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Dennis' Fiji Trip -- May/June 2022

As the world opens up after two years of significant pandemic lock down, it has been such a pleasure to be able to visit Fiji and spend time with the church here. They are in fine spirits and send a hearty Bula to everyone.

My focus in visiting, aside from several administrative objectives, has been to meet more of the members and to encourage the leadership here. Despite being cut off physically these many months the blessing of Zoom connections has helped them remain strong, in good spirits, and focused on our collective mission into our respective countries and communities.

My first two days in Suva were spent visiting with our Fijian elder, Jope Uqeuqe, then with Vasiti Colati, and later Frank and Emily Boyd. Their welcome was warm and open, and offered a chance to get to know them much better, their backgrounds and the various ways they are serving in the church here. In part, my purpose was to encourage and comfort them after the loss of Isei Colati, our senior pastor here, last year but on each occasion it turned out to be just as much an encouragement and comfort to me to listen to their stories and see their heart and courage in the face of the sudden shift of challenges that caused. And the food we shared was very good too.

Sunday was my first chance to visit with everyone, and my first opportunity to speak since coming to the 2011 Festival in Pacific Harbour to the west of Suva. What a warm welcome, with several from older to quite young participating in the service, and the hall enhanced with a beautiful floral display. We, of course, followed that with a sumptuous lunch and lots of talking. It was such a pleasure to talk not only with some of the older members, but especially with the youth too. Following the lunch we did a session of training, covering foundationally what Healthy Church (that Greg Williams has been highlighting) is, and then the ideas within REAL Teams. From my perspective, we all seemed to be enjoying the time as we clarified what church is and how it functions best.

My day finished, again over a light meal, visiting with James and Alisi Panuve, who had come over from Tonga for a couple of weeks. James is one of our boa

rd members here, so it was a chance to both catch up on what we are doing and working on, and also prepare for the meeting planned later in the week.

The next two days were spent visiting some of the members in the west, specifically Nadi and Lautoka. For this trip, Frank and Emily Boyd had graciously offered to drive me over and introduce me. They have been such wonderful hosts and I am g

rateful for being able to discuss at depth the church with them (both are on the Fiji Pastoral Team).

Monday’s visits were first to the home of Sachida Nath, who incidentally gave a Zoom sermon here and serves in his essentially Indian community not far from Nadi. Again, such a warm welcome to his home and my first opportunity (that I know of) to eat such things as breadfruit and other produce from the sizeable garden his wife maintains. There we spoke of our faith and the great assurance with have in Christ. Later that evening we were privileged to visit the extended family of Waisea Navuruvuru and fellowship with them also.

Our last day away was first in Lautoka, a little north of Nadi, where we were met by Margaret Franklin, Mere Tora and her son, whom she called Junior. If you get the chance, ask Mere the story about his fall as a boy and what happened; it is an inspiring account of God’s intervention and faithfulness. We met in a coffee shop in an air conditioned mall, which I found helpful since the sun was beating down and 30C outside. Mere had several questions for me and we had a pleasant chat over those for about an hour. She passes on her greetings and best wishes to the many she knows in New Zealand, especially Auckland and Wellington. Then our last port of call was to the Ranamu family in Navua, which is near Pacific Harbour. In many ways they live in an idyllic spot right on the water’s edge. There we again had a good chat and drank the coconut juice they offered for refreshments.

Following on from a most enjoyable first few days and a delightful trip westward to Nadi and Lautoka, my expectations for the remaining days of my visit to Fiji were high. I was not disappointed.

A key focus for this visit was to catch up on the four youth leaders who came to Wellington in 2018 and get reacquainted with them. So, over four consecutive days, I met with each in turn for a couple of hours: Eugene Panuve (Wed.), Jason Raki (Thu.), Epeli Nakautoga (Fri.) and Joana Wainibuli (Sat.). It was fun catching up with them and I came away from encouraged by the growth and maturity evident in their lives. All are actively involved in ministry to the youth as well as serving more widely in the church here. We discussed what they had brought back from the 2018 trip, how that had influenced their experience till now and things they were looking forward to in the future. Quite aside from enjoying their company, I came away uplifted and encouraged that the church in Fiji will pass one day to capable and deeply involved young leaders.

