By Andrew Humphries
Ten days after the South Pacific Island nation of Tonga was devastated by a tsunami, the ripple effects continue to be felt thousands of kilometres away by many of that country’s Synod of Victoria and Tasmania members.
Their thoughts and prayers are now with the people of their home land as Tongans begin the long road to recovery.
For Ashburton Uniting Church Minister Rev Lavingi Fine-Tupou, a three-line message she received from her brother in Tonga last Thursday might be just about the best thing she has ever read.
Like so many Tongans based in Victoria, Lavingi had been desperate for news of loved ones after the tsunami was triggered by an underwater volcano explosion on January 15.
In particular, Lavingi was worried about the fate of her brother Sioto Fine and his family, as communication lines were cut and houses and building destroyed across Tonga.
At such a distressing time, it was the power of prayer that Lavingi and her family turned to.
“When the tsunami hit and we were unable to communicate with Tonga, one of my cousins said, ‘well, we can’t communicate with our families but we can communicate with God’,” Lavingi said.
“So we held on to each other and we also held on to our faith, praying that everyone would be safe at least.”
And last Thursday, Lavingi’s prayers were answered after she received the short message from Sioto letting her know that everyone was safe.
“He was able to communicate through Messenger and let me know that they were okay and that they had been able to return to their home,” she said.
“”It was just a short message letting us know that everyone was safe and thanking us for our prayers.
“It was only three lines, but they were three quality lines as far as I’m concerned.
“Several attempts to phone him before then had failed, so when we got the news I was jumping around the house and saying ‘thank you Lord for answering our prayers’.”
For fellow Tongan, Rev Sylvia ‘Akau’ola Tongotongo, the immediate aftermath of the disaster had meant sleepless nights as she tried to find out the full extent of the impact on her home land.
“The anxiety levels were certainly very high, mainly because of not knowing the extent of the damage immediately afterwards,” Sylvia said.
While recovery will be a long process, Lavingi and Sylvia said the Tongan people’s resilience and strong faith would stand them in good stead.
“I think it’s their faith that holds them together in times like these,” Lavingi said.
“Tongan people face regular threats like cyclones, so we have become very resilient, but the eruption and tsunami has shaken them to their core.
“But the people remain in high spirits and are grateful that so few lives were lost.”
Sylvia, who began in the role of Intercultural Communities Development co-ordinator at eLM this week, said faith would now play a big part in how Tongan residents bounced back from the disaster.
“We know that people in Tonga are resilient, and that resilience automatically switches into gear (after something like this),” she said.
“People are alive and that is a reflection of that resilience … it’s a low-lying island and it’s not the first disaster to strike Tonga.
“People cope in the best way possible and one of the things they believe in is that the same God we pray to when everything is pretty cruisy is the same God who is there when we are struggling.
“The people have one another’s back and it will always be a community together.”
Moderator Denise Liersch said now was the time to reach out to the people of Tonga.
“Our communities in Australia and Tonga are deeply tied together, especially our Churches,” Denise said.
“There are so many ways Uniting Church members in Victoria and Tasmania can reach out and stand together with communities in Tonga and the Pacific.
“Right now, joining in prayer and sharing messages of love and support with those you know in the Tongan-Australian community is so important.
“Donating to the Uniting World appeal is a key way of supporting the communities of Tonga through the work of our partner Church there, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.
“We have a long history together in faith, and will continue to support each other over the coming months as communities recover.”
Uniting World has opened an appeal and you can donate here to assist the people of Tonga.