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Sharing and service in Pacific communities.

An elaboration of certain elements of traditional Pacific communities which are also very much of the essence of the community of faith could benefit communities that have lost these tenets and thus also help to enrich our ecumenical life of sharing and service.

A substantial number of Pacific islanders continue to live in such traditional communities,(1) although they are being encroached upon relentlessly by modern development, Western political and economic systems, the mushrooming of small "paradises" (hotels, golf courses, sandy beaches) and thriving cities where traditional values are challenged, discarded and forgotten.(2) Over the last hundred and fifty years or so, colonial governments and churches have made marked inroads into the very being of the Pacific people and in many ways shattered the cohesiveness of community life, replacing it with capitalistic individualism. The Pacific people have been dominated for so long that they have become, to use Paulo Freire's term, "domesticated"; and at the same time they have lost their own identities.

A new wave of Pacific leaders, however, both in the secular world and in the churches, has awakened to the need for a Pacific island identity, rediscovering their own cultural heritage and attempting to protect their traditional communities. The Pacific people need to re-establish, nourish and grow a community that is tryly Pacific and indigenous while maintaining its integrity in the world community. This has obliged the churches in the Pacific to reread the Bible and to engage in a theological process of contextualization, drawing upon aspects of their cultural heritage that can explain to them more about their life, their being and their relationships to the divine.

The following account seeks to unfold some traditional elements of traditional Pacific community. In recent years communism has collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe, and, while capitalism continues to assert itself, it is clear that this political and economic system cannot solve all the world's problems. Perhaps the world can look to the traditional communities of the Pacific as an alternative way forward for the next century.

Pacific communities: four examples

The Kiribati Islands maniaba. As my friend and I sit cross-legged inside the maniaba, we are experiencing activities at the nerve-centre of sharing and dialogue.(3) Traditionally in a Kiribati village, the maniaba is a central open house, built in the middle of the village. It serves as a meeting place for all the villagers, including the elders who make decisions for the village. For villagers and visitors alike it is a centre for meal-sharing, care-giving and entertainment. Each family brings in their meal which they serve and share with other members of the village and visitors. After the meal, visitors are entertained with traditional dances and then garlanded with beautiful flowers and given gifts as tokens of the community's appreciation for the visit.

Nowadays the maniaba has also become the centre of village worship, where the whole community sings, prays and reads the word of God together. As a community and educational centre, it is a place for both intellectual and spiritual empowerment for the people of God and their mission. The maniaba serves as the centre of communion for the community. The shared meal becomes a point or a "table" where members of the families serve and share whatever they bring for the community gathering. It is the table where everyone is both guest and host -- a point of reciprocal service and sharing.

During this meal different families and groups stand from where they are sitting and share their traditional dramas, songs and dances which relate biblical stories or traditional stories with Christian teachings or Christian applications. At this point the "worldly" and the "other-worldly" tasks are united, for there is no separation of the secular from the spiritual. Here people are reminded that the poor and the neglected are to be accepted and fed as equally important members of the community. Those members who are absent because of sickness or other reasons are prayed for and visited with food from the maniaba.

The Samoan fale.(4) The fale or fale tele ("great house") is a symbol of Samoan village life and community. Its construction is geared towards community unity, relationship, participation and partnership. Its round or oval shape represents the unbroken chain (no beginning, no ending) for those who congregate in it, thus symbolizing unity. Its openness, a house with no wall, symbolizes inclusiveness: the extension of what goes on inside the fale to those outside in the community. What goes on in the fale reflects the life of the whole community and its concern for the wellbeing of all.

The fale tele is used for gatherings of the whole village or for district officials. It serves three functions: as the fono, a meeting place for different groups in the village for the welfare of the people; as the tapuaiga, a place for worship or supportive actions for any undertaking by the village community; and as the malaga, a place for entertaining villagers and guests, for the common meal which is brought in and shared among the members of the community. In all three of these functions unity, fellowship and relationship are central themes. Only here can family members come to meet and discuss their differences, worship together or entertain and be happy together without feeling isolated or outcast. Perhaps one of its most important functions is as a place for reconciliation. The fale tele brings together or acts as the place of refuge for different parties.

