Church with its rich heritage and concerns

The Rev Si'u Vaifale and his wife in front of a memorial stone marking the 100-year-old celebration of the church's existence back in 1930. Picture: MATILDA SIMMONS

The Rev Si'u Vaifale and his wife in front of a memorial stone marking the 100-year-old celebration of the church's existence back in 1930. Picture: MATILDA SIMMONS

YOU could be forgiven if you totally missed the Samoan Congregational Church building while passing through Thurston St in Suva. The Samoan inspired architectural building lies hidden behind a steel gate and a massive building which houses the church minister and his family. It strikes you for its quaint design and it’s signature oval roof common among Samoan buildings.

The church has catered to the spirituality of Samoan residents and visitors alike for many years if not for generations. But what many don’t know is the fact that this church has been in existence since the late 1800s. According to the priest, The Rev Si’u Vaifale, the church was started in Levuka around the 1890s to cater to the large number of Samoans who were coming into the country and then transiting to New Zealand.

“We are very much Fijians as much as everybody else,” said Mr Vaifale. “We started off in Levuka Town and when the Capital moved to Suva, we moved across. We’ve been in Suva since 1904.”

The land which the church sits on was owned by the London Missionary Society (LMS), a non-denominational Christian mission with strong links with the Congregationalist movement formed in 1795. It’s links with the Samoan church goes right back to 1830. Although the society does not exist anymore, the church continues along the same principles of the LMS.

“We bought off the land from LMS and we’ve been here ever since,” he said.

“This church is meant to cater for the spirituality of the Samoans both the students and workers. About 150 students and 15-20 Samoan families often converge at the church on Sunday. It is a meeting point, a home away from home for them,” Mr Vaifale added.

Last week, the visiting national Samoan A rugby team attended a service at the church. It was a get-together that brought both Samoans living in Fiji and from their homeland in one place. Church members held a lunch afterwards for the team.

While the church is proud of its rich heritage and its offer of sanctuary, the reverend says they are at the moment facing two issues. One, there is no Samoan embassy in Fiji and the church has had to step in to help it’s citizens.

The church, through Mr Vaifale, acts as an unofficial consulate for Samoans.

“What I’ve been dealing with are Samoans married to Fijians,” he said. “Since I came here last year I’ve had to get about four passport renewals of women who are married to Fijians and men of Indian descent. Some of these women had their passports expired and had lost contact with the Department of Immigration back at home. And not only with immigration papers I’m also working for the Suva court as an interpreter, at the moment I’m involved with a case of a Samoan citizen. This is like embassy work and somebody’s got to do it. If there was one embassy it would make my life a whole lot easier. But it’s up to our government to decide.”

A second issue raised by Mr Vaifale is the prevalence of prostitution on their street. It was ironic that while there were three church buildings on that street, with most of the land owned by churches, one of the oldest professions in the world continues to go unabated along the very same street.

“We have a current problem on our street and that is prostitution,” said Mr Vaifale. “Because my family and I stay here, we are the ones bearing all the repercussions. I’ve lodged complaints to the police, the Minister of Women, Poverty and Alleviation and it’s getting a little better but from what I’ve heard it’s been happening for many years. So the message I want to get out is I have nothing against prostitution … but the issue is they’re doing it in front of the church. This is all church land and I’ve been requesting them to respect the land. I’ve been sworn at, pushed by both the male and female prostitutes and it has created an animosity that is not needed. I have no business with what they do but if they could go and do it somewhere else that would be good. I have children and they have witnessed things that should not be seen. We are advocating for a better society. It’s a social issue that is becoming prevalent.”

He hopes this issue could be looked into by the relevant authorities.

* Read more about the Samoan diaspora in Fiji next week.

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