When the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma reflects 50 years from now on its achievements, the name Tuikilakila Waqairatu will surely appear. Called from his flock before his term as President ended, this son of Moala Island sought to make radical – even revolutionary – changes to an institution which has been part of Fiji’s history since 1835. Waqairatu sought to return the church to its former position as a voice of reason, an instrument of tolerance and reconciliation, a vehicle for unity. For many observers this was a necessary change after the church became embroiled in ethnonationalist politics after the 1987 coup, dug itself into further trouble in the upheaval of 2000 and clashed openly with the state in 2006.
From the day of his induction as Methodist President, Waqairatu stressed three areas on which he wanted the church to focus: Reading the Bible, institutional change, and moderation – especially in yaqona (kava) consumption and eating. Former medical doctor turned cleric Reverend Dr Mosese Salusalu says he was inspired by Waqairatu’s vision. “Yaqona drinking was a major part of my life – I enjoyed the whole experience,” Rev Dr Salusalu said. “But the late president told me that to be a better Christian it was important to read and reflect on God’s word (the Bible) more regularly.
“He said yaqona drinking should be done in moderation, that as italatala (ministers) we should be more disciplined with time and for me that was a major change in my lifestyle but it was the right thing to do.” Yaqona drinking is a central theme in Methodist functions either as a cultural or social tool. And in this most conservative of institutions Waqairatu dared suggest that it was time to scale back the time spent on consumption to allow for more theology and social justice activities. The backlash was immediate with ministers challenging the theological basis of the yaqona ban and some suggesting that such a rule impinged on their human rights.
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