By Andrew Humphries
When Rev Sylvia ‘Akau’ola Tongotongo talks about the importance of multiculturalism and developing an intercultural framework within the Uniting Church, she is speaking from real experience.
In fact, like the song made popular in the 1960s by Australian singer Lucky Starr, Sylvia has indeed “been everywhere, man” and experienced much along the way.
Born in Tonga, Sylvia has also lived in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia as a student, teacher and Minister, with both the Methodist and Uniting churches.
She recently began work as eLM’s Intercultural Communities Development co-ordinator and has a lifetime of experience to draw on, making her eminently suitable for the role.
Sylvia studied teaching at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and returned to Tonga to teach, before making the move to New Zealand in the mid 1980s.
During her early years there as a lay preacher with the Methodist Church of New Zealand, Sylvia was a regular visitor to the prison system, where she forged a strong connection with inmates.
That connection gives an insight into Sylvia’s character and her ability to connect with people from all walks of like.
“My view when dealing with prison inmates was that I was a part of a church that proclaims that God is love, and that love does not stay outside the gates of that prison, it is in the prison where the people are,” she said.
“I don’t think anything I did was particularly special, it was about taking the love of God to wherever, including prisons.”
But what was special was something that happened to Sylvia in early 1993 and changed the direction of her life almost overnight.
It was a drive across the Auckland Harbour Bridge at that time that set Sylvia on the path to ministry within the Methodist Church, a journey whose latest chapter began in late January with her new role within eLM.
“I can remember that day in 1993 so well, it was the first Sunday in February and I was returning from a prison visit and at a point on the bridge I thought to myself, ‘if (lay preaching) is something that I can do and have done for the past few years, imagine if I was to do this as a Minister of the church’,” she recalls.
“It was a lightbulb moment around the opening of my call to ministry, because until that point I had never considered it.
“So it was an inkling that remained with me … I didn’t hear anyone call out and say ‘Sylvia, come to ministry’, but it was a thought that became part of me and I started enquiring about how to go about it.”
Sylvia started at her first parish in Auckland in 1997 and was ordained a Minister in 1998.
In January 2015, the call of family brought her to Australia and to Melbourne’s Burwood Heights Uniting Church, where she spent almost seven wonderful and fulfilling years as Minister.
“I didn’t look anywhere else but the Uniting Church when I came to Australia,” Sylvia said.
“I remember catching a tram with my grand-daughter to have a look around Melbourne and seeing a sign that said ‘Uniting Church in Australia’ and I made an enquiry about becoming part of this church.
“As part of the Uniting Church, I have been warmly welcomed, accepted and embraced.”
As Intercultural Communities Development co-ordinator, Sylvia hopes her own experiences will guide her in the role.
“I have always been grateful that from day one I have been welcomed from a different culture, church and country and have been embraced by the church,” she said.
“Interculturalism is my life and, after seven years of being part of the Uniting Church in Australia, I know and appreciate that multiculturalism and diversity is who we are as the makeup and nature of the church.
“From my perspective, interculturalism represents our way of being, in our theology, peoples, councils and structures.
“Interculturalism is what we are in living our life and faith.
“I see the Uniting Church in Australia as being one big family, with the richness and diversity of its people, and because we are family we work together for the best outcomes.”
As she settles into the role, Sylvia has a simple mantra around how she will carry out her duties.
“I am simply Sylvia and I will ensure that I respect everybody that I encounter in a way that I would like, wish and hope that I am welcomed, greeted and respected,” she said.
“My role involves walking alongside a team of people and helping presbyteries understand what being intercultural means.
“So it’s about listening with love and listening carefully, learning a lot, and respecting where people are in their different contexts, while opening up what intercultural and multicultural means so that no one is left behind.”
Director Nigel Hanscamp said he was delighted to welcome Sylvia to the Priorities, Focus and Advocacy team at eLM.
“Sylvia brings a depth of intercultural experience, including in New Zealand and Tonga, and will be the first Pasifika woman appointed to our Synod’s intercultural work,” he said.
“Her particular focus will be on intercultural communities, women in ministry, and building on the strength of our many cultures (which are more than ethnic).
“Working alongside Intercultural Leadership Development Co-ordinator Dev Anandarajan, her role is to enrich and encourage our intercultural and multicultural church practice.”