“Catchers of the light”: a new word for chaplaincy from Tonga

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At present I am in the Kingdom of Tonga on behalf of Unitingworld.  I am with three companions from the Uniting Church in Australia (Rev. Dr. Cliff Bird, Rev. Nau Ahosivi and Alimonie Taumoepeau).  We have been invited by the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga to connect with the churches here and conduct disaster recovery chaplaincy training with the view to the establishment of a national disaster recovery network.

On Friday 15th the program was launched in a ceremony which included many of the ministers of the Free Wesleyan Church and key leaders of many other denominations.  The church’s president gave a scriptural reflection and the Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Siaosi Sovalini, brought the official address.  There was a tangible sense of anticipation and excitement, from all present, about this initiative.  It seems the time is ripe.  As the speaker reminded everyone, Tonga is second only to Vanuatu on the international risk register for natural disasters.  This vulnerable island nation is no stranger to cyclones, high tides, Volcanic eruption and earthquakes; and the churches are keen to train and organise their ministry agents to work alongside relief agencies when disasters strike.

One of the very real challenges to this was that there was simply no word in the Tongan language which stands as an equivalent to the English word “Chaplain”.

Tonga has a very well established understanding of the role and the status of ministers, who are highly respected in their communities; but to see a ministry agent working out and beyond the known structures of worship and faith community leadership is a radically new concept. It is a personal, social and theological revolution to think, train and minister in this way.

The challenge of finding a Tongan equivalent to “chaplain” fell to the much-respected wordsmith Rev Dr, Mohenoa Puloka who, after some reflection suggested the word “Takiama”.

The origin of the Takiama goes back to the ancient history and culture of Tonga. The term literally means “catcher of the light”. When people of the islands travelled by day, they were guided by the winds and the waves; when they travelled by night they looked to the stars in the sky to navigate. The people who were had this skill were called Takiama, because they had the ability to ‘catch the light’, and – in the darkness – walk with the people, steering them to where they needed to go.

I have heard many metaphors used to describe disaster recovery chaplaincy, but none as vivid as this. In that context the chaplain is the “Takiama” for the people – the one who, in the greatest darkness – can look beyond it and catch the light of God to lead them forward.

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