Melbourne’s winter weather presented a formidable challenge for a group of young Tongan students visiting the synod CBD offices on Thursday.
Dressed in scarves and large jackets, the delegation of 17 students and four staff members from Queen Salote College shared stories over a light lunch with moderator Rev Sharon Hollis, intercultural unit director Rev Swee Ann Koh and three Uniting Church Tongan ministers.
The Tongan students will be in Melbourne for the next three weeks as part of a cultural exchange program with Methodist Ladies College (MLC).
Queen Salote College student Elizabeth Cocker said she was unprepared for the chilly weather that awaited her when her plane touched down on Saturday night.
“I’ve been here a couple of times but not in this weather – it’s too cold for me!” she said.
The climate is not the only thing to adjust to.
Elizabeth observed that life in Melbourne moves at a faster pace compared to the more community-oriented lifestyle in Tonga.
“I think Melbourne has too much technology and not enough family time,” she said.
“Everyone’s busy so there’s not enough time to spend time with your family.”
Elizabeth, who is related to a number of ministers in the VicTas synod, plans to return to Melbourne and study at MLC next year so that she can attend an Australian university. Her sister is currently a Year 12 student at MLC.
Queen Salote College, a Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga all-girls school, is a sister school to Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne.
MLC and Tonga share a relationship that dates back to the 1920s.
Princess Fusibala Tabau, the half-sister of the late Queen Salote of Tonga, was a student at MLC and Queen Salote visited the school in 1953 to open the Junior School. Queen Nanasipau’u, the wife of the current King of Tonga, was also educated at MLC in the late 1960s.
Moderator Sharon Hollis officially welcomed the Queen Salote College students and said Australians have much to learn from their Tongan brothers and sisters.
“You’re doing us a great honour by coming. You bring a great gift in the way you’re helping form and shape the girls and families you are interacting with,” Ms Hollis said.
“It really nurtures what we’re tying to build in this state – a diverse and open place where people from many cultures feel welcome.
“I hope while you’re here, you get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in a multicultural, diverse city like Melbourne.”
Ms Hollis acknowledged the Tongan community’s contributions to the Uniting Church.
Rev Jason Kioa, the former moderator of the VicTas synod and the first Pacific Islander to lead an Australian church body, was one of three Tongan ministers present at the lunch.
“We’ve been very enriched as a synod by the ministry offered by our Tongan ministers and congregations,” Ms Hollis said.
“The Tongan congregation at Canterbury will be leading the singing at Synod in a couple of weeks, so we’re all looking forward to that.”
During the gift exchange ceremony, Ms Hollis presented the Queen Salote College’s principal, Rev Dr Asinate Samate, with a copy of Welcome to Country by Aboriginal elder Aunty Joy Murphy.
“I honour you too as traditional owners of your country, as the First Peoples of Tonga,” Ms Hollis said.
MLC teacher Jo Waterhouse said the visit was particularly noteworthy as it is the 20th anniversary of the exchange program.
“We’ll be having a celebratory church service on Sunday at Canterbury Uniting Church,” Ms Waterhouse said.
“A lot of the Tongan community will come to that, as long as people with past connections with MLC and connections between the two schools.”
A group of Year 9 and 10 students from MLC will travel to Tonga for two weeks in July next year, where they will renew friendships with the girls from Queen Salote College.