaders was also in response to hearing and feeling the cry of the Maori people in Aotearoa New Zealand for greater connection and association as part of the people of oceania. As the Tangata Whenua (Maori people) struggle to sing their own song of justice, they called on the churches in oceania to ensure the meaningful participation of and solidarity action on the needs of the Te Aka Puaho (Maori Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand).
The church leaders acknowledged that the household of God in Oceania, has four main pillars:
An acknowledgement that God has called us to this moment in our ecumenical history to discover anew what God is saying to us and to our people in oceania.
A call to all in oceania churches, civil societies and governments to reform and strengthen the bonds of solidarity and fellowship.
Our moral and ethical responsibility to shape the region of oceania to be more and more what God wants it to be.
The need for us as churches to recapture our regional responsibility to partner and accompany political leaders on key moral and ethical issues that underpin the changes that our region of oceania faces today.
The unified call of the Pacific church leaders was for churches, civil society groups, traditional communities, traditional leaders and governments to revisit our identity as peoples of oceania.
This means a fundamental and urgent rethinking of who we are in oceania on the following key areas:
The ecumenical vision taking into account a redefinition of ecumenism in our oceania and key aspects of sufficiency, wholeness, inclusivity and reconciliation.
Development models, driven by a 'more is better' principle that gives rise to poverty and inequality, exploitation and devastation of the environment and natural resources. Governance and leadership models that give rise to corruption, division and unhealthy competition among people of oceania. It also means renewed focus on the notion of self-determination as a key human rights issue in our region of oceania. The church leaders recognised the overarching nature of human rights in oceanic societies and understanding that human rights need to take account of religious and moral values held by churches, and the cultural norms that govern our people over centuries.
The understanding of being in a strange land led to the decision by the church leaders to stand in solidarity with all migrant communities from oceania, recognising the socio-cultural and economic challenges they face. As a result they called for greater recognition and protection of migrant communities in oceania, Australia and Aotearoa. They commissioned the Pacific Conference of Churches Secretariat to co-ordinate and facilitate research and advocacy initiatives on these issues at national, regional and international levels.
The leaders spent some time tackling the issue of resettlement, especially in regard to resettlement due to climate change and sea-level rise. They called churches and governments in oceania to address the resettlement of populations, as a pressing moral and ethical issue where the church, traditional and political leaders need to take responsibility and leadership.
Revisiting the calls they made at the conclusion of the 2009 church leaders meeting (known as the Moana Declaration) they reaffirmed the issue of resettlement of populations due to climate change as a critical issue of our time.
They recommitted themselves to engage in dialogue and discussions between churches, traditional leaders and governments on resettlement; to network and advocate for a regional and international agreement on resettlement for the protection of the rights of 'forced climate migrants'; and to forge partnerships between churches, traditional leaders and governments on mitigation and adaptation needs of our communities.
The cry of women and young people did not escape the ears and hearts of the Pacific church leaders either. While they remained mindful of the cultural and traditional values of oceania, they called for the inclusion of gender policies in our churches in oceania, recognising that such policies must be premised on the religious, moral values of our communities.
They also called on their churches to allow more meaningful and active participation of women and youth in the mission of the church. The leaders also endorsed and committed to the statement; 'Call to Reflection and Action' to the churches in oceania of the intergenerational encounter between the ecumenical pioneers and youth.
In terms of young migrants and the children of migrants the leaders, encouraged their churches and the PCC secretariat to ensure that youths of migrant churches, particularly those in Aotearoa and Australia are included in regional youth activities that foster ecumenical relations, share and deepen historical memory and foster our regional identity as people of Oceania. During the discussions on the church's response to the HIV and AIDS, the leaders affirmed that their response to pandemic lies in the heart at what it means to be a Christian.
Acknowledging the statement in the report of the Commission on AIDS in the Pacific calling for the continued partnership of churches with all stakeholders, especially at the national level, the leaders affirmed their churches commitments to the groundbreaking 2004 Nadi Declaration on HIV and AIDS, as well as to implement curriculum on HIV and AIDS and to equipping our ministers to engage meaningfully and practically with this issue. "We accept our Christian responsibility to share hope and love through our acceptance and care of people living with HIV and AIDS."
Following the consensus on the outcomes of the meeting, the church leaders sat around to discuss how, after talking the walk and talking the talk, they would actually walk the talk put these commitments into action within their own churches as well as through the Pacific Conference of Churches. In doing so they came another step closer to transforming their cry into a song. For more information on the 2010 Pacific Church Leaders' Meeting and the declarations and statements referred to in this column, visit www.pcc.org.fj.
"Sincerity, simplicity, serenity and spontaneity"
* 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 Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org