At 7:15 in the morning, the praise and worship team was just warming up. The preacher and Reverend had yet to arrive. The Indian Division’s morning service at Suva’s Dudley Memorial Church was scheduled to begin at 7:30, but a certain lateness was to be expected. Some refer to it as Fiji Time — that schedule where obligation towards others is measured in presence rather than punctuality. To pass the time, I picked up a hymnbook from the small lace-topped wooden table to the left of the entrance. According to the sign behind the pulpit, today’s hymns were 9, 968, 780, and 438.
Inside the church were two columns of eleven pews. On the left and right walls were five doors spaced a few feet apart. They were wide open, letting in the sounds, air, and sunlight of the city’s Sunday morning. Suva ordinarily has little in common with the postcard images of Fijian resorts — here, cloudbursts upon asphalt replaced white sand against blue sky. Today, however, the clouds parted, and the view from the church’s uphill neighborhood looked clear past the collection of concrete buildings in the Central Business District towards the sunlight glinting off the lapis water of Suva harbor.
The cross draft from the open doors gave the church an idyllic feel. I looked forward: the pulpit, situated to the left, was perhaps four or five feet in width. Atop it were vased flowers on either end. Hung just below the lectern was a white cross on green cloth. In the center of the chancel was a communion table, and directly above that, near the peak of the sloped ceiling, was a circular stained-glass window of Jesus in three-quarters profile. And then, on the right, was the praise and worship team.
This was my first time attending a Methodist service — or any church service for that matter — and where I chose to sit reflected that. Left side, second to last row, right next to one of the open doors. For the novice, there is a certain comfort in knowing one’s exit.
My entrance was not unseen. An Indian man in a white short-sleeved collared shirt and black trousers, his beard short and scraggly and his long hair pulled back into a ponytail, was walking over to me just as I bent to sit down. I felt the need to meet him halfway, and we shook hands in the aisle. He was an evangelist on the prowl. “Brother,” he said, “is this your first time here?” I told him yes, adding that I was interested in writing something about the Indian Division of the Methodist Church of Fiji.
We talked, and when he seemed to be certain of my future conversion, he returned to the praise and worship team. He was a singer and had an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup. Next to him was a woman, also a singer, and three other men: a bassist, drummer, and keyboardist. “We are together again, just praising the lord,” they sang.
By 7:40, the 7:30 service began. Every service, I learned, is organized around a theme. Today’s was “cast your burdens unto Jesus.” The preacher was a deaconess of Fijian descent. Her curly hair was cropped three or four inches from her head. She set her bible upon the lectern and began, “But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of the Lord.” A psalm: chapter fifty-eight, verse two.
Forty-one people were listening to her speak these words of worship. Their presence complemented what I had researched and read about Methodist Church of Fiji and its Indian Division. I knew the church was powerful. I knew that about a third of the country’s 837,721 citizens attended its services. I knew too that outside its small Indian Division, it supported three of the country’s four coups and that it looked askance at Fiji’s sizeable Indian minority. Church leaders had once likened their presence to the sinners who brought God’s wrath upon Sodom and Gomorrah. But here they were, faces Indian, Fijian, Polynesian, and Rotuman.
I had spent hours poring over dusty colonial documents in the archive. But even the most isolated archive has a window. I had prepared for my research trip, reading all about the country and its past and present. I knew that outside that window were questions of faith and politics and I was confounded by the answers I could not find.
Fiji can seem like a far off place to most people. It’s thought of as a honeymoon, or a resort holiday, or a bottle of water synonymous with luxury. On a flattened map of the world, it’s the place where the International Date Line juts askew to prevent bisecting the country into yesterday and tomorrow. In these representations, there seems to be little room for a past, let alone history.
But that would be wrong. In Fiji, the burdens of history can be felt in each pew at Sunday service. And such burdens are never quite so easy to cast aside.
For me to understand something as simple as the Indian Sunday service at Dudley Memorial Church, I needed to dig into my own research on Fiji’s colonial past. I began with the Indians themselves. They first arrived in Fiji, a collection of 332 islands in the South Pacific, in 1879. For five years thence, the country had been a colony of the United Kingdom. The British wanted to get the economy moving, but the colony’s first governor, Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, thought it imprudent to force the islands’ inhabitants to work. Epidemics had ravaged the colony and the Empire could not countenance more death stemming from overwork or further disease.