The Tongan spreading of the mat.(5) It is the duty of the ancestral head to prepare and spread the mat for community gatherings for important occasions in Tonga. For this special ceremony a new mat is spread on top of the one used every day. As soon as the head arrives, the talanga or discussion begins. No one is allowed to say anything until the mat is spread. During an occasion of reconciliation, it is important that the two parties keep their stories until the mat is spread. They may come with different ideas and conflicting views, but the mat on which they sit remains the common bonding factor; everyone sits on the same mat, which symbolizes the community. During the time of sharing and dialogue, everyone is free to speak about whatever has caused a problem.

With the arrival of Christianity, the lotu mat was spread for the communion of the people, and it became the centre of Holy Communion, the serving and sharing of food (body and blood of Christ) for the community. The spread mat on which everyone sits is a symbol of oneness, a clear pointer to reconciliation and sharing. The spread mat symbolizes the absence of boundaries. Everyone is welcomed to participate, either in dialogue or in the sharing of the meal prepared by and for the community.

The Fijian kava ceremony. The Fijian kava or yaqona ceremony is an occasion on which the whole village gathers to discuss matters of importance or to welcome an honoured guest.(6) The presentation of the kava includes ai wase ni yaqona vakaturaga -- the portion of food for the chief after the drinking of the kava. This food is eaten by the guests and people, shared equally among the people of the community, with no one left out. Even those people who are absent because of other engagements are given shares. There are special deacons to do this task.

This concept carries over to church gatherings in which food is shared among the people. During the kava ceremony the chief informs the people of any motions for discussion and the spokesman will then elaborate for further discussion. Affairs of the village, whether secular or spiritual, are discussed and resolutions are made by consensus.

Traditional communities in biblical and theological understanding

When Jesus taught his disciples that he came "not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45), he used the Greek word diakoneo, "to serve or to wait on tables", which refers to slaves who poured out wine for the guests. It includes giving food and drink, extending shelter, providing clothes and visiting the sick and prisoners. The maniaba, the Tongan spread mat, the Fijian kava ceremony and the Samoan fale are points of sharing, service, reconciliation, dialogue and participation and fellowship. These were the very essence of the first Christian community.

In the Fijian yaqona ceremony the servant sits at one point in the circle while the chief sits at the opposite point. Jesus saw in the word diakonia the essence of the dynamic that makes a servant and disciple: "Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27). Luke was very selective in his choice of the word diakonoi to describe the ministry of Timothy and Erastus (Acts 19:22). The diakonos or servant is clearly identified as the person serving and mixing the kava.

The kava format, with its ceremonial words, has been used experimentally in the celebration of Holy Communion. The format is the reverse of the usual church celebration, in the sense that the minister or clergy sits at the servant point of the circle, not standing in the front as in a rectangular sanctuary. This is also an excellent format for Bible study, conversational sermons and church meetings, for on one occasion the same minister can be both the preacher and the officiator of Holy Communion. When delivering the word, the minister sits in the position of authority (the chiefly seat), and when officiating at the celebration of communion he sits where the servant sits. The circle indicates that everyone included is important and should share in the dialogue and in the sharing of food -- the elements of the Lord's supper.

The village community is already there, and the added concept of the faith community enhances its capacity as the basis of security and survival. The community should be engaged in what Freire calls conscientization or awareness-raising, an important effort to empower and motivate people to assert their own identity and develop their land as a source of livelihood. This empowering education enhances justice, peace and integrity of creation and helps the people to learn the art of participatory decision-making. The pastors and village leaders need to sit where the people sit and be among them as community developers, not as community exploiters, which the colonial masters and missionaries often were. The people are encouraged through education to be more interdependent, to divert their energies away from being imitators of mission boards and oppressive pyramid structures in society at large and to develop more and more people-oriented structures for the sake of diakonia in their own locality and environment.

In the village community, people need leadership, conversion and incarnational preaching. They need to work on resolutions and actions here and now. The key to working towards the preservation of community in the village, the church or the oikoumene is the awareness that (in the words of Leslie Boseto) "koinonia [community] without the spirit of diakonia [service] is dead; and diakonia without the spirit of koinonia is also dead". These two concepts are part and parcel of each other and should be treated as such.

The concept of inclusiveness in the maniaba, the Tongan spread mat, the Samoan fale and the Fijian kava ceremony calls for an end to sexism in the community and in the kind of church brought to us by the missionaries. The church is so institutionally patriarchal that it is hard to believe a few personal transformations will make much of a difference to the systematic oppression of women and other minority groups. Christian symbolism is so deeply entrenched in people's subconscious experience and their culture that they can never completely walk away from its influence. Yet Christians also believe that the gospel is essentially liberating for all peoples at all times.

