Cultural, religious foundations meld
By Rich Vosepka
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH It's 6,000 miles away from the cluster of Pacific islands where they originated, but Utah's Tongans now have their own church.
For 20 years, members of the Church of Tonga met in makeshift chapels in Salt Lake City to pray, sing hymns and worship.
Now the former Calvary Baptist Church south of downtown is the flock's first permanent home in North America.
Their voices filled the vaulted ceiling recently as more than 100 people celebrated the opening of the new church.
One might wonder, what would lure Tongans from their tropical islands to arid, landlocked Utah?
It's the state's cultural climate that sustains Mata Finau, minority affairs liaison for the Salt Lake City mayor's office. His family arrived here in 1970.
"The environment celebrates the unity of families," Finau said.
Tongan immigration to Utah began in the 1970s, encouraged by Mormon missionaries on the islands. It continued as Tongans recognized the economic and educational opportunities available in Utah.
There are more than 15,000 Pacific Islanders living in Utah. Two percent of Salt Lake City's population is Pacific Islander. Many of them are followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But the Church of Tonga is a faith native to the islands, which are about two-thirds of the way from Hawai'i to New Zealand. The faith is Christian, but also uniquely Tongan.
Toa Lehopoame, president of the church, traveled from Tonga to Salt Lake City to offer the opening service. His ministerial style differs considerably from the staid cadences of the president of the Mormon church.
Lehopoame punctuates his rising shouts by chopping his hand down onto the pulpit. It's all in Tongan, but one gesture transcends translation: He points to the ground, speaking in a foreboding tone, then raises his voice and points skyward. At one point he weeps, then removes his glasses to dry his eyes. The congregation sings in a strong, clear voice.
"Basically, it's a prayer for the new chapel. He's expressing his appreciation for the dedication of the membership," explained Phil Uipi, who is the Church of Tonga's attorney.
Uipi, who helped broker the deal that got the Church of Tonga its permanent home, is Mormon. He points out several leaders from other faiths who were attending the service.
"You need to understand, we are in different congregations, churches, but we were raised to be cousins, brothers," said Uipi, a former state lawmaker.
Uipi, like many people in the pews, wears a ta'ovala, a woven garment fastened around the waist. It's part of traditional formal dress in Tonga. Uipi wears his as part of a dark business suit.
The church will give younger Tongans in Utah a cultural foundation, Finau said.
"They don't have a full grasp of what being Tongan is like," he said.