Given Fiji’s fertile soil and tropical climate, the choice of economic stimulus was obvious. The world was — and still is — fueled on sugar, and there was plenty of profit to be found in its harvest. Governor Gordon had some experience in its planting. Before Fiji, he had been the governor of Trinidad and Mauritius — both were colonies that subsisted on sugar planted by indentured Indians. Now it was Fiji’s turn.
On March 3, 1879, the ship Leonidas set sail from Calcutta to Fiji. The schooner, built to haul human cargo, carried 498 Indians as indentured laborers. According to the officials on board, each of the ship’s cargo had made an oath, borne by contract, that guaranteed the Empire five years of labor. If they ever wanted to return to India, they would have to pay for their journey with another five years of labor. Few ever took up the offer to return home. Five years on a plantation was enough. The life of toiling for the world’s sweetener was often summed up in one word: narak — hell.
The Leonidas arrived in Fiji on May 14. The ship’s log showed that seventeen had died of either smallpox or cholera en route. The rest were quarantined on a small island for three months to prevent an outbreak of disease. Fifteen more died during this time.
But the log shows something else. Two were born on the ship. Like the children of the Israelites born in Egypt, these children would only hear of their homeland in stories. Parents, at the close of a day spent cutting cane, would force upon all within earshot never-ending tales of a land never to be seen again. These were the first members of a diaspora.
The indenture system was brought to an end in 1919. By then, over 60,000 Indians had migrated to Fiji. By 1987, they numbered nearly half the country’s population. By 2007, they dwindled to little over a third. Their departure had been hastened by a violent politics of race and religion.
A week or so before I attended my first church service, I spoke with the Reverend James Bhagwan. Bhagwan, the newly appointed church secretary for communications, was a formidable man with a wide smile. His rounded face, neatly combed hair, and a calm demeanor made it seem as if he could hold his own both on the rugby pitch and in the pulpit. He had recently returned from South Korea, where he finished his master’s degree in theology. He and I met at the Republic of Cappuccino, a café in Suva just off the Victoria Parade on the first floor of a concrete high-rise. To my knowledge, the Republic lacked any type of sovereignty, though it was a sort of espresso-laden oasis. The café, with its top hits of 2013 pop music, free Wi-Fi, and cushy seating, catered to Suva’s young middle classes, NGO-working expats, and the handful of tourists who took a detour from Viti Levu’s (the country’s largest island) sun-drenched and resort-laden west coast to end up in the capital city on the island’s rainy and grey east.
I began our first conversation with a question whose answer I already knew through books and articles. “What is the Indian Division of the Methodist Church?”
“The whole colonial hangover of separate communities,” he began, “was firmly entrenched in this system where the church can have an Indian Division.” Recall the British, who brought in Indians to work the fields of Fiji. In the annals of government policy, all groups were to stay separate. You can see this in the country’s first census in 1881. There are hand-written tables each documenting discrete racial groups: European, Fijian, Indian, Polynesian. There too was that group that existed as a racial problem. They called them the “half-caste”: any individual deemed to be part European was consigned to this group, and put on the outskirts of society.
Bhagwan continued, “The Indian Division is the result of mission work by the Methodist Church of Australasia. It was a secondary endeavor. The early move towards mission would have been around dubious circumstances: ‘protecting the Fijians from the heathens and the pagans that were coming in.’ The fear was that the incoming indentured laborers may convert the Fijians to Hinduism or something like that.”
The Methodist mission to Fiji had begun in 1835. The South Pacific had been brought into contact with the English sixty-six years prior during the voyages of Captain Cook. The initial attempts at evangelism were met with ferocious resistance. In 1867, the missionary Thomas Baker and seven of his Fijian followers were killed and eaten in a skirmish in western Viti Levu (cannibalism and human sacrifice were a part of pre-Christian Fijian cultural practices). Baker was the only missionary to be consumed and by 1879 missionaries were successful enough to feel as if the Kingdom of God in the South Pacific was well nigh.
The Indians were seen as heathens shipped to a Christian island utopia. Early attempts at converting Indians failed. As one missionary wrote, “we can’t work up a revival in the Indian Mission, it must be worked down from heaven.” Success did not come from heaven. It came from Australia. In 1897, thirty-three year-old Hannah Dudley arrived in Suva as a part of the Indian Mission of the Methodist Church. Dudley had previously worked in India, where she became proficient in Hindi and Urdu. With the ability to communicate, she set out to work with those that neither state nor church cared for following their five years of work on the plantation.