Sexism and women's liberation are two issues that have proved to be difficult in the Pacific. Certain aspects of patriarchal society and the church's identification with that structure have made it a hard wall to break down. But the hallmarks of the community as inclusive, serving and sharing, and belief in a liberating God who will raise prophets to sound the trumpet will in due time cause the wall of sexism to come tumbling down.

Re-development of the community of faith with a diaconal focus in the Pacific will consolidate and strengthen voluntary and self-supporting ministry. In the famous passage on spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4-11), Paul links the gifts of the Spirit with services, diakonia. Elsewhere Paul used diakonia when he referred to the collection for the saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:1-6,19). In other words, the collection was for Paul a ministry of sharing and service, the feeding of starving ordinary people who were followers of the Way in Jerusalem. In general, Christian diakonia refers to any service of genuine love. Christians have not exhausted the potential of creating new sharing and service ministries. The early Christians learned to regard diakonia as very significant in building up the Christian community. The church in the Pacific and the world can continue to do the same today.

Solidarity among small islands(7)

Pacific islands are just dots in a vast ocean, trying to live alongside the megapowers of the world. I have already alluded to the negative impact of these forces. Today neo-colonialism is breeding dependent societies and creating disadvantages for the underdeveloped Pacific islands. Unfortunately, the governments of these island nations have gradually internalized the oppressive structures imposed by the superpowers, widening the gap between islands and creating new economic disparities. The rich grow richer and the poor become poorer.

No Pacific island can act alone. A concerted effort is needed to bring together the small positive concepts of each community so that they may serve as catalysts in our political, economic, religious systems and the environment. Smallness may of course create passivity, uncreativity, submission and dependency; but the other side of smallness is important and beautiful. Both the Old and the New Testaments use the concept of smallness begetting big things: out of two persons, Sarah and Abraham, a nation was born; out of the Israelites, Moses was chosen to liberate God's people; out of Palestine, God incarnated himself in a small baby to be the light to Israel and to bring salvation to the people of the world. Jesus, too, uses the "smallness" concept: the poor widow's only small coin, given wholeheartedly, is as important as the great amounts put in by the wealthy. Faith in God is like a small mustard seed which later grows into a big tree where the birds of heaven come to rest. Any great thing in life must always begin with the smallest beginning. E.F. Schumacher comments, "Our scientists incessantly tell us with the utmost assurance that everything around us has evolved by small mutations sieved out through natural selection...Even the Almighty is not credited with having been able to create anything complex."(8) Human beings cannot create complex things at one throw; we must go through a process, beginning with the small, to be able to create the important, the significant, the beautiful and the complex.

Pacific islanders have only one natural way to begin: with the small. In any Pacific village the elders will open or close a community meeting with a few words of encouragement. One of these basic community philosophies is "united we stand, divided we fall". Or, "bend one reed and it will break; put ten together and it will be difficult to break."

Those ancient words are very applicable to sharing and service in solidarity. Even in our small islands, working together in unity will create undreamed-of potential for asserting common identity in the competitive world of today. Jesus' prayer "that they may be one as we are one" (John 17:11) is an invitation to unity and solidarity in sharing and service, promoting the gospel of Christ and maintaining our prophetic role amidst injustices in the Pacific and in the world.

Sharing and service, two important concepts of community living, issue a call for total liberation, a profound transformation, a redefinition of basic community that will radically and qualitatively change the conditions now experienced by the Pacific Islands. The concepts of dependency and of an endless cycle of submissiveness have become mythified. The only way to break the cycle is by demythologizing it through the concept of smallness. When the Lilliputians found Gulliver on their shores, they did not try to manhandle the giant alone. Instead, the small people got together, thought of a wise plan, then put it into action. Little by little, in their Lilliputian -- and communal -- way, they overpowered the giant.

The giants facing us today are from within and from outside the Pacific. They include aspects of the social system, sexism and other oppressive forces from within the islands, multinational corporations and the dominant political and socio-economic powers from outside. These oppressive powers cannot be overcome by one island alone. Small islands of the Pacific, both governments and churches, must stand together in solidarity and devise appropriate plans for action. Our own awareness of positive aspects of the Pacific communities will assist in curing the ills of oppression and oppressors.

