Through song, dance, tool drives, informational videos and more, ministry settings across the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church are doing their part to provide support and relief to the small island nation of Tonga in the aftermath of a devastating volcanic tsunami in January.

With many Tongan United Methodist faith communities scattered throughout the Western Jurisdiction, the College of Bishops and Western Jurisdiction Leadership Team have committed to supporting Tongan siblings as they begin to pick up the pieces.

“As followers of Jesus, we are called to demonstrate our love of God and neighbor through generous acts of compassion,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, episcopal leader of the Mountain Sky Area and current president of the WJ College of Bishops. “As United Methodists, it is the strength of our connection that enables us to do this. We in the Western Jurisdiction are committed to our Tongan siblings through our prayers, our financial commitments, and our labors.”

To be culturally responsive in its efforts and understand how the Methodist Church in Tonga works, the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops has created a Tongan Relief Task Force. Tongan representatives from each Conference will decide how best to respond and the specific needs on the ground in Tonga as they move from disaster to response and relief mode.

Rev. David Niu, Central Valley District Superintendent in the California-Nevada Conference, and Rev. Dr. Siosaia Tu’itahi, East District Superintendent from the California-Pacific Conference, are co-chairs of the Tongan Relief Task Force.

“I want to express our sincere appreciation for your support, your donations and more importantly your prayers as we together in the Western Jurisdiction respond to this disaster that displaced so many people in Tonga,” said Niu.

In addition to individual Conference giving, the Western Jurisdiction Leadership team committed $30,000 toward the supply of shipping containers to distribute collected goods and items to Tonga.

As Rev. Fungalei Taufoou said in an interview at Lents Tongan Fellowship in Portland, Oregon, on April 20: “It’s hard. Especially the first couple days after, you know, the tsunami actually happened because there was no connection, no communications and they tried keeping the calm, the peace. Families here were very concerned about what was going on on the island,” Taufoou said.

Together, the Desert Southwest Conference and the California-Pacific Conference have sent seven shipping containers – the first one delivered via New Zealand was filled with water – to Tonga. In those shipping containers were food, clothing, tools and more.

With the Tongan consulate located in San Francisco, the California-Nevada Conference received early calls for support. Churches such as the Palo Alto First Tongan UMC and other Tongan and non-Tongan faith communities began collecting tools, according to Pastor Sepuloni Felenunga of the Palo Alto Church.

The first full shipping container sent by the California-Nevada Conference was just tools. Since then, 13 more containers have been shipped with donations from Tongan and non-Tongan churches alike, containing food, water, clothing and more. In addition to this, the Conference has been producing “Who is My Neighbor?” video resources that recently highlighted Tonga.

On May 20, the Mountain Sky Conference hosted an event in Aurora, Colo. More than 125 people joined either in person or online, and they celebrated Tongan culture through music, dance and food. The event alone raised more than $36,500 for Tongan relief.

“We are deeply grateful for this time together and are optimistic about what the West is doing to help,” said one Tongan participant.

The Greater Northwest Area (which includes the Oregon-Idaho, Pacific Northwest and Alaska conferences) has been supporting the work of Lents Tongan Fellowship in Portland. The church spent weeks collecting supplies and financial donations to support a shipping container filled with supplies sent out of the port in Tacoma in April; they are expected to arrive in Tonga this week.

Pastor Taufoou said more than $80,000 in financial donations and goods were given to the church to get this shipping container filled.

While all these efforts are a terrific first response, leaders across the Western Jurisdiction are committed to supporting Tongan siblings for the long haul. During annual conference gatherings this month and in the fall, each of the seven conferences that make up the Western Jurisdiction will be collecting an offering for Tongan relief. Best of all, people do not have to attend annual conference to give, as each conference has set up online portals for giving.

But the response does not end there. When deemed appropriate, the Western Jurisdiction disaster response coordinators hope to send Early Response Teams and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission to support relief and rebuilding efforts.

“We are looking are rebuilding and reconstruction,” Tu’itahi said. “Communication is still ongoing with Tonga on the best way to maximize our aid.”

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