Mystery Worshipper: Tukai
Church: St Peter's
Location: Lautoka, Fiji
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 December 2011, 9:00am
Built of concrete block in a style to remind one of an English Gothic church - it is even covered in creeper. However, to match the tropical environment, there are many doors on the north side, and windows on the south that are open for ventilation when the building is in use. Originally built in 1943, it has been extended five times since, most recently a cross-ways extension of the nave to provide a space they use for the church hall. There are some small stained glass windows in the east end depicting St Peter, Jesus, and a missionary to Fiji with a convert.
The congregation are multi-racial, like Fiji as a whole. But like the population of Lautoka city, the majority are Indo-Fijian (i.e. descendants of the workers brought out from India in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations). Originally built to minister to the officers of the colonial sugar mills, who were mostly Australian ex-pats, St Peter's has in more recent years moved toward a strong evangelistic focus. They now carry on a particular outreach to the Indo-Fijian population, who are mainly Hindus. The need for five extensions to the building in 70 years is evidence of some success in this, as is the number of congregation members (including the bishop!) who told us about when they were converted. During Advent, they were having a special collection of food and money to be distributed to the poor of the parish and the district so that they too could celebrate at Christmas.
Lautoka is known as the sugar city of Fiji; its main business base is the largest of Fiji's four sugar mills. On one side of Drasa Avenue is a compound of houses for officers of the Fiji Sugar Corporation, and on the other side is St Peter's. Along the street, within 200 metres of St Peter's there are four other churches, at least three of which are strongly evangelical and happy-clappy.
The Rt Revd Gabriel Mahesh Sharma, Bishop in Viti Levu West, Diocese of Polynesia, was the celebrant. The Revd Ana Sharma preached.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
The nave was about half-full, with about 50 worshippers, not counting the 20 from Sunday school, who came in for the actual communion.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Two gentlemen shook our hands as we walked up the path. We also got a "smile" from the church dog, who was lying across the main doorway as we came in.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Standard wooden pews, spaced with no provision for kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Surprisingly quiet in light of the service that followed.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"This is indeed the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Most had their own Bibles. Some even had two: one in English, and one in either Hindi or Fijian (i-Taukei). The standard New Zealand communion service liturgy in English was reprinted in a booklet with a St Peter's cover. Words for all the songs were projected on a screen in English, Hindi or Fijian as they were sung.
What musical instruments were played?
A very competent music group was assembled in the southeast corner: electric keyboard, two electric guitars, drums, five female vocalists all dressed in black and equipped with microphones.
Did anything distract you?
A lady in an orange sari directly in front of us was one of several who were fully into arm waving and interjections of "Praise the Lord" (and much more!) during the songs and sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was in two very different styles. The first part of the liturgy (opening, confession, collects and readings) was pretty standard Anglican fare, with the bishop robed but without the fancier trimmings (incense, genuflections, etc). The readings were in three languages as befitted the multi-racial congregation. Before the sermon there was a long (20 minute) bracket of increasingly active songs, fully backed by congregational hand-clapping and several who went much farther with swaying and exclamations of "Hallelujah!" "Praise the Lord", etc. Toward the end of this, the preacher wandered to the lectern at the front of the nave, but that did nothing to calm the mood. On the contrary, she did her best to fan it up! Her preaching style was also extremely happy-clappy (see below).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
30 minutes, counting the five minutes or so when she started speaking before the music eased down.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – At one point she said, "I haven't got notes or papers prepared, but I rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me." She would have done better to let the Holy Spirit jot down some notes for her, as she wandered through various themes, saying nothing outrageous but nothing of much depth either. She spoke mainly in English but included substantial portions in Hindi (commendable since it is not her first language – though basically fluent, she had to ask the bishop once or twice for a translation of a particular word).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Praise the Lord!" a phrase exclaimed one or twice per minute while she thought of what to say next. But she did pay some attention to the season, saying that everyone in Fiji celebrates at Christmas, even the Hindus, which is fair enough because God loves them all. We have to share the good news of our God, and to do this we have to listen to God (here she brandished the Bible). God has empowered us all to do this, so be joyful and prayerful at all times.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As is the case in almost all Fiji churches, the singing was beautiful. Gather four or more Fijians together, and the chances are that they will burst into four-part harmony. (My own inability to do this has been a source of bemusement to many islanders!) Mrs Tukai (who is much more musical than I) reckoned that the lead singer, a solidly built middle-aged lady, would make a great jazz singer.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon was a low-light for me, as a person who thrives on crisp analytical reasoning. However, it was not diabolical, since (in happy contrast to some visiting evangelists to this country) the message was of the love of God with no flavour of fire and brimstone.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to feel lost or lonely. As obvious visitors (the only Europeans in the congregation), we were warmly invited by several people to join them all for morning tea. We were ushered to a seat in the hall, where several more people came up especially to talk to us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Once seated, we were served a plate of sandwiches and spicy savouries along with a plastic cup of freshly made sweet milky tea. In the sugar city, everyone takes sugar in their tea!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I would be happy to worship here again, but if I lived in Lautoka, I would look for somewhere with a slightly more cerebral style though there may not be such a church in this district!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Certainly. The love and care of the congregation for Jesus, for each other and for the less fortunate around them shone through.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The contrast between the standard Anglican liturgy and the happy-clappy section in the middle of the service.