Coping with COVID-19: Ilaisaane Pongi

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As part of our ongoing series, we speak with Canterbury Balwyn Road Uniting Church Elder Ilaisaane Pongi.

How have the lockdowns affected your family, church life and ministries?

From a personal point of view, family activities had to be re-programmed. Being unable to visit my immediate families, particularly my young grandchildren and my 92-year-old aunt in the nursing home, initially saddened me. Pre-paid overseas travel had to be cancelled. However, times of crisis have also been opportunities for change, with the onus on us to choose the way we respond.

On the church-front, cancelling some of our major church activities planned for 2020, such as our Easter Camp and our hosting the UCA Tongan National Conference Youth and Second-Gen Youth Camp in July, meant a re-prioritising of all our activities to suit the current circumstances.

How have you responded?

We have relied more on technologies to keep us connected. This meant a quick learning curve for the not-so-tech-savvy. Amongst my three immediate family households, we set up an online Family Prayer Group Chat where we meet to update ourselves daily and to conduct family prayers with each household taking turns to lead.

Our church set up an Emergency Task Force to re-prioritise, coordinate and consolidate the church activities. Two initiatives, namely the “Good Samaritan Pack” and the “Blessings Box”, were established with voluntary monetary contributions and consumer goods donations to help needy families.

Church meetings are now conducted via Zoom, ranging from our Council, Emergency Task Force, Elders, Zone Meetings, Women’s, Men’s Bible Studies, Youth, Young Adults and Sunday School so it is a full-on program, with particularly good attendance and active participation. The church also has a Chat Page to provide information on meetings and COVID-19 updates. The same page also hosts the Daily Devotions of the TNC in the Tongan language, written by UCA Tongan Ministers in Australia.

Our Sunday Services and Wednesday evening services are live-streamed via Facebook. The Wednesday services are held in the Tongan language and some Tongan UCA ministers in Sydney and Melbourne have led those. In a way, there are more interactions and connectedness with our wider Tongan church communities at lockdown than previously.

Are there particular challenges to the Tongan community during this period?

Within our own church, there are bound to be financial challenges, with possibly declining contributions to the church coffers because of the negative economic impact on members’ labour force participation.

Many of us keep close ties with families back in the islands. The loss of a loved one there can be stressful when we are unable to travel overseas. As a consolation, some family events are being live-streamed as part of this family inter-connectedness, which can help in the healing process, too.

I am aware that in Australia, there are some Tongan temporary workers (fruit pickers, for example) and visitors that are unable to return home due to the border closures. Some socio-economic costs for their cost-of-living expenses during the waiting period can become a financial burden on them and their sponsors.

Have there been any positives to come out of this?

One positive impact is that the community spirit has been strengthened. There has been an elevated feeling that we have more of a responsibility to check on each other, to pray for each other and to care for each other. Maintaining this connectedness makes us feel closer even from a “distance” and that we are all in this together and no one is being left behind. So often, we have taken for granted the value of our daily human interactions, but it is not until such times as the lockdown that we have come to realise their importance when trying to manage them remotely.

In this testing time, do you have a personal message or faith reflection you would like to share?

I find that going through this unprecedented event has given me ample opportunity for deep reflection on my life. It has drawn me to deepen my faith in Christ and to spend more time reading His word and to strengthen my own personal relationship with God and others. Isaiah 41:10 has given me words of comfort during these challenging times:

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;  I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”.

Even when I do not understand what is going on with this pandemic, thank you Lord for giving me the strength and the assurance not to fear, as you are always with us.

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