Since it began in1987, the Tongan National Conference, as the first national conference in the Uniting Church, has grown to be the biggest national conference. It meets every year over the Queen’s birthday long weekend in June. There are now 12 national conferences in the Uniting Church: The Tongan, the Korean, the Indonesian, the Fijian, the Samoan, the Filipino, the Chinese, the Tamil, the Niuean, the Vietnamese, the South Sudanese and recently, the Middle Eastern.
The purpose of the first Tongan Conference was to help the leaders of the Tongan Congregations in Australia to understand and participate in the life of the Uniting Church. This took into account some of the difficulties Tongan ministers and lay members faced in trying to relate to a new culture and their move from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga to participating as full members of the Uniting Church in Australia. These difficulties related to language, the structure and ethos of the Uniting Church in contrast with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Naturally, as diaspora communities of faith migrate from Tonga, finding a new place to worship becomes an issue.
Seongja Yoo-Crowe said that the declaration of the Uniting Church as a Multicultural Church in 1985 was a historic, bold commitment in response to the calling of God to the churches of Australia in our time (Yoo-Crowe, Uniting Church Press, 1998). The Statement adopted by the Church affirmed that its membership comprises people of many races, cultures and languages. It is essential to provide for the full participation of Aboriginal and ethnic people, women and men, in decision making, in the councils and the life of the church because as part of its commitments to its ethos and the Basis of Union (UCA Reg., 2012 Edition).
The Tongan National Conference now meets at Merroo Christian Convention Centre in Kurrajong, New South Wales. It moved from Marrickville Community Centre five years ago after having met there for many years. The move was needed because the venue in Marrickville had become too small for the growth of the Tongan National Conference. The community centre had also become unsafe for children and young people because of the open accessibility to the public and a new venue was needed to support the vitality of the intergenerational nature of the conference which comprised all age groups. The change in venue was also a huge cultural change for the Tongan people because at Marrickville Community Centre, the congregations around the Sydney wereused to catering for the meals for the Conference for the whole weekend. Feasting and sharing meals (Fakaafe) is a major factor in why Tongans come to the Conference. The members of the local congregations felt the very act of catering was part of their stewardship to God. In effect, they did not attend the other programs, fellowship events and worship because of their involvement in the preparations of the meals. Food is part of the Tongan cultural activities which is very important in their church life. Feasting is seen as part of the ecclesiological activities in Tongan congregational life. Around the table where the feast is served, speeches are shared by leaders which becomes a learning field for the listeners who understand the Tongan language. Now that the Conference has been held over the last five years at Merroo Christian Convention Centre, it is a fully catered venue which has meant that people can attend the Conference programs instead of cooking and catering for the meals and missing out sharing in the Conference programs.
The meeting of the Tongan National Conference is an opportunity for the Tongan-born members of the Uniting Church to get together annually and have fellowship in a cross cultural way. Most of the parents who attend were born in Tonga. The second and third generations were born in Australia. However, these second and third generations value learning from their Tongan heritage. This is why the Tongan National Conference is now run in two languages (English and Tongan) and the programs are run in both languages as well. There has been a suggestion to separate the adult conference from the second generation programs and perhaps on a different date and venue. But the responses and feedback from the second generation team leaders and next generation members is that they want to share and learn from the adults as well. It is the gathering of Tongan-Australians of all ages who are members of the Uniting Church in Australia. It does not matter whether they belong to a Tongan congregation or to an Anglo Celtic/Tongan congregation or Anglo Celtic congregation but have some Tongan heritage. They are all welcome to attend. In between Conferences there are two meetings in October and February around different states to encourage the involvements of Tongan-Australians nationally in the life, worship and mission of the Uniting Church.
In 2014, the Conference attendance reached the 1000 mark for the first time at the new venue. People of all ages came from the Synods of Queensland, Victoria/Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and NSW/ACT. The number of those attending included those who stayed on site throughout the whole weekend and those who commuted from the Sydney area. Guests to the Conference have included the President of the UCA, the Assembly National Directors of Uniting World and Multicultural Cross Cultural Ministry, the President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and sometimes theologians and educators from the United Theological College in Parramatta.
Because of the range and diversity of conference attendees, there are two programs that run parallel during most parts of the weekend. One caters for the adults and seniors and is run mostly in the Tongan language. It deals with the issues of educating the older Tongans who came from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga tradition who have found a home in the Uniting Church. The Basis of Union and some parts of the Constitution of the Uniting Church have been translated into Tongan to make this learning possible. Other activities are discussions amongst the members of the differences in the way Tongan congregations work in the Uniting Church around Australia. Some congregations are worshipping in both English and Tongan. Some only have Tongan members and worship only in the Tongan language.
The other program runs in English and caters for the young people and Sunday school ages. It is run by the Next Generation Team which is a feature of the Tongan National Conference. The Next Generation Team represents a desire to pass on the baton from the older generation to the younger. Some of the issues they discuss and engage with in the Conference are more particular to them, for example, cross cultural identity, youth violence and why a lot of Pacific Island (and Tongan) youths are in prisons. There are issues to do with the relocation from Tonga to Australia in sociological, economic, ecclesiological and theological understanding.
In 2014, the Tongan National Conference contributed to the discussions surrounding the ABC TV series Jonah from Tonga. Itwas anAustraliantelevision series written by and starring comedian Chris Lilley. The ‘mockumentary’ series followsJonah Takalua, a rebellious 14-year-old Australian boy of Tongan descent who had been introduced in Lilley's 2007 seriesSummer Heights High. At the conclusion of that series, Jonah was expelled from Summer Heights High. In this series, his father, Rocky Takalua, has sent him back to his homeland of Tonga to live with his uncle and their family in order to get Jonah's life back on track. The six part series was produced by Princess Pictures and Chris Lilley in conjunction with theAustralian Broadcasting Corporation (www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/jonah-from-tonga/). The TV series portrayed, in Jonah, misleading aspects of the Tongan cultural upbringing of a Tongan young boy. The Tongan community in Australia took offence and raised the issue with the ABC through the Assembly Office and the Uniting Church media officer. The ABC Sunday program invited the Chair of the Tongan National Conference and the Leader of the Next Generation Team to participate in a live panel on its Sunday night radio program. The panel received wide media coverage about the role of the Tongan National Conference plays in speaking to the public on issues of Tongan/Australian identity. The entire series was available for streaming online for one weekend from 2 May to 4 May onBBC iPlayerand ABCReview, before starting a six-week run on ABC1 on 7 May 2014 and from 8 May on BBC Three. This was a first for a major Australian TV production. The series itself was a "ratings disaster" for both the ABC and BBC. It was later announced that the entire series would screen at select cinemas in several Australian cities followed by a Q and A with Chris Lilley. These events were subsequently cancelled, with refunds given and the website created to promote them removed. This is an example of how the Tongan National Conference played its part in the public space on behalf of the Tongan community.
For the past two years, the Tongan National Conference has again had more than 1000 people in attendance. Significantly, this year the Tonga Parish in Sydney came to the Conference and a number of members of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga congregations in Sydney also attended. This is reflective of the strong partnership and connection between the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and the Uniting Church in Australia.
This year the Conference included a new program for young adults who find themselves between the Second and First generations. It was called ‘Step Up’.
Rev Jason Kioa is chairperson of the Tongan National Conference. He is a former Moderator of the Vic/Tas Synod currently serving as Minister at Manningham Uniting Church.