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Challenges on a different scale for Fijian minister in NZ

After more than 18 years in the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev Bob Sidal says ministry in New Zealand is pretty straight forward.

However, he is concerned about the lack of young people in his new parish, St Lukes Union Church in Halswell. Increasing their numbers is among his first priorities.

Born on the island of Taveuni to Hindu parents, Bob attended a Methodist mission school and became a Christian at the age of 12. After working for Shell Petroleum and the government of Fiji, he entered the ministry, serving in the Fiji Methodist Church’s Indian division.

Bob and his Kiwi wife, Morven, were posted to three different Indian circuits: in Suva and Nausori in eastern Viti Levu and Ba in western Viti Levu.

Like Bob, Morven holds a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Pacific Theological College in Suva, and she has been a strong partner in his ministry.

A major focus of their efforts was religious education. The Sidals explain that in Fiji most schools are owned by Christian, Muslim or Hindu religious institutions. The government sets the secular curriculum and pays the teachers but the religious bodies are responsible for the religious instruction in the schools.

“The Methodist Church has 33 schools in Fiji and our parish at Nausori had one high school and three primary

Rev Bob and Morven Sidal
schools,” Bob says. “The minister chairs the school board and is responsible for administering school matters, managing the physical plant and buildings, and preparing the religious curriculum. Just running the schools could have taken all my time.

“Normally teachers do the religious instruction but we set up a new model where we paid specialist religious instructors to teach as part of our outreach to children. Morven set it up and the Methodist Church adopted it for years one to eight in all their primary schools.”

Bob and Morven’s work in the church has been affected by the upheavals in Fiji’s political life.

Bob says the membership of congregations in Fiji’s Indian division tends to be multi-cultural. In addition to Indians, most congregations also include Fijians and Rotumans.

“Most Indian congregations have Sunday morning services in Hindi and English and in the afternoon services in other languages, Fijian or Rotuman. The population of Taveuni is more than 90 percent Fijian, so I grew up with the Fijian language and culture, and I can preach in Fijian as well as Hindi and English.

“As a result of the 2000 coup, a number of ethnic Fijians – including judges, doctors, lawyers and teachers – joined the Indian division. They worshipped with us as an alternative because the Methodist Church as a whole did not come clean and state whether it was for or against the coup.

“In some ways the 2000 coup built up the relationship between Indian and Fijian Christians. Every afternoon we held worship sessions to pray for a peaceful resolution of the situation.”

Bob and Morven say last year’s coup has increased tension between the Methodist Church and the government. That tension was one of the reasons they decided to emigrate to New Zealand.

Bob was appointed to St Lukes in July and will come into full connexion at Conference 2008.

“It is much easier to work here than in Fiji. In my last appointment there I worked with another minister and a deaconess to serve five different congregations. The big challenge here is to get more young people to church.

“In Fiji we had lots of families and large Sunday schools and youth groups. The Halswell congregation is made up mostly of grandparents so I am working with the parish council to see how we can attract more parents and children.”