“The legacy of the mission to the Indians,” Bhagwan told me, “was a very important one in terms of education, social welfare, medical facilities. It was a part of a dual process of mission and evangelism. Preaching the gospel was living that message of love and care. Young people would have experienced their introduction to Christ not as a hardcore evangelism revival kind of thing, but through learning in Methodist mission schools.”
Dudley worked among the Indians for sixteen years. For her service, she entered the annals of church history as Hamari Maa — Our Mother. There exists an image of her seated in front of what looks like a blackboard, her grey-streaked black hair pulled back behind her head. She is flanked by three of her students — all young girls. While they stare directly at the camera, she sits, back straight, gazing into the distance.
Her work establishing orphanages and schools turned her into the namesake of the Dudley Memorial Church in Suva. Its cornerstone, laid in 1934 announces to those who care to notice it, “To the Glory of God for whose Kingdom Miss Hannah Dudley laboured in Suva with zeal and devotion.” The architecture of the church pays homage to her work with the Indian community by featuring an “Indic” façade: a bulbous dome flanked by two smaller bulbs and a peaked archway above its entrance.
The Indian Division of the church has always been a small and separate part of the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma. Throughout the church’s history, the Indian Division has chosen to remain a separate entity rather than joining local, community-based divisions. Their reasons were many: a desire to keep finances separate, fears of racism, and a belief that a relative amount of autonomy was the only way to safeguard the interests of a minority. The division has always been small. The 2007 census showed that 35 percent of the nation’s population was Methodist. Of that, only 2 percent were members of the Indian division.
Brought in as foreigners, ignored, and then set off from the rest — how did Indians see themselves in their church and country? “We are a minority within a minority,” Bhagwan said. “From the Methodist side we are a minority because we are Indian. From the Indian side we are a minority because we are Methodist. So we’re overlooked. We also have the stigma of being Methodists in the Indian community because of the things that took place in 1987 and 2000. On the church side, we’re too small.”
I heard 1987 and felt myself lean into the conversation. That was the year when the segregated group fell into a history of violence. Then, and again in 2000, the church confronted the minority within a minority. “What happened to you after 1987?” I asked.
The conversation turned grave — history veered unexpectedly into the personal. “I was thirteen,” he said. “As a young kid in 1987, I was seeing the role of the church and this real nationalism really affected me. I stopped being a Methodist. I refused to go to the church. How could you go to a church that espouses racism?”
This was the question that had always confounded me: what faith can remain after blood has spilled?
In 1987, the government was toppled. Before that, one party had governed Fiji. The party line boiled down to a preference for indigenous Fijians, though Indians numbered nearly half of the population. In April 1987, a left-wing interethnic alliance defeated the reigning party. The response to the election was quick. By the end of April, five thousand people marched through Suva decrying an Indian-led government. By mid-May, the army’s Lieutenant Colonel entered parliament with guns drawn and staged the nation’s first military coup. He suspended the constitution and appointed himself Commander-in-Chief. By October, he was dissatisfied with attempts to restore democracy and staged another coup.
After 1987, the Methodist Church declared its allegiances. Moderates were outnumbered by those who were eager to join an ethnic-supremacist government. The hardliners prevailed. They came early to the office one day and locked the door. In February 1989 the church had its own coup.
Peace did not come with the decision to espouse racism. For example, in October 1989, an indigenous Fijian Methodist Fellowship group emerged from prayer before dawn and purchased a few cans of gasoline. They tried to burn down all Indian houses of worship in Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city, and managed to set fire to four. The rationale was claimed to be divine, as the Bible had instructed them to destroy idols. When imprisoned, the government was petitioned by the Methodist Youth Fellowship to pardon them, for they “should not be condemned for the act but should be loved and cared for in accordance with Christian belief.”
In 1997 the country attempted to exorcise its past and a new constitution was drafted. By 1999, elections were held and another left-wing interethnic alliance came into power. History has a way of repeating itself.
In May 2000, a protest of ten thousand people culminated in the Prime Minister and his members of parliament being held hostage in a civilian putsch. The subsequent power vacuum led to a military takeover. By the end of the month, the commander of the armed forces declared marshal law and appointed a handpicked Prime Minister.