The evening of Wednesday June 1st was devoted to the first face-to-face meeting of the GCI Fiji board since its inception. What a pleasure it was. Following on from the sad death last year of Isei Colati, GCI Fiji’s lead pastor and board member, Jope Uqeuqe was welcomed as the new Trustee of the board, bringing its membership up to four as before. Being the first live meeting (all earlier meetings being over Zoom and essentially informal in nature), officers were elected: for the next year I will chair meetings, Jope Uqeuqe will act as Secretary and Rex Morgan was appointed Treasurer. He presently controls and reports on GCI Fiji accounts to the board, hence there will be no real change in function. Following the meeting, members and guests (Frank Boyd and Alisi Panuve) enjoyed an evening meal together at the floating restaurant on the Suva foreshore.

Aside from meeting with Jason and writing a couple of reports, the highlight of Thursday was a formal meeting of the pastoral team. Again, this was our first face-to-face gathering and hence a special pleasure to talk together as we discussed the happenings and challenges of the Fijian church. Frank Boyd chaired the meeting and again, as before, we shared a meal afterwards in a local Indian restaurant.

As a result of the board discussion Wednesday, three of the trustees met with our lawyers on Friday morning to sign documents to support the registering of GCI Fiji with the Fijian government (the last trustee signed on the following Monday). The board has been working toward formal registration and recognition of Grace Communion International as the body we represent, thus formally retiring our former name, Worldwide Church of God. This had proved difficult and was not helped by the Covid-19 pandemic with its severe travel restrictions, and the death of Mr Colati. It is my fervent hope this process will be fully complete very soon and in time for the visit of GCI President Greg Williams in August.

The highlight of the following day, after having visited with Joana in her grandmother’s home, was a gathering of the youth for a time of games and a meal in the evening. A special bonus was having Vika, Akeneta and Caroline Mua down from Rakiraki in the north and Nelly Vunibokoi also. The evening, led by Jason Raki, proved to be lots of fun. Formed into two teams, he quizzed us with challenging guessing games, leading to plenty of bantering and good humour around the group. We also went around the group saying one thing that most would not know about us and followed that with prayer. I found the evening a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable opportunity to be with the young folk and for them to see me in a non-formal setting too. Oh, and the food was very good as well with not a lot left over as you would expect!

My final day was a special highlight with the many from the west and north, and even the family of Senitiki Tokalau from Vanua Levu, gathering for a combined Pentecost service. In addition to all of these, Peter Lee and family from Texas were visiting their homeland and joined us also. And another special feature of the day was that it was coordinated and run by the youth, who did prayers, announcements, readings and even a warm and encouraging testimony from Joni Tebei. Following the sermon we shared what I felt to be a meaningful communion introduced via the story in 1 Kings 17 about the miraculous food Elijah, the widow and her son ate when the land was suffering prolonged drought. It was wonderful to see whole families come up together to collect the elements, and then for everyone to take these together. All told it was a joyous day and everyone lingered long over the meal and then the following conversations until it was time for those from the west to board their bus for the trip home, and the rest of us to return home.

The final evening of my stay was spent over an evening meal with Frank and Emily Boyd rehearsing what had been accomplished in the 10 days of my visit and looking ahead to future opportunities we see for the church in Fiji. That future looks very encouraging indeed.

Having returned now to New Zealand, my time in Fiji is leaving a warm afterglow as I think back on my visit. My primary purpose had been to get to know the church in Fiji better, and for them to get to know me. And in particular I spent time with the leadership, present and coming up. So much of what I had hoped for, even things I had not directly arranged or asked for, dropped into place and it was evident that God’s hand was covering and blessing my time with my brothers and sisters there. I come away encouraged and looking forward to all that God will accomplish in and through these faithful and lovely people.

--By Dennis Richards


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