Thursday, 18 July 2019

Called to be bearers of hope

Written by Bec Beisler

More than 60 people from all over Australia gathered in Nadi, Fiji for the first President’s Conference to be hosted by UCA Assembly President Dr Deidre Palmer.

The theme of the conference, “For the Whole Creation” reflects the key commitments of the Assembly and the wider Uniting Church to take action to address climate change and gender justice.

The location of the Conference in Fiji provided the opportunity to better understand the impacts of climate change, particularly in the Pacific region where communities are at the forefront of both the most devastating effects and the push for an urgent response.

Throughout the Conference, there was time spent in conversation and in worship with our brothers and sisters from the Methodist Church in Fiji, further strengthening the longstanding friendship between our Churches.

Participants travelled from every Synod in Australia to the Tanoa International Hotel and included a diverse range of ages, cultural backgrounds, lay and ordained, in various places of ministry including congregations, prison, hospital and school chaplains, as well as Synod, Assembly and Agency staff.

DAY 1 - WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOUR

After being welcomed by the President on Day 1, we were formally welcomed by the Methodist Church in Fiji with a traditional kava ceremony.

We joined in worship led by the choir from the Namaka Methodist Church lifting our spirits high with their amazing harmonies.

Former President of the Methodist Church in Fiji, and current head of the Fiji Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Tevita Nawadra Bainivanua, preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Reflecting on the question in the Gospel story, “Who is our neighbour?”, Tevita encouraged us to consider all of God’s creation as our neighbour and deserving of our love and care.

Continuing on with the parable of the rich fool, he shared the challenge for the Church in a world that values people by their material wealth and has a “more is better” philosophy.

We got to meet the keynote speakers, Rev. Dr Sef Carroll from UnitingWorld, Rev. James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches and Bible Study leader and New Testament scholar Rev. Dr Vicky Balabanski.

In the first keynote address, James spoke about the journey of self-determination for people in the Pacific, who seek not to be regarded as just a cluster of islands but an “Ocean Continent” of people connected and sustained by the ocean currents.

Drawing us toward the theme of climate change, James reflected on the WCC Island of Hope Statement which was first expressed in Fiji in 2001. The principles of the statement reflect the close links between land and sea to culture and identity in the Pacific.

It calls for all people to be regarded as part of God’s family or clan, and deserving of love and justice, especially for the poor and marginalised.

DAY 2 - ALL CREATION IN CHRIST

Vicky led our first Bible Study reflecting on Colossians 1:1-23 and its insight that Christ’s reconciling work is not only good news for humanity but for all creation. Christ calls us to confront injustice, not only for humankind, but for every creature under heaven.

In her keynote address, Sef asked the question, “Is it too late for justice?” and prompted some deep reflection on climate-induced displacement of people as a result of the unabated use of resources by developed nations.

Sef shared the different perspectives in the two island nations Kiribati and Tuvalu, both under threat of disappearing to rising sea levels.

We were challenged by the resolute line taken by Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga – the position in which migration is a last resort, only when all other options have been exhausted, and even then, “there can be no Plan B”.

Rev. James Bhagwan spoke about the need for an ecological conversion - to move away from a throw-away culture and to restore a right relationship with the ocean.

He shared the example of how the Methodist Church in Fiji has sought to go back to their old ways and wisdom, and a more sustainable way of living.

On Sunday night, we travelled to Lautoka Wesley Methodist Church to join in worship.

Our host Rev. Immanuel Rueben reminded us of the rich history and long friendship between the UCA and the Methodist Church in Fiji. The service included singing by the English-speaking, Hindi, Tuvaluan, Youth and Sunday School choirs.

UCA President Dr Deidre Palmer preached on the women named in Luke’s gospel who came to the tomb and found it empty. Like those women, Deidre reminded us that Jesus names each one of us as beloved children of God.

Worship was followed by the generous hospitality of our hosts with a Pacific feast where time was given to get to know one another and make friends.

DAY 3 - COSTLY DISCIPLESHIP

As we moved through the Conference, the focus shifted to the intersection of climate change, gender justice and human rights.

In our second Bible Study from Colossians 2:6-17, we heard that in Christ the whole fullness of God dwells bodily, in all of creation, in the church and in each of us.

Rev. Dr Sef Carroll spoke about using the lens of intersectionality to respond to issues of justice to ensure that we seek the liberation of all, including all of creation. By seeking relational and inclusive justice we ensure that no one is left out. It is a call to discipleship that is both rewarding and costly.

We heard from the UN Human Rights Commission for the Pacific Dr Chitralekha Massey about her work. She emphasised the important partnership with Church Leaders in the protection and promotion of the rights of all.

Inspiring us with their passion and hope, Frances Namoumou from the Pacific Conference of Churches and Jessica Morthorpe from UnitingEarth spoke about the ways churches in Pacific and Australia are acting in response to climate change.

Frances challenged us to consider how we as the Uniting Church in Australia can be a prophetic voice, encouraging us that “There’s always room to take a step forward.”

In the evening we listened to a panel of speakers from both the Uniting Church and the Methodist Church in Fiji share their personal stories and experiences of working for gender equality.

DAY 4 – RADICAL HOSPITALITY

In our third Bible Study, leader Vicky opened up the gospel passage of Mark 5: 1-21 in which Jesus drives the unclean spirits from the man in Gerasenes.

We reflected on the concepts of masculinity and shame particularly in relation to the grave challenge of violence against women in Australia, the Pacific and globally.

Rev. James Bhagwan offered further insight into forced relocation for communities in the Pacific due to climate change.

We learned about what it means to offer radical hospitality to those who must leave behind the land and sea which is sacred to them and their identity.

The President led a session reflecting on how we have been formed and nurtured as Christian disciples.

In small group conversations, participants reflected on how we might live the Gospel of Christ in ways that contribute to life-giving relationships with God, with one another and with creation.

As part of a Cultural night, we gathered in the evening for a Fijian buffet under the stars with and performances of traditional Fijian songs and meke (Fijian dance), with many joining in the dance.

We heard from a panel of representatives from both the Methodist Church in Fiji and the Uniting Church in Australia sharing on what shapes our identity, hopes and challenges as a church.

Highlighting how much we have in common, panel members from both churches shared of the importance of being inclusive, addressing justice in our society and opening space for our young people to take leadership and shape the church of the future.

DAY 5 - TAKE YOUR PLACE ON THE MAT

In our final Bible Study we reflected on the undivided love and mercy of Jesus for those who are most vulnerable, and our call to share the same.

Our keynote speakers offered a final word, summing up the key themes of climate and gender justice and Christian discipleship.

Rev. Dr Sef Carroll urged us not to give up on hearing the voices of those on the margins – “they are the voices that will continue to give the Church life and vision.”

We were encouraged by the President to think about all we had heard. Each participant was asked to make their own commitment to some form of action on their return home.

As a Conference, a statement was made affirming our all we had heard and our commitment to care for all creation in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Pacific.

In our closing worship, we shared in Holy Communion led by Deidre and James.

In parting words, James blessed us, “We have honoured you and made you part of us, not just for Fiji but the Pacific.

When you go, take your place on the mat with you and offer that mat for others to sit as well.”

It has been a wonderful week, affirming and renewing our friendship with our Fijian sisters and brothers, and challenging us to take up the call of costly discipleship to bring about the flourishing of the whole of creation.


Bec Beisler is the the Communications and Resources Officer in the Assembly Resourcing Unit.