This article appeared in The Australian 20 September 2008 p28

Give it everything you've got

Pacific Islanders' old ways can be costly for their Australian children, reports Elisabeth Wynhausen

A FRONT-END loader remains in the thick mud in front of the new church, which has scaffolding draped with Omo-blue construction mesh over its spire. But when the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga at Glendenning in Sydney's west officially opens on October 23 with King George Tupou V of Tonga in attendance, perhaps in the silk knee breeches and ermine-trimmed cape he wore for his coronation last July, the dazzling-white church will be revealed in all its glory.

The warehouse-sized building, best imagined as an old-fashioned Methodist church on steroids, is a replica of the Free Wesleyans' Centenary Church on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga.

``This is something of our own,'' Sione Pinomi, spokesman for the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (Australia), tells Inquirer. The cost of construction will be about ``$8million or a little bit more or a little less'', he says, suggesting the church is being built on a scale that will meet future needs. ``We are preparing for the next generation.''

However, the next generation is starting to object. Others speak instead of growing tensions between the generations in Pacific Islander communities. First-generation Tongans and Samoans who are supporting families back home with remittances may additionally give so much money to the church that their own families go without, a source of some conflict.

``All the money was going to the church and we were running around without shoes,'' says Samoan-born Angela Lemafa, 44, a community worker from the western suburbs of Sydney who grew up in New Zealand. Lemafa says what happened to her made her determined to put her own children first.

There is ardent agreement from Tongan-born Linda, 25, the mother of three small children, who doesn't want her last name used in the newspaper.

When she and her brothers and sisters were children, she says: ``We came last. They put their money into the church.'' Her parents, members of a Free Church of Tonga congregation in Sydney's west, ``put in thousands and leave shopping 'til last''. Her parents still need help with food bills after giving the church more than they can afford.

It seems many Islander families continue to follow the old precept ``church first'' that arose after the missionary conversions of the 19th century.

``I've heard of a lot of people who lost their houses,'' says Tongan-born James Latu, 65, minister of the Uniting Church at Mascot in Sydney's southeast.

``It's fine if they can afford it. But when they give all to the church and leave their family out, I don't believe in that.''

Officially there are about 15,000 Tongans in Australia, but the real number may be closer to 20,000, according to Helen Lee, a senior lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University and vice-president of the Tonga Research Association.

``I've heard anecdotally of one church in Melbourne where people were donating half their income while they saved money to build a church,'' Lee says. ``Most of the churches have a yearly donation, which can be many thousands of dollars.''

Tongans donate the money at an annual event called a misinale.

``In Tonga you give as much as you can to the church and go without yourself. The pastors get to use the money to build churches or pay for the pastors' kids to go to school in New Zealand,'' says academic Max Quanchi, a specialist in Pacific Island studies at Queensland University of Technology.

But Tongan society has protocols about who you can speak about or even address: ``If the person is the pastor, you've got to show due respect,'' Quanchi says. ``That means the criticism remains private, in a sense.''

The misinale has its roots in an ancient celebration involving the presentation of gifts at harvest time, a custom co-opted by missionaries in the 19th century. But in Tonga people own their own homes and can readily grow vegetables, keep chickens and pigs and go fishing. ``If they give all they've got they can still survive,'' says Jione Havea, a lecturer at United Theological College in Sydney who came to Australia in 2000. ``People here can lose homes over money for remittances and church donations,'' says Havea, who heard of such a case in recent months. ``People talk and complain about this but don't change their ways.''

'If the children were allowed to talk, they would tell you the whole truth of this'
James Latu, Tongan-born Uniting Church minister

Back at Glendenning, Pinomi agrees that some people are so keen to build their church they're going into debt. Is that because they feel constructing the church must take precedence over everything, even family life? ``That's exactly right,'' he says.

Up to now the community has raised about $3 million of the $8 million the church will cost, he says. Money is rolling in from congregations across the country.

In Robinvale, a small, agricultural border town in Victoria's northwest, where Tongans first settled in the 1960s, some joke that their children will probably still be paying off the ``district church'' in Glendenning, a nine-hour drive away.

Members of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Robinvale raised $35,000 on the afternoon Tongan Queen Mother Halaevalu Mataaho visited, but that was only the beginning, says Robinvale man Alf Fangaloka, a director of a family-owned firm that hires out gangs of agricultural labourers.

``Each family from my church is given a set amount, $10,000 a year, which is fine for my family, but not if you earn $600 a week,'' he says. There are differing interpretations of the competitive giving that defines the misinale.

``The $10,000 is expected but it isn't mandatory, people just give it,'' says Leilehua Helu, 24, a graduate student in Brisbane. Though the first generation ``has migrated here, to a totally different country, they still adhere to the Tongan customs''.

Tongans talk about the old ways.

``The first generation continues on. The young adults move away. I want to look at why,'' says Helu, who is researching the subject for a thesis.

But Tongan society is strongly hierarchical and even she is a little nervous of talking out of turn.

``If the children were allowed to talk, they would tell you the whole truth of this,'' Latu says. From time to time he goes along to court with youngsters who have got into trouble with the law. ``The magistrate asks them: `Why didn't (you) go to school?''' Latu says. ``The answer is: `There's no money.'''

Further questions from the bench reveal that the parents work but their money is going to the church, Latu says. ``So often the magistrate turns to me and says: `Mr Minister, what are you doing with these people?'''

Their parents often have more than one job and spend what little spare time they have going to church several nights a week, leaving the older children at home looking after the younger ones. ``We're trying to work with the first generation to help them understand the struggles of their children here in Australia,'' says Tina Rendell, executive director of the NSW Board of Mission of the Uniting Church of Australia.

Discipline in many Islander families is harsh. The children are expected to obey without asking questions or talking back, Latu says. ``They are whacked when they are doing the right thing. They are whacked when they're doing the wrong thing. In the island way you hit them and don't explain why.''

He believes some children run wild because their parents are more intent on their duties to the church and to their relatives back home in Tonga and Samoa.

The island nations are so dependent on the money from families who have settled overseas that remittances account for one-half of Tonga's gross domestic product and one-quarter of that of Samoa, according to some estimates. But this largesse can't last.

La Trobe's Lee has just finished a research project looking at the second generation's ties to Tonga. She has found only 10 per cent of young people are contemplating sending remittances, a figure that compares with 80per cent of their parents' generation. Lee says one reason is because they feel resentment about being deprived themselves.

In Latu's opinion, one of the problems the Tongan community faces in Australia is ``the relationship between the parents and the young ones''.

Fangaloka notes that his generation certainly was the first to object to the demands made by the church. A few people he knows have joined other congregations. A few have resisted the social pressure. But gossip remains a strong form of social control in the small community and most fall into line.

``The targets are still met,'' Fangaloka says,drily.

Photo Captions

'In Tonga you give as much as you can to the church and go without yourself' : Children at a church fete in Tonga

Island replica : Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga under construction in Glendenning

'It's fine if htey can afford it' : James Latu

'The $10,000 is expected' : Leilehua Helu

Ermine trim : Tongan King George Tupou V leaves his coronation ceremony in Nuku'alofa