comscore Tongan minister meshes culture, Christianity | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Tongan minister meshes culture, Christianity


When Christianity reached Tonga in the 1800s, the gospel of Jesus Christ replaced worship of the Great White Shark, the Flying Fox and other symbols of a greater life force.

Tevita Tonga Mohenoa Puloka

Quite a few cultural traditions and attitudes were pushed aside during the conversion, but the Rev. Tevita Tonga Mohenoa Puloka won’t budge on the traditional belief that one should be able to take his entire family with him to heaven.

"The ‘I’ in Tonga is only a ‘we,’" Puloka is fond of saying. "A straight line is only a curve. We define what straight is for us."

"I’m charting a new course," which he calls "Sisu (Jesus) Tonga." Puloka believes the Bible should be interpreted within a cultural context and intermeshed with the communal values of the Tongan people.

A minister of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Puloka is this year’s guest speaker for the annual Britt Lectures, sponsored by the Hawaii District of the United Methodist Church. The lecture series on theology and the Bible is endowed by Dr. and Mrs. Clarence Britt.

Puloka began his talks on "One Gospel — Many Cultures: An Attempt at a Tongan Theology" yesterday at First United Methodist Church of Honolulu, and will continue through Monday.

Tonga has been a Christian nation since Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived and converted the king in the 1800s, Puloka said. But the Western concept of individualism is contrary to the Polynesian value of community, he said. The social fabric of his people is so strong that one is a member of not only a family, but a tribe, said Puloka, who is head of the Malaloi tribe.

"Polynesians are very highly communitarian. When the Bible says, ‘Repent of your sins,’ it’s you alone that has to do it; you can’t take anyone with you to heaven. My theology is the road to heaven is not made for individuals."

The Rev. Piula Ala’ilima, pastor of Wesley UMC in Honolulu and a Britt Lectures Committee member, said Puloka’s views of salvation might not represent the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, "but we are encouraged to push the boundaries of theological understanding."

Ala’ilima said Tonga’s quick conversion to Christianity is similar to that of Samoa, where he is from.

Samoans embraced Christianity when English missionary John Williams arrived in the early 1800s, he said. His message of love and caring for one another had much in common with the values of communal societies of Polynesia, he said.

"The gospel embraced the importance of community; it was about how to live in community — don’t kill each other; love one another, even if it’s your enemies. … It’s my belief that it’s the kingdom of God realized on Earth," Ala’ilima said.


The Rev. Tevita Puloka will speak at First United Methodist Church of Honolulu, 1020 Beretania St., today and tomorrow. Programs begin with special music at 6:45 p.m. He will also be at the 10 a.m. and noon Sunday services.

A workshop for preachers, "The Role of Poetry in Making Sense of the Teachings of the Bible in Tonga," will be held Monday from 9 a.m. to noon at the church. Free parking, sign-language interpretation and child care are available. Call 522-9555.

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