Michael Jones is an Orthodox Christian living with his wife and four children in Eagle River, Alaska. In February 2020 he assembled a mission team to travel to the Kingdom of Tonga to complete the weather-proofing phase of an Orthodox church building that was being constructed.
At the time, we never could have imagined the true urgency of this project! No one anticipated the unprecedented travel restrictions and devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only in hindsight do we see that God was sending a team to preserve the years of work and many thousands of dollars already invested in this blessed undertaking from an uncertain future in the era of COVID-19.
This trip was a great blessing for all of us who participated. Let Michael tell you how it came to be:
In March 2019 I listened to a podcast interview on Ancient Faith Radio about the extraordinary missionary efforts ongoing in New Zealand and the island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, and I felt a strong calling from our Lord to reach out and see how my family and I could assist in this holy work.
I began corresponding with Father Paul Patitsas, an American priest serving at that time the Holy Metropolis of New Zealand at a parish in Auckland. Due to my construction background, he invited me to help complete a building project the Metropolis had undertaken – construction of a large, Byzantine style church in Tonga dedicated to St. George the Great Martyr. The Orthodox community in Tonga had quickly outgrown their tiny chapel, so in 2017 the metropolis began building the new church. Unfortunately, due to numerous factors, progress had been slow.
In April 2019, at the invitation of the Director of the Mission, and with the blessing of the newly appointed Metropolitan of New Zealand, Myron, I traveled to Tonga to get acquainted with the project and make a personal connection with the Metropolis. Despite a great trip and feeling a good connection to His Eminence and Fr. Paul, it took some time for my precise role in completion of the church to become clear.
In January of 2020, still praying for direction on how to proceed, I reached out to Fr. Paul to check on the project. He told me that three men from Greece – highly skilled stonemasons – were in Tonga working on the Church. The Greek team had worked long hours for months, eating little more than beans and rice, but despite their best efforts, time and money were running short. Their visas would expire in March, and they were far from completing their goal of weather-proofing the building.
Fr. Paul asked me to take a small, skilled team to Tonga while the Greek crew was still onsite. We were to help with the work and provide much-needed encouragement to this faithful crew who had made so much progress. Plus, it was an opportunity to plan out the next phases of the project as we approached that ultimate goal: to celebrate the first Divine Liturgy in the Church of St. George!
Honestly, I rejected Fr. Paul’s request at first. I actually told him, “You’re crazy!”
My objections were plentiful: I have a young family and a business to run; there’s no budget; there’s hardly time to get there before the Greek team leaves. Put simply, I couldn’t justify taking on this assignment.
But Fr. Paul responded with an answer only a seasoned missionary could give: “The church in Tonga would never have been started if the people involved hadn’t been a little bit crazy.” Apostolic mission requires some degree of “Crazy Faith” to follow God’s promptings when the task in front of you seems completely impossible and, to our earthly way of thinking, even unreasonable.
- “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
- neither are your ways my ways,”
- declares the Lord.
- (Isaiah 55:8)
So I prayed, I felt God’s Hand on this project, I took my wife’s blessing, and I accepted the assignment. By now it was mid-February, and my intuition strongly told me that we needed to leave in two weeks. I had no team, I had no funds, but I had confidence that God meant for this trip to happen.
After contacting a few friends who I knew had the “Crazy Faith” to make a trip like this on short notice, I excitedly reported to Fr. Paul that we had a team of 5 assembled and ready to fly to Tonga.
FUNDING THE TRIP
This is where the miracle of this trip really started to unfold before our eyes.
I established a budget of $4,000 per person: half for travel and lodging expenses, the rest for supplies to finish the work – lumber and fasteners, glass for windows, tile flooring, corrugated metal roofing…
Our budget for a team of five: A modest $20,000 USD…and we had LESS THAN 2 WEEKS!!!
To get started, I made a brief appeal after Sunday Liturgy at our home parish, St. John Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Many parishioners responded, and I went home with over $1,000 in hand – an encouraging start!