In the name of religion the Methodists supported the 1987 and 2000 coups. They saw these as chances to establish a tropical island Eden by way of the sword and cross. It seemed at times as if all Indians were to be attacked. After both coups, shops and homes were looted and burned, people were harassed in the streets, and women were raped. Targets of violence were not only Muslims and Hindus, but also Christians. After the 2000 coup, an anti-Indian protest reached its apogee with the burning of a school. It was run by Indian Methodists.
This history of violence political, ethnic, and religious drove me into the church in the first place. Why are you here was a question filled with the past: “How could you choose to come to a church that has done this to you?”
Two weeks before I walked into Dudley Church, and a week before I first talked to James Bhagwan, I made my way to the house of the Reverend Immanuel Reuben, the current superintendant of the Indian Division. Around 3:45 in the afternoon on a sunny Thursday, I took a taxi to Suva’s Toorek neighborhood. I was dropped off on a street facing the backside of a one-story building adorned with a low-slung brown roof and a cross. Abutting this building was a small green space, complete with five straw dogs, a volleyball net, and ten young men playing volleyball. Clearly I was in the wrong place.
After calling Reuben and realizing that I had been dropped off behind the Dudley High School, I walked behind the diesel fumes of a slow-moving bus to the main road and made my way up a steeply inclined driveway to a porch. Suva gets an average of 10 feet of rain every year. The city is unspeakably lush. Ferns, flowers, coconut fronds, banyan trees, and hanging vines compete with asphalt and concrete for space. Reverend Reuben’s yard was no exception. Thick green grass, two towering coconut palms, and several carefully trimmed stalks of flowers surrounded his porch.
Reuben was seated at a round wooden table on the porch. The table overlooked a large open field across the street where several groups of teenagers were playing rugby. The Reverend was wearing a white t-shirt (under which was the round paunch of a man who wielded position in his community) and pale red shorts. His black hair, streaked with a bit of grey, was slicked back. Beneath his nose was a carefully trimmed rectangular mustache. This too was tinged with lines of grey.
I was eager to begin our conversation with 1987. He shifted a bit in his chair and told me, “Things weren’t easy after 1987.” A silence befell the conversation. He added after a few moments, “our church has grown since then. We’ve established more churches.”
“How many?” I asked.
Though intrigued by the growth of the church, I was still curious about life after 1987. I tried a different tactic. “But, going back to 1987, why did that happen?”
“There were racial divisions. You could say it was the ‘natives’ and those of ‘Indian origin.’”
“And how did those divisions manifest during and after the coup?”
He asked for my pen and notepad and began to draw a diagram. “We were once the Methodist Church of Australasia,” he explained, “Now we are the Methodist Church of Fiji.” He wrote the letters MCIF and put them in a box. Beneath that box he drew a line which branched into five other boxes. Those were labeled, from left to right, as: Nadroga, Vodu, Lomo Bay, Lau, and Indian. “These are parts of Fiji, but the Indian Division encompasses all of Fiji.”
We were then interrupted for a few minutes. A wiry man came in with four or five hundred Fiji Dollars in cash and a stack of papers. As Reverend Reuben signed the papers and chatted to the man in Fiji Hindi, I sat staring at the boxes superimposed onto my notes. I didn’t know it at the time, but his reply would become the default response to my queries regarding the church. All the answers I was looking for could be found in a church history of divisions and amalgamation. These replies were suffused of a people once colonized: indelible histories of division and rule that present themselves at every opportunity. Those once governed by the fiat of inequity do not easily shrug off the past.
Two or three minutes later, the man left. Reverend Reuben turned back towards me and smiled a smile that could only mean, “Where were we again?”
“What was life like after 1987?” I asked, adding “for you?”
“My younger brother left Fiji. He went to Canada. But you have to remember, later there was a constitution, a good constitution, and were all booming. Then 2000 happened, but we were booming again after that.”
“Why did 1987 and 2000 happen?” I asked again, hoping persistence could topple unrelenting hope.
“It was racial over religion, not just religion. The parliamentarians, it was all racial with them. They had a religion and they used it to justify what they did.”
“Did you ever have any problems in the church?”
“No, never any problems.”
We finished our conversation with him telling me a story. In it, he came upon a Hindu man crying with a rope in his hands just across the street from where we sat. This man told the Reverend that he was going to kill himself, and that this was a last effort to find help. The Reverend told the man to accompany him to a party for a church elder. After the party, the man walked up to Reverend Reuben said he would put away his rope for a few days. Over the course of a few weeks the man was brought back from his desire to greet his own death. Each meeting between the two ended in an agreement for the man to put away his rope for just a few more days. Finally, the rope was put away for good, and he was formally welcomed into the church.
