Ahead of Father’s Day, we talked to Canterbury Balwyn Road Uniting Church minister Rev Salesi Faupula and his son, Siotame, about family, faith and finding yourself.
Interviews by David Southwell
I spent the first 10 years of my life growing up in the Aboriginal mission camp Yirrkala. My father was a Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga minister who was called to the Northern Territory when I was three months old.
My family was adopted by the Yolngu people and I grew up with them. The camp was very remote, right on the coastal tip. My father used to travel to what we called “the outstations” because the Aborigines were from different tribes and would not necessarily live together. Sometimes my family didn’t see my father for weeks.
In the mission camp there was nothing, it was very basic. Every day I would travel 12 miles to go to school in town. It was all I knew.
It wasn’t until my father was called to be a minister in Sydney that I realised there was something different.
Sydney was a culture shock; the amount of cars and buildings. Even the manse we were staying at was double storey. I remember looking at the house and saying to Dad: “Which part of the house are we staying at? Are we staying at the top or bottom?”
During that time I was really wrestling with identity. I was born Tongan but was now living in middle class, predominantly white, Australia. Myself, my brother and sister were the only brown kids at school.
The perception of Indigenous kids at that time was very negative, so I remember denying my upbringing with them and really distancing myself. I didn’t mention anything to do with the Northern Territory.
I didn’t like to be in school and became very sensitive to what I believed was racism. I remember getting myself into a number of fights.
I had other areas of rebellion, too. Religion and church were part of my father’s domain. I would come to church, but I would sit on the fence outside. Being known as a minister’s kid, I felt, was negative. I tried to distance myself from anyone knowing my father was a minister.
There were other Islanders and we were really lashing out. I got to a stage where I almost got suspended and even close to getting expelled from school.
My father said to me: “What am I going to do with you, son?”
And I said: “Why don’t you send me to Tonga?”
I didn’t think that he would because I was only 15 at the time. He paused for a while and said: “Maybe that would be a good idea.” That night, he rang the college where my family had a long association and they accepted me.
Flying to Tonga I was thinking “you beauty, I am going back to a place I belong”.
As soon as I got off the plane and opened my mouth I realised I couldn’t speak the language, and was put back in the margins. Even though my skin colour matched, they called me a “wannabe Tongan”.
I felt more outcast than I ever had in Australia.
But it only took me two to three months to become fluent in the language because I already knew it from my parents, I just hadn’t used it. So I melted back into the culture. And for the next two years it was one of the best times I had. I came full circle – I realised I was Aboriginal, I was Anglo-Australian and I was Tongan. All three.
In Tonga, they are a deeply religious people. So on a Sunday everything stops and everyone goes to church. I think I came back with this re-found faith.
My father never forced or imposed anything religious on me. I think his hope was, and it is the same with my wife and I, it is just that our children have a relationship with God. That’s it.
When my father passed away that’s when I think there was a significant shift in my relationship to God.
I was involved in church and it wasn’t about seeking my father’s approval, but it was something we shared. But when he died and I had no one to turn to for confidence it transferred to God. That relationship to God really deepened and then I realised there was a calling.
The calling wasn’t a simple one because I come from a long line of ministers. They call our family in Tonga the “golden chain” because it is the only one that has six consecutive generations that have produced ministers.
So that was a big question when I was in the period of discernment and wrestling with the calling – “Is there a call for me or am I just trying to maintain some tradition that has been in our family?”
When I eventually became a minister my first placement was in “The Shire”, in southeast Sydney. Five years later my name came up in a national search for someone who could speak Tongan to minister at Canterbury Balwyn Road Uniting Church in Melbourne.
My ministry was never defined by a geographical location. If God is calling then I have to be open to it.
My two older children were working and they were fairly established, while Siotame was doing Year 12.
My daughter tells a story that the three of them went out for lunch. She is not usually the speaker but she came back and said “we realise that God has always been with us wherever we have travelled. Our home has always been wherever each of us have been. For this next stage wherever the call is we’d like to come.”
My wife and I felt very, very blessed.
I was born in Canberra. It was actually special for us because I was born in the early hours on New Year’s Day. So mum was in the paper, as I was the second baby born in Canberra that year.
We lived in what was more of the public housing part of Canberra and we went to the public school there. It was predominantly Aboriginal. Our school got vandalised a lot – it was a rough area. I was always more afraid of my dad’s voice than anything so I would never have rebelled or anything like that.
Our life has changed a lot. For me change has always come hard. I will cry even hearing about change.
So, at first, the move to Parramatta in Sydney for Dad to study for ministry was really hard. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of moving, or talking to new people. It was just bad news.
We hardly saw both of our parents in that time because Dad had to go to school and Mum was always at work. She was our backbone. She had two jobs and would work all day as we went to school. And then as we came home she would sleep until she would go to work again.
However, we didn’t feel neglected. We always knew the reason my parents were doing what they were was for us, earning the money to bring in the food.
Next we lived in The Shire and it was very different. We went from a multicultural area in Parramatta to one that was very white. The minister over the road had a daughter the same age as me and we were the only brown kids at the school.
By that time I knew the life of a minister’s kid is always on the move. You’re always having to put on a fresh face to meet new people. I would find myself saying hello to people and being vulnerable enough to say hello even if they didn’t respond.
I can just melt into any situation and have never struggled with an identity. For me, I have always been Tongan and Australian wherever we go.
I’ve only been to Tonga twice. I felt very not-connected because you can’t speak the language so it’s hard to interact with people. But I also feel very at home.
You could meet someone on the road and tell them your name and they already know the list of all your family members. Tonga is intertwined – everyone knows who everyone is. So, you know where you come from. Your generation is not just you it’s all the forefathers and grandmas and aunties.
I attend both the English and Tongan services at Canterbury on a Sunday. I am the sound person, I make the Powerpoints and sit there and click along with Dad and hear all his sermons.
Sometimes I critique his sermons but, of course, I just want to live until the next day, so I just talk about good things to keep in his good books.
Maybe you see the downside that all your time is dedicated to the church, because as a minister’s family, church is not just on a Sunday. We go to church Wednesday, Saturday, Friday. When we go all on family holidays I feel like we are missing something on a Sunday.
For me, my faith is not big. I don’t rave about it, but it’s getting there, it is growing. When I talk to my friends none of them go to church.
They don’t really know about this world, the church world. It’s like a hat that you wear. Sometimes you are a church person, sometimes you are not.
However, I am proud of being a minister’s kid. I always tell people. I think it is cool for me, and it’s rare.
As to whether I will be the next minister from our family, the next link in the “golden chain”, I believe you can never say no.
That’s because when you say no you definitely become the minister. My brother says no a lot to that particular question so maybe he will be the minister.
My dad’s upbringing was very different, but a lot of things are kind of the same. We both moved around. I have been to four schools in my life. But, as he says, home is where the family is. Especially our little crew, we always stay together.