Reflections of Mission Life
It is easy to be in Fiji if you are on holiday. The sun, the beaches, the smiles, and the constant `Bula Vinaka’ greetings make you feel noticeably special. It’s a home away from home with resorts catering for every need and want. Yet dig beneath the surface and park yourself in the Orthodox mission and you have an experience that challenges ways of knowing and doing, shaking the core of what Being and Becoming mean, especially for Orthodox Christians.
St Tabitha’s orphanage is based in the Western District of Lautoka, Fiji, away from the hustle and bustle of tourist destinations but close enough to neighborhoods that echo challenges found across the world. This includes drugs, alcohol, violence, child trafficking and the lucrative business of drug dealership in schools. The need for care, protection and education has become a big priority for the Mission and the focus on planning ahead, is ever in our thoughts and prayers.
Like many people, I have tended to think of orphanages as places that take care of small children who have lost a parent or both parents and all they require is food, shelter, learning opportunities, love, and emotional security. However, small children grow into big children and big children growing up at St Tabitha Home (11-17 years of age) are navigating a pathway to adulthood different to children raised in a home with biological parents and extended family. Those small, cute kids have carried their childhood trauma into their teens and are now facing challenges of self-identity, peer pressure, school demands, loss, as well as temptations and expectations as they navigate life in this modern yet traditional society.
I first came to Fiji almost 5 years ago, naively thinking I could easily apply my experiences in Sierra Leone and Orthodox Mission life, to Fiji. There are some paradoxical similarities such as the environmental beauty of both countries, the way the locals open their arms to strangers and their hearts to Christ. At the same time, the poverty, domestic violence, unemployment and the impact of alcohol and drugs entices daily. It is indeed a Paradoxical Paradise! Unlike Sierra Leone, where poverty is ever visible, in Fiji, it is only when you move in spaces outside of tourism that the layers of poverty and hardship are revealed.
As I reflect on this amazing country and my work here, I realize I too, am a work (still) in progress. I know that patience brings forth; understanding, respect, endurance, persistence and most importantly love. When I apply it, I see the fruits it brings to me and those around me. I thought this was all I had to improve on when I came to Fiji. However, another daily (and sometimes hourly) virtue I have needed, is discernment. This was not what I was expecting for I arrogantly carried my past experiences as carbon copy knowledge to be replicated for my new role as Principal of St Tabitha Orphanage.
The virtue of discernment was recently revealed to me in a quote by St John Climacus in his writing “The ladder of Divine Ascent” which states:
“After God, let us have our conscience as our mentor and rule in all things, so that we may know which way the wind is blowing and set our sails accordingly”.
Step 26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue
If my conscience is the mentor and ruler of all decisions, I need to actively listen, to tune in to my inner voice where God whispers and trust it will advise me to do what is best. This is an exercise of Faith but it’s also a praxis based on the opening of heart. For it is the conscious that frames one’s moral and ethical yardstick. It discerns which way the wind is blowing and sets sail accordingly. It is an insightful virtue especially when faced with decisions that impact on self and others in the mission.
As a mother, educator, adult trainer, manager and administrator in schools, kindergartens, and community services across the globe, I assumed running an orphanage would be easy. However, there are situations that have tested my patience and my ability to discern. Through praxis, I now find myself understanding mission work a little clearer. I have finally understood that: All that I do, is not for others, it is for my own spiritual growth, my own salvation. The byproduct of working on myself and my relationship with Christ, is the Grace given to me, that underserving free gift, which facilitates service to others.
For those considering mission work, it’s important that the vision and the way things are done in a mission align with one’s personal yardstick (or conscience) especially if you’re making decisions about long-term mission work. I’ve been truly blessed to find this alignment at the Orthodox Apostolic Mission here in Fiji.
As for the children at St Tabitha Home, growing up with the church on their doorstep (Holy Trinity church) is the foundation on which they will build their own moral yardstick to steer their own ship as they mature into young adulthood. Recognizing that adolescence brings its own unique challenges, we all must play a role in helping them navigate this journey. We recognize their developmental need to assert their independence, at the same time their safety and protection must remain a high priority. Everyone they encounter must steer them in the right direction, help them to develop life skills, build moral character, learn to self-regulate behaviours and emotions and understand for themselves that every decision they make, has a consequence. In other words, helping them to discern and `set their sails accordingly’.
With the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Myron and under the leadership of Archimandrite Meletios, we have been entrusted to steer this ship called `Saint Tabitha Home’. With 90% of St Tabitha staff, priests and laity being local Fijians who speak their language and are baptized orthodox Christians, they understand the cultural norms and traditions, and can assist in that journey of self -identity and spirituality.
I am excited with the progress we are making but there is still much to be done! With your help and prayers, we remain hopeful that the children will have a bright future, secure in the knowledge that they are loved, respected, and firmly grounded in a timeless Faith.
Dr Eleni Athinodorou (PhD)