Monday, December 1, 2014

Spirituality and the Environment


 Bula vinaka mai Sydney!

As you read this, history is being made as the Uto Ni Yalo, with three other vaka from the Cook Islands, Samoa and Aotearoa/NZ, sails into Sydney’s Darling Harbour.  Unfortunately I will not be onboard as I have been given the task of being the Master of Ceremonies for the official arrival programme for the vaka on the completion of their over 3,000 nautical mile voyage.

This voyage, originating in the Cook Islands and travelling via Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu for the Marumaru Atua, Gaualofa and the Uto Ni Yalo respectively, with the Haunui sailing over 1200 nautical miles from Aotearoa/NZ via Norfolk Island, is a historical event. When the 3 vaka arrived in the Gold Coast late last month from Vanuatu, they became the first traditionally sailed canoes to arrive in Australia in recent history.  The significance of that will be further deepened when the 4 vaka sail into Darling Harbour today, past the Sydney Opera House and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as they make their way to their berths at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

On board the vaka, accompanying the crew will be Çook Islands Prime Minister, Hon. Henry Puna; New Zealand Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, Shane Jones; President of the Republic of Palau, H.E. Tommy Remengasau Jr; and Fiji government-Nobel Prize nominee and President of the Republic of Kiribati, H.E. Anote Tong; as well as other invited dignitaries including Australian rugby legend Mark Ella and dual rugby league international Kevin Iro.

As the vaka arrive they will be met by an elder from Australia’s first people in a “nawi”, an Aboriginal bark canoe, carved from white stringybark, wrapped using hand-made rope and sealed with beeswax and xanthorrea grass tree resin. This greeting and welcome on the water pays tribute to the maritime culture of Australia’s indigenous people as over 170 years ago Aboriginal bark canoes glided on the waters of Sydney Harbour. Drawings and paintings showing the canoes co-existing alongside English sailing ships faded from view in the mid-1830s.

According to historians, Aboriginals worked as guides, boatmen, sailors, whalers and trackers. Bundle was the first Aboriginal Australian to sail beyond the horizon. Others, including Bennelong and Salamander followed in his footsteps and their travels included England, Vancouver, United States, India and New Ireland. Bungaree was the first Australian to circumnavigate Australia with Matthew Flinders.

Once berthed, the crew and those who have joined them aboard will participate in a traditional smoking ceremony. Green leaves from plants used by the group that conducts it are placed on a small fire. The smoke is used to cover the participants’ bodies, ridding them of what is not needed. It also cleanses the area. The group feels that it is leaving behind troubles and beginning something new. The voyagers will then be welcomed by the Director of Australian National Maritime Museum, Mr Kevin Sumption and the Hon. Rob Stokes MP – New South Wales Minister for the Environment.

History-making completed, the Pacific leaders will present the Pacific message to Australia and the delegates of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature-organised World Parks Congress. The message focuses on “Our People,” “Our Oceans,” “Climate Change” and the “Pacific Call to Global Action”.

The crew will then spend the next week participating in the World Parks Congress, joining in talanoa sessions and making presentations on their experiences, sustainable sea-transport, climate change, the ocean and a host of issues connected to our island way of life.

Yesterday/Tuesday afternoon, I sat on the Uto Ni Yalo absorbing the energy of the sea and observing the work of this now seasoned crew who I have prayed for, encouraged and twice tried to join (God having other plans for me), as we sailed from Yarra Bay to Watson’s Bay, the final stop at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.

So what is a Methodist talatala doing here? Good question. As I shared with the congregation at Canterbury Fijian Parish on Sunday, the answer can be found in the 1st and 12th pillars of the Methodist Church in Fiji. Pillar 1 is, of course, “The Salvation of Souls” and Pillar 12, is “Stewardship of Creation.” Having served as the chaplain of the Uto Ni Yalo in a voluntary capacity for the past four years, providing spiritual nurturing to the voyaging community and being a keen, swimmer, stand-up-paddler and someone who loves and respects the ocean and our envirionment, the Mua Voyage for me is a way for me to connect these two important pillars together as part of my ministry and as an example of what we in the Methodist community can do.

In what ways does our spirituality, our faith journey, our walk with God, connect not only with our social interactions – our love for neighbour, but also our interaction with the rest of life on this planet we call home – our love for God’s creation?

We may not all get to be a voyager like these brave men and women who not only have a passion for traditional navigation and sailing but also for the environment. Yet each of us has a responsibility, for some of us, understanding it as a God-given responsibility to live symbiotically – in harmony with the environment –to nurture it, to protect it, acknowledging the divine presence in it; and be guided by it. This is the meaning of Mua – to be guided by nature.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and is a trustee and voluntary chaplain for the Uto Ni Yalo Trust, which works to revive interest in traditional voyaging and respect for the ocean and environment. 

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