Capitalism and communalism

Jesus' story (Matthew 20:1-16) of the landowner who hired people to work in his vineyard at different times during the day and paid them all the same amount no matter how many hours they worked(9) clearly sets forth the concepts of sharing and service in the community as comparable with the concepts of the kingdom as treasured by Jesus. I want to suggest with Letty Russell that this story illustrates God's "new maths" -- a new, communal way of looking at reality. This new maths invites people to look at things not from the human perspective but from God's perspective, God's reality. As Paul said to the Corinthians, "we regard no one from a human point of view" but "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:16f.). Now people are looking at the world and their different vocations according to the standard of Christ and not through human standards. Paul had established a community, a community of faith in which there is mutual sharing and service like the maniaba, the Samoan fale, the Tongan spread mat or the Fijian kava ceremony.

Future shock. The hired workers in Jesus' parable knew from tradition what the daily wage was; and their grumbling can be seen as evidence of their loyalty to or longing for the past. They love tradition; they want to preserve the status quo, to stick to the conventional. Our forefathers were paid one denarius a day, so we should continue to be paid that amount today. But to their dismay and surprise the boss gave those who worked for only an hour the same wage as they received.

Those who suffer from future shock become disoriented when changes threaten their security. They seek to control their world by ordering their view of the world according to a set of static, already-established answers.

Are Pacific people content with the political, economic, educational, church and other systems imported from Europe, from England, from Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand and imposed on them? The rigidity of the present leadership and its insensitiveness to the tenets of Pacific community can cause politica, economic, social and religious brokenness.

When people see from God's perspective, when they cease to regard things from the human point of view, then they can see the future from the present: this is where they are going -- which is reflected in Matthew's introduction to this parable, "the kingdom of heaven is like this". It is futile to be content with the past and celebrate its perpetuity, but people should feel the inadaptability of the present, so they can always be on the pilgrimage to the longed-for future.

"My things." The early workers were self-centred and capitalist-minded. They wanted to move away from their roots in community life. They thought only of themselves, of "my thing", "my life", "my work", "my money", "my church". The possessor becomes the centre of relationship; others are sidelined and not counted. These "my thing" workers cannot see beyond their own selfish motives, whereas those who are rooted in community life place other things as priority: you, us, the world. These Christian concepts are pertinent to the life in the maniaba, the fale, the falaga and the yaqona vakaturaga.

As fellow citizens and servants people are here to indulge in sharing and service. They want to work in their own community with the world in mind. Pacific Islanders are trying to identify themselves as equal partners in a common bond with others in the world. Growth will not take place as long as people continue to focus on my things -- whether race, people, religion or church. Growth will come when we look from God's perspective, God's reality, God's "new maths", and see the importance of others in Christlike love and humility.

Circumference. The workers who started early were very conscious of their hard labour: "We have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat" (Matthew 20:11). This is understandable. The problem is that these workers drew a circumference around themselves; they set their own boundary to mark themselves as the "chosen", thus forming an isolated group. To take an example from the present-day Pacific, neither indigenous Fijians nor Indo-Fijians should see themselves as the elite group in Fiji; rather, their priority should be to live as a community, as the President pointed out in his speech opening parliament this year: one of the country's priorities is "to promote the harmonious relations between the different groups that make up our society".(10)

The apostle Paul offered a vital and important definition of life: "For me living is Christ" (Philippians 1:21). Rather than drawing a circumference, a boundary forming an elite club, let Christ be the centre of people's life. People are wide open, as Jesus said, "for God so loved the world..." Christ became "the man for others", as Bonhoeffer said.(11) As fellow servants, people exist for each other, since Christ is their very centre and they are always open.

Subtraction tables. The hired workers in the parable who arrived first knew their subtraction very well. They calculated their hours of work in the hot sun, minus the hours worked by those who came at 9 a.m., or noon, or 3 p.m., or 5 p.m. To put their reaction in contemporary terms: "Something is very wrong here! We settled here first. These people just came in 120 years ago; some of them just came yesterday."

The problem is that the early workers view persons quantitatively, so that everything is based on "how much" or "how little". Quantitative thinking is that of subtraction table, in which one person wins, the other loses. This kind of thinking is alien to the community concepts of the Pacific. The community includes the guests alien to the community concepts of the Pacific. The community includes the guests and the wayfarers. It is inclusive; everyone belongs to the community. The key ingredient for human relation is quality, not quantity. God in Christ shows this quality of love. It is the quality of humility in relationship with people and God that counts. In people's relationship with others they must be conscious of the presence of Christ, who will give them the quality of love, faithfulness and justice; qualities that can grow only as they are given away and shared with others. That is God's "new maths", the community's maths.

