Published in "Off The Wall" Fiji Times - 9th February, 2011
My family recently relocated from Toorak ( where I have spent a total of 8 years living throughout my life) to Samabula. Fortunately I also relocated with them. I find myself living in a house named after the Late Pauline Campbell, a past headmistress of Dudley House School and a strong advocate of equal participation of women in the ordained ministry of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma.
More importantly Miss Campbell, was instrumental in the establishment of the Deaconess Order of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma.
In the words of A. Harold Wood, “So strongly was she connived of the needs of religious and social welfare work among Fijian and Indian women in urban areas that she promoted the foundation of the Deaconess Order in Fiji. From supervisor of deaconess training, and, after retiring, decided to return to Suva to support the Mission’s programme. The Deaconess Order, already proving a boon to the women of both races, is a monument to her wise oversight and her spirit of complete devotion to the Church’s mission in Fiji.”
My new neighbours are the new Administrator of the Deaconess Order, Deaconess Meresiana Kuricava and her extended family. By extended family I mean the eight student deaconesses that stay in the dormitory between our two houses. You see I live next to the Deaconess Training Centre, which is currently a hive of activity.
Tomorrow, (Thursday 10th February) is celebrated as Deaconess Day in the Methodist Church Calendar.
From as early as 1878 missionary sisters have served the Methodist Church in Fiji, teaching in schools, caring for orphans, providing medical and nursing care and engaging in evangelistic, pastoral and social and community work.
According to the late Miss Campbell, in 1953 the Fijian Synod of the Methodist Church of Australasia appointed the first Deaconess Committee because all Fijian annual meetings had recommended to the Synod the establishment of a Deaconess Order.
In around 1966, three women, Miss Mulya Dharanji, Sister Ethel Brent and Mrs Gladys Campbell bought the property next door to me, especially for the purpose of setting up a Deaconess Training Centre. A multiracial group of volunteers along with the first four deaconess students prepared the house for occupation and on February 10th, 1967, classes began for the student deaconesses.
The term Deaconess comes from the Greek word diakonia which can be defined as service or ministering. According to the World Federation of Diaconal Associations and Diaconal Communities,
· Diaconal work establishes a connection between church and society. It is present in service as well as every-day life.
· Diaconal work overcomes denominational boundaries; in the broadest sense, it is ecumenical.
· In service and spiritual care, the diaconate gives witness, both to protect injustice and to give expression to the promised Kingdom of God.
Deaconesses have served as chaplains in Schools, Religious Education teachers and in pastoral appointments as assistants to ministers. Sometimes their roles are misunderstood and as a result undervalued by the ministers and communities they serve in.
44 years since the training of Deaconesses began in Fiji, with a new Administrator and staff, the Deaconess Training Centre and Deaconess Order is at a crossroads and is reflecting on its relevance and rethinking its mission.
Many, including the current leaders of the Deaconess Order believe the time has come for the Vada ni Turaga – “Servants” or “Messangers of the Lord” to begin to make a difference in new areas of the community through specialised ministries such as children’s ministry, providing care for the aged and hospital ministry.
Writing in the late 1980’s Miss Campbell, who died in 2009 aged 85, stated that, “the church has not yet had a vision of the potential of deaconesses for innovative and outreach work,”adding that in other countries, it was normal for some deaconesses to be working in appointments outside the church, with church approval.
She went on to say that, “it is to the areas of greatest need in the community, and to the guidance of the Spirit, that the deaconess, the (Deaconess) Committee and the Church should look to.”
In recent years final-year student deaconesses have written a project paper, from which they must develop in to a workshop and implement during their probationary period. The issues such as child abuse, violence against women, poverty and other current issues, including the impact of the media in society may perhaps point the way for the re-envisioning of the role of the Deaconess order.
However tomorrow is a day for thanksgiving and praise. In Suva, Deaconesses in the Central Division will converge at Rev. Edward Caleb Church in Moala Street at 4pm for a Thanksgiving service which the sermon delivered by the first local Deaconess to be ordained by the Fiji Conference of the Methodist Church, Litia Rabuku (nee Balewai).
In Lautoka, Deaconesses in the Western Division from Sigatoka to Rakiraki will hold a service at Coronation Church in Lautoka at 10am. The Mokani Circuit near Bau Landing in Tailevu will also have a service to honour the occasion.
This year’s Deaconess Day is also significant in that all working deaconesses will, in a gesture of thanksgiving, donate a book each to the library of the Deaconess Training Centre.
To my sisters and mothers in Christ, of the Deaconess Order and all other orders in the fellowship of Christ and the service of humanity – thank you for your commitment and compassion.
Let us all be inspired to love and serve unconditionally.
Rev. James Bhagwan serves as a Minister for the Dudley Suva Circuit in the Indian Division of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma. He holds a Bachelor of Divinity in Ecumenical Studies (with Honours) from the Pacific Theological College and has won awards in television, radio and print media. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. Bhagwan and does not necessarily represent the views of the Methodist Church or any other organisation or group to which he is affiliated.