By Andrew Humphries
When Rev Salesi Faupula talks about the benefits of multiculturalism within the Uniting Church, he can back it up through his own life story.
And that story will be an important part of what informs his work as Moderator when he steps into the role in 18 months.
Salesi was confirmed as the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s next Moderator at last month’s Synod 2023, and will take over from Rev David Fotheringham from 2025-28.
Until then, he will be Moderator-elect as he continues in his role as Minister at the Canterbury Balwyn Road Uniting Church.
In a sense, Salesi’s multicultural journey to Moderator began as a small child in the Northern Territory.
Born in Tonga, Salesi’s family moved to Australia when he was a baby and he spent his first 10 years in the Yirrkala Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory, where his father was a Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga Minister.
From there the family moved to Sydney, a time in which Salesi wrestled with his identity, as Tongan born but living in middle class, predominantly white Australia.
“I didn’t like to be in school and became very sensitive to what I believed was racism, and can remember getting myself into a number of fights,” he recalled in an earlier interview with Crosslight magazine.
Salesi also remembers other instances of rebellion as he grappled with his identity.
“Religion and church were part of my father’s domain, so I would come to church, but I would sit on the fence outside,” he says.
“Being known as a Minister’s kid, I felt, was negative and I tried to distance myself from anyone knowing my father was a Minister.”
It was a move back to Tonga, where a college place was arranged for him, that proved to be a turning point for Salesi.
“In Tonga, they are a deeply religious people, so on a Sunday everything stops and everyone goes to church, and I think I came back with this re-found faith,” he says.
Salesi’s first placement as a Minister was in Sydney, before his name came up five years later in a national search for someone who could speak Tongan to be Minister at Canterbury Balwyn Road.
He is, he admits, a “colourful mess” when asked how he would describe himself: Tongan-born, Australian-raised and with a deep connection to indigenous Australians.
Such a background will, he says, inform much of what he brings to the role of Moderator.
“I have worked in multicultural ministry and that is a passion of mine, because of my own sense of journey,” Salesi says.
“The inclusivity and diversity of the Uniting Church is something that I have always found heartening but also challenging.
“In 1985 the Church declared itself to be a multicultural church and that journey continues in sometimes challenging waters.
“The gift I would bring is my own deeper awareness of diversity and inclusivity, and a sense of unity.
“My own story is tied up in all of this, and in the search for identity that I had.”
Salesi says a deep sense of duty was his companion as he considered nominating for the Moderator’s role.
“I just couldn’t get away from the vows that I made at ordination, and they were that I would make myself available and commit myself to serving God,” he says.
“So saying yes to the Moderator-elect nomination was about honouring those vows and fulfilling a sense of duty.
“I wrestled with the decision at times, but really I just couldn’t say no.”
The Moderator-elect Nominating Committee put Salesi’s name forward to Synod 2023, saying he possessed the necessary attributes required by a Moderator.
“Salesi has the skills to assist and encourage the fulfilment of mission and witness in the Church, and the experience to be able to preside over the meetings of Synod and its Standing Committee,” the report said.
“He has the personal confidence and humble insight to be able to speak on public issues on behalf of the Church in Victoria and Tasmania, and will be able to offer general and pastoral leadership to the ministers and people within the Synod bounds.”
As he reflects on what lies ahead, Salesi turns to the memory of his father, and the role he played in his son’s faith journey.
“My father never forced or imposed anything religious on me,” he says.
“I think his hope was, and it is the same with my wife and I, it is just that our children have a relationship with God, and that’s it.
“I was involved in church and it wasn’t about seeking my father’s approval, but it was something we shared.
“But when he died and I had no one to turn to for confidence it transferred to God, and that relationship with God really deepened and then I realised there was a calling.”
That calling, and faith journey, will take another step forward in mid-2025 when Salesi becomes the spiritual head of the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.
“If God is calling then I have to be open to it,” he says.