Superiority. The early hired workers had a superiority instinct: lacking humility, they act in ways that seek to maximize their own wage at the expense of the others. They grade themselves against the others to establish their own self-worth. They enhance their own authority, power and prestige as being first and having worked long hours by degrading others. In our world we have with us the oppressed and the marginalized of society, the squatters, the minority races. If Fijian Christians really want Fiji to be a Christian country,(12) they should have a policy of inclusiveness: to be a community where all belong and no one is to be left out. An old Chinese saying warns, "You cannot continue giving fish to your friend who asks for fish. Give him or her a fishing line and he or she will eat fish every day." If your neighbour continues to ask for tapioca, give him or her a basket of tapioca and some branch cuttings to plant. In the Pacific community, there is no spoon-feeding. The people know their servant role and what they can share for the community.

Permanent inequality. "We came first and worked hard; we deserve more wages. These others who came late should be given less." This is typical of looking at reality from the quantitative human perspective. It advances domination and subordination of others in a fixed structure of permanent inequality in church or society. The basis of unity is not this kind of equivalence but rather the willingness of the Christian to become a servant. God in Christ did this for the world. Paul stayed on and forgot about the serenity and comfort of life with Christ in order for the time being to serve the people.

What people need is a temporary inequality, to become servants for other people and for the community. In the community we do not belong to ourselves. Each one of us is a part of the community, and whatever one possesses is not his or hers but the community's. This is the message of Easter: self-denial and sharing of life. For Christ lived for others and died for others. This is very much related to the integration of the secular and the spiritual in the Pacific worldview. The deacon or deaconess in his or her engagement in daily life continues to interpret the faith, and this process becomes relevant in the act of service within the life of the community, the church and other non-church activities.

The commitment of the people to service and sharing in the community grows out of their belief that God has genuinely called them to these different services or ministries. The peoples are servants of the community; chiefs are servants of the people; people are servants of the chiefs; those in leadership, including ministers, are the servants of the community of believers, the church. When people discover these clues in the midst of life -- inclusiveness, reconciliation, unity, dialogue, participation, partnership, fellowship, sharing and service -- then we are closer to that heavenly community, the kingdom of heaven.

NOTES

(1)See Sione Tupouniua, ed., The Pacific Way, Suva, Univ. of the South Pacific, 1975.

(2)On the effects of tourism, see Cynthia Z. Biddlecomb, Pacific Tourism, Suva, Lotu Pasifika, 1981; and Ron Crocombe ed., Pacific Tourism as Islanders See It, Suva, Univ. of the South Pacific, 1980.

(3)This section is based on a weeklong visit I made with David Esterline, dean of Pacific Theological College, to Tangitebu Theological College, whose central point is a maniaba, where all meetings and entertainment take place. We interviewed several students and the principal about the significance of the maniaba.

(4)I am grateful to Featunai Liuaana, a Samoan member of the faculty of Pacific Theological College, for these insights into the significance of the Samoan fale.

(5)Tu'iniua Finau, a student at Pacific Theological College, has explained the spread mat as a way to understand the eucharist in the Tongan context.

(6)On the kava ceremony and other aspects of Fijian culture, see Asesela D. Ravuvu, The Fijian Ethos, Suva, Univ. of the South Pacific, 1987.

(7)See Jovili I. Meo, "Smallness and Solidarity", Pacific Journal of Theology, series II, no. 6, 1991.

(8)E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, New York, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 157.

(9)This discussion of the parable in Matthew 20:1-20 draws on the exposition by Letty Russell, Growth in Partnership, Philadelphia, Westminster, 1981, pp. 28ff.

(10)Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Parliamentary Paper No. 1, 1994, p.2. The status of Indians who have migrated to Fiji over against the indigenous islanders has caused suspicion and animosity, particularly since the military coup in Fiji in 1987.

(11)Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, London, SCM, 1953, p.165.

(12)A Fijian nationalist group, with the support of the Methodist Church, has moved that the phrase "Fiji is a Christian country" replace the current language concerning "toleration religions" in the constitution.
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Title Annotation:Ecumenical Diakonia: New Challenges, New Responses
Author:Meo, Jovili I.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Words:4791
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