“We are a growing church,” the Reverend reminded me before I left.
When I later spoke with James Bhagwan, I mentioned Reverend Reuben’s reluctance to speak on certain matters of strife within the Methodist Church. He responded by telling me, “He’s the head of the Indian Division. He is not only the leader of the community, he has an important role to play within the structure of the church. When you’re talking about leadership you’re always talking about power balance and your relationship with those in power.”
Bhagwan, however, was willing to discuss more than what those in leadership could not. “Perhaps for some who have much to lose and much to gain,” he said, “maintaining harmony is very important because that’s where power is coming from. But for those who find speaking truth to power more important, they’ll focus on not glossing over the problems.”
When I later mentioned this to Reverend Reuben, he told me that Bhagwan and his family were relatively new to church leadership. “I’ve been here for twenty-four years,” he said, “We have to rise up and overcome our problems.”
There had to be some middle ground between ignoring the past and embracing it to the exclusion of moving forward. In my conversations with Bhagwan, I tried to be unrelenting in my questioning on what some of the contemporary problems were in the church.
“The challenge for us always has been how are we accepted by the church,” he said. “Unfortunately, the reality is that the gospel takes a secondary place to traditional or cultural issues. So while theologically they say ‘yes we are brothers,’ but we’re not brothers, you know? So, the challenge has always been, how do we, as Indo-Fijians, find connections.”
But it can be very difficult to find connections when differences seem to be omnipresent. I found one example in a conversation with Anand Reuben, the senior circuit steward of the Indian Division. The senior circuit steward is the highest lay position in the division, and Reuben (Immanuel Reuben and Anand Reuben are cousins) handles many of the division’s administrative tasks.
After the 7:30 service, we sat down to talk about the Indian Division. “Land,” he began, “is sometimes a problem.” We were seated on a couch in the Sunday school attached to Dudley Church. Over a breakfast of tea, toast, jam, and beans on a low table meant for the under-ten set, he told me of the land issues facing the church.
Land ownership in Fiji is a relic of British rule. In the early twentieth-century, both the Fijian chiefs and the British were aghast at rising Indian land purchases. In response, the government froze all land allocations. To this day, only 10 percent of land in Fiji can be purchased on the open market. The vast majority is Native Land — property that can be leased, but never sold.
Fears about property ownership were a part of the 1987 and 2000 coups. Sugar remains a chief export and nearly all cane cultivators are Indian. They lease their land from Fijian villages. There is a fear that if Indians ever gained power, they would use it to buy the land they till.
The Indian Division is the largest landowner in the Methodist Church. While the Fijian divisions did not purchase their church land as it was usually leased or bequeathed upon them by village chiefs, the Indian Division purchased their land in order to set up discrete places for Indians to worship.
“Sometimes they try to take our land,” Reuben said bluntly. As we ate our breakfast, he explained to me that church hierarchy was questioning the ownership of the division’s property near the city of Ba on Viti Levu’s northwest coast. The land had been acquired during the early days of the Methodist mission. The issue at stake was whether the Indian Division could prove its title. If not, the Church would assume that the land was meant for the entire church, rather than the Indian Division. From there, they would take it.
Land, race, ethnicity, power, politics. The Indian Division of the Methodist Church seemed to me to reflect all the divisions that could take root in a society built on the separation of people. I had hoped that this wasn’t the case. I had hoped to find from each parishioner proof of something larger, something that could rise above the crude lines of ethnic nationalism. I wasn’t wrong.
Recall: the 7:30 contemporary worship service at Dudley Memorial Church had 41 people in attendance — Fijians, Rotumans, Polynesians, and Indians.
“The Indian Division is the most multiracial division in the Methodist Church,” Bhagwan told me. “At least 50 percent of our members are not Indo-Fijian. If you come to Dudley you’ll see that the majority are non-Indo-Fijian, or mixed. There are people looking for a multiracial place to worship. Some indigenous iTaukei [Fijian for native inhabitant] don’t like the vanua [national] style the church is incorporating sometimes, it’s too much culture over the gospel kind of thing. So they come out to our English services. Or people who speak English at home, they come to our services.
