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Tauiwi youth live the diversity of Te Hahi Weteriana

The controversy surrounding the selection of president at NZ Methodist Conference 2005 underscores the cultural and religious dilemmas Pacific young people face growing up in New Zealand.

Youth representatives to Conference from the church’s Tauiwi sections say they deeply value the religious and cultural traditions of their parents but they also want to find new ways to express their faith and come to terms with different theological understandings.

Exciting things are taking place among the church’s young people. Methodist Youth Conference (MYC) held at the beginning of this year revealed the passion many have for the church.

A number of initiatives emerged out of the MYC. These include youth forums and commitments by some young people to pursue evangelism and mission work in Papua New Guinea.

One issue raised at MYC is the tension between the gospel and culture. Some Pacific youth feel stretched between two worlds, that of the traditional Pacific and that of contemporary New Zealand, where they are not only growing up but where they were born.

One way this is played out is in their growing range of faith expressions. Tongan youth representatives Osaiasi Kupu and Kathleen Tuai say the Auckland-Manukau Tongan parish, which encompasses 17 congregations, has launched a two year youth strategy.

The parish set up a committee of youth representatives to develop worship services and programmes for young people. This is a new development because generally in Pacific church circles elders organise activity for young people.

They have already held a service specifically for youth that attracted 800 young people. Rev Taufa Filiai, Rev Langi’ila Uasi and Rev Melesuipi Latu conducted the service in English and Tongan. Kathleen says it was a huge success and the committee plans to hold services in a sports stadium to accommodate for all parish youth (approximately 2000) and their parents.

The challenge of diversity was a theme of Rev John Salmon’s presidential address. He reminded the church it must learn to manage its own cultural and theological diversity and redefine its role in an increasingly diverse society.

Tauiwi youth worker Te Rito Peyroux says many young people at Conference felt as if John was speaking to them.

“It was reassuring to hear what he had to say about the style and content of worship. If we change the style of our worship that doesn’t mean we change the core content of the Christian message,” Te Rito says.

Nowhere has the question of diversity been more sensitive than over the issue of the role of gays and lesbians in the leadership of the church, and this was a major concern of young people attending Conference.

Te Rito says that she was impressed with the calm mood throughout Conference though there were strong undercurrents below the surface. She believes the diverse views expressed in all parts of the Tauiwi section of the Church mirror the views of young people as well.

Kathleen and Osaiasi echo Te Rito’s views. They are concerned the message the church was sending out clashes with the traditional views of their families. Many Tongan churches held special services, prayer chains, and fasts prior to Conference over the issue.

Osaiasi says young Tongans have adapted to the New Zealand way of life but they also share the Tongan way of looking at the world. “I would say my Tongan beliefs are more important for me personally. They are a big part of who I am.”

Kathleen says most Tongan young people share their parents’ morals and ethics.

“I think if you asked most 18 and 19 year olds within our parish if they are fine with the president of the church being lesbian, a high percentage would say no. Our parents are staunch Methodists and we are brought up in a strict cultural tradition. It is our identity and way of life. It is hard for us to go against what we have been taught and what we know.”

On the other hand, Kathleen says, it was good to come to Conference and see other view points. Tongan young people are often in a bubble and only hear the views of their parents and lay preachers. She says youth need to see the diversity in the church and hear other ways of understanding these issues.