Fiji Visit Update
By Dennis Richards
As I reflect on my 7-day trip to Fiji (Oct 11-17) there is much to report. Initially planned for November, moving it forward six weeks proved providential. What began as a more pastoral visit alongside a meeting of the Fiji Board, this visit proved strategic as a key milestone for the Fiji church’s ongoing vision was reached earlier than had been expected, accelerated by events at their annual national Celebration in Pacific Harbour.
You will have seen Frank Boyd’s report on this year’s Celebration at Pacific Harbour already. In addition to hosting Regional Supervisor Daphne Sidney, they enjoyed several training sessions with Martin Bailey from the GCI Mooroolbark congregation in Australia. He taught on the Three Avenues (Faith, Hope, Love) and the “4 Es” (Engage, Equip, Empower, Encourage). Daphne commented to me afterwards how encouraged she was by the warmth and spiritual connection felt across the whole of her stay, and Martin expressed similar sentiments when we talked also. One top of which, Frank rang me afterwards also to express his own satisfaction with how things went and excitement for the church in Fiji moving forward. All of which set up for a meaningful and action-packed visit.
My first engagement was a Thursday lunch hosted by Frank and Emily Boyd so I could catch up with Eugene Panuve, Epeli Nakautoga, and Jason Raki. They, along with Joana Wainibuli, were selected in 2018 to visit New Zealand for an experience in community service and ministry with Louis Smith, who had put forward the offer at their Celebration the year before. I joined and assisted that event, transporting them and otherwise helping Louis where possible. The extended weekend included a visit to GCI Masterton’s Sunday service also in hopes that lines of communication would be opened between the Masterton and Suva churches.
As it happened that Thursday morning, Eugene had only just returned to Suva after having collected his parents from Nadi airport. They were part of a tour to Israel organised by ICEJ and were caught up with the beginnings of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Indeed, they visited one of the villages alongside Gaza only a few hours before the war started. The Fijian government sent over a Fiji Air charter plane to evacuate the many Fijian and other Pac
ific peoples who were in Israel at that time, and on their arrival in Nadi (about 2am) staged a special celebration of welcome when that started about 3am and included the Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka. Hence, James and Alisi Panuve could not get away for the 3-hour drive home until the sun was already up.
So, over lunch, after Eugene had relayed the excitement of his all-night trip, the conversation turned quickly to Martin Bailey’s training sessions and to the Three Avenues in particular. Frank and I have watched Eugene, Jason, and Epeli for some months and observed their ongoing maturing, clear leadership abilities and willingness to serve. We feel their unique giftings and temperaments suit them to take up these roles and so asked if they would. We proposed that Jason Raki serve over the Faith Avenue, Epeli Nakautoga the Hope Avenue, and Eugene Panuve the Love Avenue. Happily, they readily agreed.
Later that same day I had the pleasure to share dinner with Eugene and his wife Takasa. Prior to arriving in Fiji I had expected we would chat about family and future opportunities but those topics were immediately overtaken by discussion of the challenges and opportunities of the Love Avenue, which they will head up and develop. I outlined also how the Three Avenue leaders will
need to work as a team under the leadership of Frank Boyd, their senior pastor, and that their respective teams will be supportive of each other so that their various mission objectives all be fulfilled. The challenges will be great, and I ask that you pray for all three Avenue leaders. Pray also for Frank and Emily Boyd, who will guide and encourage them, and me also that appropriate training and resourcing is provided in a timely fashion.
Lunch on Friday was shared with Vasiti Colati, Irava Raki, and Sai Tuilovoni (three of Suva’s widows) and Jope Uqeuqe (a widower). While we did talk somewhat of family and life’s challenges, we talked also about the unique and important role they and older members play in the Suva church supporting, encouraging and validating the youth, especially those in youth and other leadership roles.
Friday evening proved a very special occasion, a series of firsts. It was my first trip in a Suva taxi (uneventful as it happens but the driving made for an exciting few moments). It was also my first meeting with the Suva church youth (from high school upward) unsupported by other pastoral team members. And it was the first time I have spoken to several of those who came that night. Quite apart from their capacity to pack away a good meal, it proved a fun evening. I enjoyed listening to the conversations, jokes, and good nature leg-pulling that is a mark of their community as we consumed a meal together in the private room of a Chinese restaurant.
As it happens, the two who sat beside me at the Youth meal, Tongli Panuve and Joana Wainibuli, are youth leaders providing regular weekly studies for those youth who can join them (fewer at present because of looming school exams). And so, on Saturday, they shared lunch with me at a Vietnamese restaurant and we talked about the importance of their roles in the life and health of the Suva church. Based on the flavour of the night before I was encouraged that the relationships amongst the group are in good shape, albeit some more shy than others, and see their potential for greatly assisting our vision of Healthy Church there.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to a Board meeting where I reported on strategic directions and opportunities we are pursuing. Frank Boyd updated them on recent developments toward formal launching of the Three Avenues and reported on the state of the church in Fiji. We also worked through alterations in the board policy manual, and reviewed church finance and investment settings, after which we enjoyed a dinner together in the restaurant upstairs. Alisi Panuve joined us and told some of their stories of their tour, of hunkering in hotel bomb shelters with others from their group, and their evacuation from Israel.
Sunday was the day of the big announcement. Midway through the Sunday service, with a number looking on via the Zoom connection, Frank stood to announce that Eugene, Epeli and Jason would head up and champion respectively the Love, Hope and Faith Avenues for the Suva church, after which he invited them to the front and me also. Whereupon I invited other members of the pastoral and board teams plus the families of each of them to take part in a brief service of commissioning. Each of them, I said, had shown themselves faithful over time, had stepped up to serve whenever asked, had shown themselves teachable and consistently enthusiastic also for all the church here is doing and plans for the future (see the FATE diagram: Home Office website). They have demonstrated both their leadership capacities and suitability for these new responsibilities. What a pleasure it was then to commission them as Avenue leaders, and what an encouragement to the church in this region.
Following on from the Sunday service and potluck lunch following that, the Fijian ACCM cohort came together for a lecture session reviewing the dynamics of Christian leadership and surveying the variety of styles and approaches being used. Based on a Trinitarian understanding of human community and leadership, GCI practices a strengths-based style of transformed servant leadership. It was not a long session but doing this face-to-face is always more meaningful and enjoyable than the more usual Zoom sessions.
My last formal engagement was sharing dinner with the Suva pastoral team at another Chinese restaurant. This is the team that I have interacted with most over recent years, joining their monthly Zoom meetings when I can. It was lovely to sit across a table and share that meal with them on this occasion.
In the original plan a lunch on Monday was to have happened but this had been shifted forward, so aside from dining with the Boyds one last time, the day was free. Sadly, Fiji lost their knockout semifinal match at the Rugby World Cup that morning but that did not dampen our mood over dinner one bit, having so much to be grateful for in what had proved a significant and very encouraging visit to our church in Suva.