To Him Be the Glory!
"Na yacamu?" (What is your name?) I got used to being asked this question every time I meet people in the village. I came to the village of Navatuyaba, Toga, in Rewa province, Fiji, where I am having my exposure of the local language and culture. Answering this question usually ends up in my giving them an introduction to my life story.
As a first term lay missionary, my first ministry is to learn the language and culture of the people. I learned that asking about their name at the beginning of our encounter is a good step towards befriending them.
But sometimes, it can be confusing to remember their names in just one meeting because their names were passed on to them by other members of the family or community. So I meet people with similar names and sometimes with similar faces. If you are named after your aunt or uncle, it is understood as a great honor and responsibility because what you give and receive is not only a name but it can influence the quality of life you live.
In the village, I am known as a missionary from a faraway land. I bear this name like a mark wherever I go. It gives meaning and purpose to my experience of living with the people. Prior to joining the Columban Missionaries, I used to live and work in Manila, Philippines. I worked as an educator in a private school run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. My life then was filled with the stress of living in a congested environment where people are busy, dealing with heavy traffic, or staying up late because of the amount of work I needed to finish. My life was fastpaced with me trying to speed up just to catch up.
Then the Lord took me out from that kind of life and led me to a place where I had to slow down and to allow my spirit to calm down and just enjoy being with the people whose culture and ways are totally different from mine.
During my first few days, I stayed with one Fijian family in the village. I would wake up early in the morning to join their morning prayers with the Vakavuvuli or catechist in the village and some Catholics to say their prayers in the church before going to work.
In the morning I would hear people greeting each other "yadra!" with big smiles on their faces. It is a shorter way of saying "good morning!" Somehow, this little gesture gives me a sense of peace and joy as I welcome each new day. After a small exchange of greetings and conversation, we would take our morning tea with bread and go about our household chores. Sometimes, I'd go along with my host mother in the village to get shells and catch fish in the river and get "ota," a wild fern in the bush for our dish. Then, I'd join their meetings or parish youth activities.
My host mother used to bring me to different events in the village and in the parish. These occasions give me a better understanding and experience of the culture, language and faith of the people. I had the opportunity to attend celebrations like the weddings, birthday parties, welcoming a newborn child, funerals, family affairs, meetings, and gatherings with the youth, men, and women of other faiths. I also teach catechism to the children on Sundays and during their school holidays.
In the beginning, I just observed and listened to the people though I could not understand their language. I wanted to join in their conversation and laugh with them too, but the most I could do was to smile and say "bula!" which means hello, "moce!," which means goodbye, and "vinaka vakalevu," for "thank you very much!"
So when it is my turn to drink, I take the bowl and in silence I say, “Jesus, this one is for You, cheers!”
Having heard people speaking the "Bauan," their national language, sometimes I felt frustrated because I hardly understand them, and I felt I was learning the language too slowly. It was like becoming a child again learning to talk, always being told what to do and say. Indeed, learning the language needs a lot of humility and patience from me. There were times I asked myself why was I doing this and why I had to try hard to learn what the people were saying, eat what they eat, or dress the way they dress.
But then I was amazed when I found the answers to my questions when I slowly learned to speak their language and let go of my judgments and prejudices. It was like seeing light amidst the dark! The things I have done, and the words I have learned brought me into a deeper meaning and purpose when I slowly learned to embrace their culture and ways.
These realizations slowly transformed me and helped me to see the beauty and wonder of the people I encountered. I learned to appreciate the beauty of their culture when I was able to understand what they were trying to express. I began to appreciate the beauty of their songs and prayers, their music, their food, their expression of faith and unity, and their values. In many ways, I was beginning to feel more at home!
What I like most about the people in the village is their welcoming attitude. For me, their way of greeting somebody "bula!" with a matching handshake is meaningful. "Bula" is more than saying "hello." It also means life. This reminded me of what Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly." (John 10b:10). It is the "bula" of Jesus, His initiative to make friends with us wanting to share His love and joy in its fullness.
I realized that my mission here is not only sharing my life with the people of God in Fiji but most of all, it is encountering Christ Himself in the life of others, sharing life with Him and growing in faith, joy and love with Him, as well as being vulnerable before Him. It is an experience of becoming one with the people by sharing with their life's joys and struggles every day and discovering God's presence in their faith journey.
The big challenge that I encounter in the village which is still a challenge for me is the drinking of kava, also known as yaqona. It comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) bush. The root is ground up and then strained with water that you drink, it numbs your mouth, tongue and lips and gives you a sense of relaxation. For me, it is a challenge because it is like I am drinking bland, murky water. So, I told myself I have to drink it because they say that it is the best way to learn the language.
Yaqona drinking is an avenue for the people in the village to come together, exchange jokes and share stories. So when it is my turn to drink, I take the bowl and in silence I say, "Jesus, this one is for You, cheers!" Eventually, I find myself enjoying not only drinking yaqona, but most of all, the presence of the people around the "tanoa," a round basin used by the Fijians to mix yaqona.
I imagined if Jesus grew up as a Fijian He would also be mixing and drinking yaqona, while sharing countless parables around the tanoa. Sharing a drink with one's companions from one bowl can be an expression of unity and friendship. For me, this is a new form of the "table fellowship" of Jesus.
From this experience I have learned the important meaning of the mutual sharing of the gift of presence, that includes the time spent together and listening to some sacred stories where mutual evangelization also takes place. Indeed, each one has a gift to share and offer which can make a difference into each other's lives.
I realized that the best gift that I can offer to others is my gift of presence, offering my time, my ears, and my heart to listen. Being myself and relating with them with sincerity can help me develop a relationship with them built on mutual trust and respect. This experience with the people gives me a glimpse of what mission is all about.
As I continue my journey, I believe that God who has called me in my name will always amaze me with new learning experiences and continue to transform my heart. Today, I can truly say that I am at home in Fiji! Cheers for Christ! To Him be the glory!