Rev. Tau’alofa Anga’aelangi tells me all about her ministries: loitering with intent around people, serving them, affirming them, advocating for them. And peppered throughout our conversation, she declares “and that is a part of the liturgy”.
To Tau’alofa, worship intersects with community work and living into justice. She feels that her calling is to the scattered people of God – not to bring them into the church buildings, but to be the church in marginal spaces. And that is where the significance of her ordination comes in. She sees that it is about being ‘set apart’ so that her whole life is “committed to the call and mission of God”. It is not a part-time job, but from the moment she wakes up, everything in her life relates to God and justice; recognising the Kingdom of God in the world. And this brings more accountability and responsibility, as she lives this calling in a more visible way.
It all began for Tau’alofa in her home church in Tonga, in which she was born and raised in a strong Methodist tradition. She remembers the “very traditional Christian Tongan home” environment, where there were prayers in the evening at home and 5am Monday morning prayers in the church. Although it appears somewhat legalistic to her now, it “formed my way of thinking about church and nourished and nurtured my own faith even as a young person.”
Then in 1992, at age 9, Tau’alofa’s family moved to Australia where her thinking and experience of God and church changed. Initially she was drawn away and questioned her faith, but eventually she found the Auburn Uniting Church, the first Tongan church to join the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), where she found friends and connected particularly to the youth activities.
Through one of the National Christian Youth Conventions, she realised that she had a calling within the church. That was strengthened at a Hillsong conference in 2010 when she heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Isaiah 61:1-2
At 26 years of age, Tau’alofa still didn’t understand what the call meant, but entered into a period of discernment with helpful Uniting Church leaders. From among the various ministries, such as lay minister, minister of the word and minister of the deacon, it was the latter that she felt God calling her to.
After some time, Tau’alofa was sent on a mission trip to the Netherlands, where she worked in a centre serving refugees, migrants and people who had experienced human trafficking. She had $20 to buy ingredients for a meal for 30 people, using whatever she could. This was a plunge into the reality of real injustices and she had a moment of thinking, “God, what am I doing here? I am from the Pacific. What you are doing is so funny!” But it came to her that stirring up soup for the neighbour, the stranger, in a marginal space was God’s call.
And that was part of the liturgy. It was the simple sharing of a meal – just like the bread and wine of Jesus’ time. It was sitting with people and listening to them. She said, “Liturgy is also about the actions that we take to nourish and nurture one another and I think that is where the body of Christ is being distributed and celebrated.” It was about different people coming together with their brokenness and sharing stories to be part of a bigger story. And, just like the tradition of Tonga and other Islands in Oceania – talanoa – the story of Jesus Christ and our stories are about the telling, the conversation and the retelling and continuing on of the stories – they never end.
Moving on a few years, and Tau’alofa was ordained in 2019 and has taken up a position as Tertiary chaplain in the Charles Sturt University of Port Macquarie. She engages and participates with everyone, and makes many connections. It is here that she finds plenty of people in marginal spaces and communities. One group is the rural students who are the first in their families to attend universities. Without the right support, they often fail. The international students likewise have great challenges in finding accommodation and employment, especially since COVID. Then there is the plague of struggles with mental health that affects so many students.
Tau’alofa loves to hang around the Indigenous Centre for First Nations students, where she hears stories about the massacres and injustices that have been part of local history. A few years ago she and colleague Rev. Dr Katalina Tahaafe Williams started a monthly webinar about Black Lives Matter and its implications in the Australian context, which she is really passionate about.
Another marginal space is with LGBTIQA+ students, who are searching for understanding, affirmation and somewhere to belong. Tau’alofa is the only chaplain who is trained as an ally with the Charles Sturt University Ally Network. It was was established in 2014 as an informal visible network of students and staff who are identified Allies to the Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual or members of related communities. The coordinators of the network were very happy to have a minister on board, from a church that “can create and push for those spaces.” Tau’alofa explains that “It is a privilege to be trained and become an ally for the LGBTIQA+. This is one of those sacred and marginalised spaces where we are given the opportunity to be equipped and we need to participate and commit our time and energy.”
Finally, Tau’alofa is especially proud of her efforts to bring together religious leaders to officially open a multi-faith room in the university on the 16th of March this year. It was funded and committed to the university by the Muslim community of Port Macquarie, but they particularly insisted that it would be a space for all religious people. So Tau’alofa was asked to help organise the dedication of the room, which was “The most exciting thing I’ve done in my role.” She worked with colleagues from the UCA to plan a liturgy across the faith traditions to emphasise peace and interfaith dialogue. In her experience, “coming together nourishes our faith”.
In all of this, Tau’alofa brings a humble and inspiring outlook that perfectly marries her dedication to God and the dedication to God’s people. She lives her diaconal role to the full, and exemplifies Jesus’ two greatest commandments to witness to his presence in the world today.