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Tonga: Tongan church services

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Tongan church services | Tonga | Oceania

[Visited: September 2012]

When I entered the Wesleyan church on a Sunday morning in Neiafu, I tried to think if I ever went to Sunday mass before, and could not think of any occasion. I was early, as I wanted to secure a good spot inside, but to my surprise, the church was not even half full, and when the service began, people were still coming in and would continue to do so until almost the end. The most obvious thing to notice, was that everyone was dressed for the occasion. Many of the men were wearing a tie, with a straw skirt under it, while almost all women were dressed in their typical long straw skirts. Quite soon, everyone stood up, and the first singing started, which is what I was so curious about. There were rounds of singing by everyone, and at other times, only a choir would sing, with a man with an instrument standing on a small platform indicating the rhythm.

Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Women dressed in black and red attending service in a Wesleyan church on 'Eua island

Even though I could not understand the singing, I soon felt touched by its force. It was clear that these people sing together often, for it sounded very well. Moreover, no one seemed to mind at all that I was there as a visitor with a camera around my neck; and when I walked outside, to the front, a Tongan inside invited me to sit on the first row. Here, I had a better view of the priest, the person in charge of the music and a boy and girl who sat in the front under the stained glass window, dressed in black and white, but whom I never saw doing anything. At the other side of the church, I saw three thrones, and someone confirmed later that they were reserved for the royals in case they visited Neiafu. Then, suddenly, after 45 minutes the service was finished, and before I knew it, people had left the building through the open doors that could be found all around. I stayed a while with one of the men who was able to explain a few more things, one being that the purpose of the small wooden platform I saw outside was intended for singing on Saturday to people on the street. For the rest of the day, and also before I visited the service in Neiafu, singing could be heard regularly seemingly coming from everywhere.

Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Woman and man dressed in white leading a church service in Neiafu

The next week, when I had reached 'Eua island and the rain was pouring down and I decided to postpone my hiking plans, I went to church instead. First, my temporary travel companion and I tried a Mormon church, but not only was the building modern and with bad acoustics, the sermon was in Tongan language and sounded monotonous, and without the singing, it did not make sense to stay. So we decided to move to the next church, easily identified because the small building which we otherwise would not have recognized as being a church because it looked like any wooden house, was almost exploding with singing. Inside, nearly all people were sitting on the right hand side, and we later understood that they were the choir. The singing was different, at times, it sounded like the people were screaming instead of singing: it sounded very forceful. The small room did not help to improve the sound. But it was clear that the people were singing with all their heart and soul. Again, they were dressed for the occasion, although there were less straw skirts than in Neiafu. Church services in Tonga are certainly something to behold and to be experienced. When talking about it upon checking in for my flight out of Tonga, the Tongan lady told me that when she attended service in Malta and started to sing, people looked strangely at her, while for her it was the most normal thing to do.

Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Man and choir during a church service on Sunday in Neiafu
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Dressed up for church on Sunday with traditional Tongan dress and tie
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Dressed in black and singing along in a church service on 'Eua island
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Church service in Neiafu led by a priest
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Dressed in green with hat and child on her lap, reading the bible during service
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Singing during a service on 'Eua island
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Just before the start of service in Neiafu
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Priest surrounded by white flower decorations during service on 'Eua island
Picture of Tongan church services (Tonga): Dressed up in the typical Tongan dress, leaving church

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