“We are the multiracial division of the church, which sometimes irks the head office because we’re supposed to focus on the Indian community. Because being multi-racial, we get a lot of moderates coming into the church. And so, that I think there is a dynamic within the church with the Indian division engaging in a multiracial area.”
I couldn’t have predicted this before stepping foot into Fiji. I couldn’t have predicted this even after stepping foot into Fiji. I often felt invisible when walking through Suva. When watching interactions between ethnic Fijians and white tourists, I thought I could see a certain “welcome to our country” in the Fijian warm greetings, smiles, and small-talk. This was the type of behavior that led to reviews on travel websites and blurbs in magazines exclaiming that they sure are friendly, aren’t they! That they never included the Indian populations — the Indians can be a bit brusque, though. With the snap judgments of a traveler not knowing the day-to-day life of the resident, I assumed that the Indians and the Fijians wanted nothing to do with each other. My mind had cast the country as the 1881 census had done: European, Indian, and Fijian. But, I suppose there has always been that group at the margins. The group that chose to mix.
“We’re trying to stay true to the mission,” Bhagwan continued, “but we’re also trying to embrace this thing because the whole idea of Methodists as an alternative community from John Wesley’s time. That’s the idea, this was an English society in the eighteenth century where class distinction didn’t matter, although they did not oppose class structure as a whole but within that church it didn’t matter. So this gives that space because in the traditional divisions [of the church], the structure is there, but in this one, whoever you are, there’s no social structure. Someone who is low-caste can hold a high position in the church.
“We also have Bhajan Mandis [Indic communal songs of praise]. And we have some very interesting Bhajan Mandis, which are ethnic iTaukei, ethnic Fijians, who sing [in Hindi] and play the traditional Indian instruments. Those are people who have been raised in and among Indo-Fijian communities. They speak Hindi, some of them even write in Hindi, which is better than me.
“In the last few years in our annual meetings, the question has arisen of what kind of name the division should take. The country, in the current situation, the schools have had to remove all racial connotations. So, Indian College changed its name to Jai Narayan College. So we’ve been looking at what name we could give that could reflect the legacy of the church to the Indo-Fijians, but to recognize that it is more than that now. So some of the things that have come up are Ekta, the Unity Division. Those words don’t match with the term division — you can’t have something called the ‘Unity Division.’”
I wanted to disagree. It was only a division where one could come together as a group. It was only in a group where John Wesley’s three rules for a United Society could be fulfilled. “First: by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind . . . Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men . . . [and] Thirdly: by attending upon all the ordinances of God.”
Bhagwan tried to sum it all up for me: “Because for so long the races have been kept apart these are areas of convergence where the different ethnic groups can intermingle because they have something in common, and that’s their faith.”
The day before I left Fiji to return to the United States I paid a visit to the Indian Division’s Bethany Church in Nadi. Nadi is the tourist capital of Fiji, and unlike the actual capital, houses the country’s only international airport. I had missed the morning contemporary worship, so unlike my visit to Suva’s English-language multiracial service, I would be sitting in on a Hindi service geared towards the town’s Indian population. While the English-language services in Suva showed me the possibility of transcending racial and ethnic boundaries in a country defined by them, I was hoping to understand in the Hindi service why Indians chose to attend.
I entered the chapel and this time sat in the front row. The Bethany Church building was two stories, the first reserved for what seemed to be offices, the Sunday school, and a meeting space. The second floor was open and airy — sets of five doors flanked on each side by two windows on the left and right walls. Each door was set beneath a rounded triangle filled with three triangular stained glass windows of green, magenta, and yellow. In the chancel were five windows set underneath similar stained glass. In front of them were bright colorful curtains: blue, purple, red, and white to one side, a cross in the middle, and white, red, purple, and blue to the right. In front of this was a large single-mast ship without a sail.
Tua, a church elder, was seated in the front row. She was short, with cropped curly hair, a white skirt, and a white shirt with black polka dots. Her bible sat atop her lap. After an introduction, we exchanged small talk about myself: where I’m from, why I’m visiting their church, whether the publication I’m writing for is famous or not.
At a pause in our conversation, I asked her what her ethnic background is.
“I’m Polynesian — Rotuman,” she replied.
“Are there a lot of Polynesians in the Indian Division?”
“Well, we have Polynesians, Fijians, Rotumans, and how should I call it?”
“The half?” I said tentatively.
