Prays Together: New Pastor from Tonga Feels Right ‘at Home’ at Methodist Church
By Jim Newman
Several months ago, the United Methodist Church appointed a new pastor to minister in their two churches here in Exeter and Lindsay. When I heard the news, I was eager to meet him so I could welcome him to Exeter and begin to get to know him. When I heard he was from Tonga, I must confess that I had no idea where Tonga is located.
When I finally had the privilege of meeting “pastor Vai,” as his parishioners in the two congregations call him, I was a bit embarrassed by how poor my geography was, but I was fascinated by and drawn to this new pastor in town. His deep humility, love for people and desire to serve God were so clearly evident when I met with him. His faith and trust in God were refreshing.
In case you’re wondering, Tonga is a small, independent island nation in the south Pacific. It consists of some 150 small islands with a population of about 100,000. It is a part of a grouping of islands referred to as Polynesia. Vai was born in Tonga, but some of his growing up years and education took place on the nearby islands of American Samoa and Fiji.
Vai, whose full name is Vaitafa Heimoana, told me that coming to the small communities of Exeter and Lindsay reminded him of being back home because of the surrounding countryside and all the agriculture. He also has felt very much “at home” here.
One rather interesting thing he shared with me was in regard to his last name. In Tonga names have a lot of special meaning. His last name, “Heimoana,” means “lost at sea” in his language and it honors the memory his grandfather who was lost at sea in a fishing boat when a major storm hit.
So how did Vai get from Tonga all the way to Exeter, California, a distance of over 5,000 miles? It was a journey that actually began when he was still in his mother’s womb! He is the third of several children but his parents dedicated him to the Lord and prayed that he would become a pastor someday. They didn’t tell Vai this until he was 19 years old and working at a very good job on one of the other islands. His response to them was… he would do it! He would go to school and train to become a pastor.
While in seminary in Tonga he met his wife to be, Manuopea. They were married after graduation and in 2011 their son, Taumata, was born. They didn’t have much income in those days, but the Lord has always provided for them. The old hymn, “What a Friend we have in Jesus” was a real encouragement to them. They have learned to trust the Lord and are deeply committed to following Him wherever He may lead them.
A part of his vision for ministry is to see the church grow by removing the boundaries which so often exist between the old and the young. He hopes to do that by recruiting the younger generation to help in the church through taking part in the worship service from time to time. “The church needs to welcome the children,” he said.
Vai enjoys visiting the parishioners in his churches and has scheduled time each week for doing that. Even though some of them may not be able to get out to church, he can bring the church to them. As a part of his visiting with them he reads from the psalms, prays and also serves communion to them.
I look forward to getting to know Vai better. I hope you will take the time to meet him and welcome him to our community, too! You’ll be glad you did!
Jim Newman is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Exeter. He may be reached by calling 559-592-2367 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Prays Together is a rotating column between the pastors of the First Presbyterian Church of Exeter, Church of Christ of Exeter, Nazarene Church of Exeter, Church of God of Exeter, the New Life Assembly of God and Rocky Hill Community Church as well as the Lemon Cove Presbyterian Church.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.