That night an unusual thing happened: I woke up at about 2:00 am and simply could not sleep. I never have trouble sleeping, except when one of my little ones is crying or jumping on me at odd hours. But this was an eyes-wide-open, can’t-stop-your-mind, no-hope-of-reaching-REM type of situation. I got up and started. I could tell that God was giving me the right words and ideas to communicate writing about the need, the goals of our trip, and the time constraints we were under. Early that morning I sent the appeal out every way I could – Facebook, GoFundMe, email. By breakfast I already had a handful of donations, by lunch I had enough to start buying plane tickets, and by the end of the week the total was well over $10k! Donations kept coming in, and when I tallied them all just after I returned from Tonga, the total was $19,325 USD.
Fr. Paul’s words kept coming back to my mind the whole time: “Crazy faith. Crazy faith. Crazy faith…”
I posted a “blow-by-blow” account of our trip on my blog at www.OrthodoxyForTonga.com. For now, Here’s a summary of what we accomplished, thanks to God:
- Conducted daily vespers and Sunday Liturgy with the local Orthodox faithful in Tonga
- Built 8 hand-crafted, arched windows for the dome of the church
- Purchased materials for two patio roofs and windows for the temple – installed by the Greek Team
- Raised the bronze bell to the belltower on the church roof
- Shared our Orthodox faith with several Tongans we encountered
- Assessed the next steps with the Greek team and developed a strategy to complete the temple
- Mapped out the entire church for frescoes, with an emphasis on biblical saints and stories which will resonate with the Protestant Christian and Mormon people of Tonga
- Joined the Orthodox faithful in Saweni, Fiji for Divine Liturgy and a Saturday Vespers service
In short, our goal of weather-proofing the Church of St. George in Tonga was accomplished, and we had many additional, unexpected blessings!
During our trip, one of my companions commented to me several times, “You’ve changed. Something is different.” What he was seeing was a growing desire in me to come live in Tonga both to complete the Church of St. George and to walk with this small group of Orthodox Tongan people as they grow in their faith. I am frequently reminded that the Church is not a building, but the assembly of faithful who make up the Body of Christ. In Tonga, the missionaries have been moved by the Holy Spirit to build this beautiful temple for God’s Glory, but the ultimate vision is to support the Tongan people in building a healthy, vibrant and self-sustaining Orthodox community. With every day that passed among the kind and loving people of Tonga I wanted more and more to return with my family to share our life in Christ and thereby participate in building the true church – the Body of Christ – as well as the new temple.
I proposed the idea to Archimandrite Meletios, Director of Missions for the Metropolis. He suggested I return with my wife, Meghan, and our 4 children for a couple weeks. We could visit Tonga and the Orthodox communities in Fiji, pray together, and get a sense of how our family could fit in with the existing ministry. As we all know, the COVID-19 phenomenon soon upended the intentions and hopes of many around the world, and our family was unable to make this scouting trip.
In particular, Tonga has instituted some of the strictest COVID restrictions in the world, so the church project in Tonga is on hold indefinitely. As soon as the global situation allows, the Metropolis of New Zealand will resume the Tonga project and prepare the Church of St. George for its first Divine Liturgy.
REGARDING OUR FAMILY
During the past year, the desire to return to the South Pacific and assist in the ongoing apostolic ministry has continued to grow – not only in me, but in my whole family as well. Meghan and I have been training to become full-time missionaries with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), the official missions agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States. With the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Myron, we hope to move to Oceania for our initial two-year assignment as soon as our preparations and fundraising efforts are complete.
Please pray that the Lord strengthens us in “Crazy Faith” as we prepare to join the Apostolic Mission in the South Pacific!
Join us in prayer and love as we offer the “best we have” to the people of the South Pacific. May the Church of St. George and all the work in Oceania be for the Glory of God and a blessing for the beautiful people who live there!