“Yes, the half-half: half-European, half-Fijian. The half-half, our Indian brothers and sisters, the Kiribas — one or two others from other Pacific Islands. I don’t know how they come in, but, we have people from all over in our English language services.”
I wasn’t there for the English language service. The Hindi-language service, I learned, catered to a smattering of those who eschewed English when speaking to God. Tua left soon after our conversation came to a close — her grandson needed some papers filled out for his school enrollment. I was left alone to walk back and forth through the church’s aisles for some time.
The first two to arrive were Rachel and her grandson. Rachel had been in the church for over forty years. She changed her name after her baptism. She was wearing a lavender sari, and her grey hair, streaked with black, was tied into a single braid, put to her right.
I asked her why she joined the church and stayed in it after all these years. She closed her eyes. In a quiet Hindi, she told me her husband had a large open sore on his leg and could no longer work. They had gone to doctors and Hindu priests. Neither medicine nor ritual could close his sore. Then, she invited a pastor to her home and they all prayed. Within three days, the sore had healed. She was baptized as Rachel, and has been attending this church ever since. A living tribute to being healed.
I asked her grandson if he liked the church. He was a sprightly eighteen-year-old and had just finished up his studies. “My parents and I go to another church next to the Wishbone Chicken. My grandmother got lonely coming here, so I come with her. I like it.”
Thirteen people showed up to the service — all Indian. One baby boy, four men, and eight women. The pastor, Johnny Naidu, was halting in his speech. His voice could barely be heard past the second pew, even though he set up his lectern right in front of the first. But, when he began, he was lifted from within. He yelled fast, his voice cracked, and he repeated himself at every turn. His hand stretched over the parishioners as he yelled to the Heavenly Father to absolve us of our sins — “Hamko abhishek karo, pita paremeshwar!”. He seemed to be a man most comfortable speaking about God through God. I had never before conceptualized what feeling the holy spirit could look like, but my lesson was here.
After services ended, I walked up to the pastor and shook his hand. His hairline was receding and he had a small bushy mustache. He was wearing a collared shirt patterned in diamonds of black, grey, and white. Every one of his fingernails had a layer of black underneath. Without any small talk, we began to talk about the church.
“I’m a healer,” he told me, “God has given me a chance to heal people. I say prayers and heal people. I’ve only been a Christian a short time, five years. For thirteen years I had problems and went to temples and priests for Hindu prayer. Reverend Reuben and Tua, and Tua’s husband, came to me and fixed everything. My wife, she was sick, she had an evil spirit. Three days and she was fixed.
“I now know the one true living God,” his voice began to shake, “We — Hindus — say that there are three billion gods, and we don’t know all their names. But I know the one true living God.”
Before I left, I turned back to my stock question one last time. “And how are things with the Fijians?”
“Things are good. The Fijians, they mixed up religion and culture. They mix things up.”
“And do you like the church?” I ask.
“I like this church. They say we don’t have the Holy Spirit, but I don’t know what they mean. We take out demons. We do all that. I don’t know what they mean. I like this church.”
I sought to understand how all those listening to the psalm that opened my first church service could ever cast aside the burdens of history. The answers I found were those weighed down by layers of time and place: the paradox of a desire to worship in a separate community not encumbered by division, the need to find healing when no one else could. I want to say that there is a theological concept that can encompass what I found, but it’s difficult to comprehend all the reasons why people close their eyes and clasp their eyes in prayer.
Grace comes to mind, although I understand only pieces of its meaning. The religion in which I grew up features little of it. Ritual, judgment, personal gods — these are all readily available to me. But in the weeks I spent with the Indian Division, and in the years I’ve spent thinking about it, I have come to learn small parts of an unfamiliar worship. I now know that there can be a certain joy in an unwavering belief in Christ. We are all sinners, and the love of Christ will absolve us of our worst deeds. The universalism of this belief is a comfort: all, regardless of anything, can be saved when we cast our burdens unto the body of Christ.
At the same time, the need to be saved in the first place is something framed only by sorrow. As Jesus was led to his crucifixion wearing a crown of thorns, he was taunted, humiliated, and flogged. He must have felt such despair at our cruelty. “And at the ninth hour,” it is written, “Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Which is, being interpreted, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
There may be one thing that defines us as human. It must be our ability to hold two contradicting thoughts in our heads with perfect unity. This may even be something handed down to us by our Creator. Perhaps this is grace: universal fellowship and depthless sorrow, right there, side by side.