In February 2020 Michael Jones from Eagle River, Alaska led a labor crew to continue construction of the Church of St. George in Tonga. flight from Los Angeles to Tonga had a 6 hour layover in Fiji, so Fr. Meletios, Dean of Missions in Oceania, invited the group to briefly visit to the Orthodox community in Saweni, close to the Monastery of the Dormition and St. Tabitha Children’s Home. Below is an account of their short but impactful stay taken from his blog at www.OrthodoxyForTonga.com
We were met at the airport by one of the native Fijian nuns, Sr. Anisia, along with one of the boys from the Children’s Home named Matthew. As soon as we stepped outside we discovered what a paradise we’d come to. Palm trees and beautiful flowering plants fill up every space that isn’t paved for a road or sidewalk. The sun is warm, the air is clear. What a difference for the five of us coming from Alaska & Colorado, where we left behind snow and ice only the day before!
As Sr. Anisia piloted the orphanage minivan down the “wrong” side of the road (as far as Americans are concerned, that is) I spoke with Matthew, who is 15 and has lived in the orphanage for 10 years. He told me the names of the villages we passed as we chatted. His English is quite good, considering he probably has few interactions with native English speakers. I found out that Matthew and I share a common love for the “Beautiful Game” – soccer! Before too long we turned onto an unpaved side road and Matthew pointed out the St. Tabitha Home and Holy Trinity Church as we drove up to the small Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos, perched atop a small hill. The monastery is home to three nuns at the moment; our guide, Sr. Anisia, and Abbess Melani are the two Fijian nuns, as well as Sr. Thecla from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is in Fiji for a few months painting frescoes in the small monastery chapel.
Liturgy was already in progress when we arrived, so we left our things in the van and quietly walked up the steps to the house-turned-monastery. The chapel is half indoors and half outdoors, with a covered porch off the right-hand side. Many of the children stand near the nuns, whose chanter stand is positioned just outside one of several large, arched openings that separate the “indoor” portion of the chapel from the porch. We received lots of shy smiles from the children – who range in age from about 5-15 years old – as we took our places in the few open chairs toward the front of the chapel.
On the left wall were icons of numerous saints, mostly women, in various stages of completion – the ongoing work of Sr. Thecla. Included among them were the patron saints of my two older daughters, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Anastasia. It reminded me of how our Orthodox Church is really one big family – we all have relationships with the same loving God, and the same saints, and I felt just as much at home in my first visit to this chapel 6,000 miles from home as I do at my own parish in Eagle River.
The children sang many of the hymns together with the sisters, their sweet, pure voices echoing over the valley below the Monastery (listen to the children HERE). At one point I turned to find Myles crying, and he said, “This is the most beautiful singing I’ve heard in my life.” He’s got a very big heart, though he keeps it well hidden behind jokes and gentle teasing.
After liturgy the children walked and/or ran down the dirt road back to the orphanage & our group stayed for a repast on the front porch with Fr. Meletios and the nuns. Our meal included homemade sweet bread and cold, fruity coconut beverage of some sort. We spent some time learning about each other and discussing the mission in Fiji, and then we discussed the plans for our work in Tonga.
Fr. Meletios and the sisters were gracious hosts, and made us feel very welcome. As Dean of Missions, Fr. Meletios spends a lot of time at the orphanage and traveling to the other missions in Fiji, Tonga & Samoa. Because all of the hundreds of newly-converted Orthodox are starting without even a basic knowledge of the faith – or even Christianity at all – the need for catechism and instruction in the liturgical traditions of the Church is very great. Unfortunately, Fr. Meletios has little assistance, as the diocese is small and lacks resources. The need for teachers, catechists, chanters and other skilled Orthodox to assist the mission work in the South Pacific cannot be understated.
Truly, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:13) in Oceania.
After our lovely meal and visit on the nuns’ porch, Fr. Meletios walked us down the dirt road toward Holy Trinity Church, which in practice serves as the cathedral and hub for the Orthodox of Fiji. It is a fascinating hybrid of Byzantine and South Pacific architecture, complete with jalousie-style windows which open up the walls almost completely, continually causing you to second-guess whether you are indoors or outdoors during the service.
Next, after being joined by a sparkling-eyed boy named Ezekiel who somehow broke free from the larger group of children and came to escort our group around the property, we made our way across the lawn to the few modest buildings that make up the St. Tabitha Children’s Home. The buildings aren’t large, but are very well kept – organized, clean and decorated with colorfully painted designs on all the walls.
The children buzz about like busy bees in a hive, eyeing us with curiosity & shyness, but not fear. As we explored the orphanage I spied a soccer ball out on the covered veranda. Before you could blink, Myles, Ryan, David & I had kicked off our shoes (the children were already shoeless as is the norm in that hot climate) and, with the permission of the home’s matron, Abbess Melani, we set up two goals and commenced a rollicking game of soccer that, as far as I could tell, had few strictly observed rules and no boundaries at all. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time!
I took a break at one point to say hello to a few of the smaller children – boys and girls – who had taken refuge in a large, round trampoline with netting all around. One little girl in particular caught my attention, a 5-year-old named Anna, who, at the same age as one of my own girls, lost her opportunity to be raised and cared for her own natural family. I don’t know whether her own parents have died or simply were not able to care for her, which is often the case among the orphans in Fiji. But through God’s Mercy she has found a loving home with 20 new brothers and sisters, as well as the chance to grow up in the warm embrace of the Orthodox Church. The delicate balance between tragedy and the abundance of God’s mercy stares at you through the eyes of each of these children, and the memory of it is unforgettable, especially when compounded 20 times over.
We literally played soccer till it was time to load back up in the van and return to the airport. We found our shoes, thanked the sisters for the lovely visit, and bid a warm farewell to the boys and girls, who crowded around our van waving their arms and shouting, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Come visit us again!”
Fr. Meletios drove us back to the airport, taking a few minutes to stop at the “Mission Center,” which was the very first building the Archdiocese purchased as the Mission in Fiji was budding over 10 years ago. The complex includes a house with two apartments & a small but gorgeous wooden chapel dedicated to St. Paraskeve. The chapel and bell tower need refinishing after nearly a decade of intense tropical sunshine has reduced the varnish to so much peeling skin, but otherwise the chapel is in lovely condition. My mind quickly turned to the possibility of bringing another group to come do some maintenance on that beautiful little chapel while enjoying the lovely weather and hospitality of Fiji. We’ll see what God has planned.
Back at the airport, we had time enough for a quick meal with Fr. Meletios before heading through security and boarding the flight to our final destination: Tonga! This visit proved more special and moving than any of us could have anticipated. The simple, deep faith of the Fijian Orthodox, the crystal clear and heartfelt chanting of the nuns and children during liturgy, the warm welcome of Fr. Meletios and the sisterhood, the love & openness of the orphan boys and girls – it all made a deep impression on each of us.
Truly, we left our hearts in Fiji with those children.