The first Timothy from the first Tongan-American Disciples church has become the first ordained pastor of Tongan heritage in the Disciples. This summer, Rev. Tevita Uesi celebrated his ordination in his home church in Utah.
There are not many Disciples congregations in Utah, but the First Tongan Christian Church, co-located with Granger Community Christian Church in the Salt Lake City area, stands out. It is the only Disciples congregation with roots in the island nation of Tonga, located in the southern Pacific Ocean. With a population of about 100,000 who live on 36 of 169 islands scattered along a 500 mile stretch, the language and culture of the kingdom is a tightly woven tapestry in which Christianity and state are inextricably connected.
“Faith is a part of Tongan society,” said Uesi. “There is no separation. Every meeting starts with prayer and a song of faith, even in the government.” He said the missionaries that brought Wesleyan Christianity to the islands taught universal songs of faith that even those from the Mormon and Catholic communities share. In fact, the king and queen of Tonga are Wesleyans and the national flag features a cross.
Uesi is a second-generation Tongan, born and raised in the U.S., but he has a strong sense of his Tongan identity. This is what drew him to ministry.
He said his call came when the regional minister at the time, Rev. Dr. Jose Morales, approached him about attending seminary. Uesi graduated from Claremont Theological Seminary in spring of 2018.
“I saw a need in my community for competent leadership to help both generations. The first generation experiences difficulties navigating in the culture of the United States. They need support. The second generation needs to recognize the value of our Tongan roots,” he said.
Uesi did not go immediately into ministry. His first career as an adult was as a middle school music teacher.
“I taught for three years outside Salt Lake and taught those kids the Tongan culture, clothing and all, that first year. By the second year, all the kids wanted to be in the band,” he smiles.
Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson has had a front row seat to seeing Uesi grow in the faith as pastor of Granger Community Christian Church.
“Tevita has a strong commitment to family and they are close-knit. His two brothers and three sisters are all active at the church. His parents, Silia and Pastor Heamoni Uesi, have set a vivid example of love and service to the First Tongan Christian Church and Granger Community Christian Church faith families. Their openness to community extends to the wider ecumenical/interfaith church in the Salt Lake area. Watching Tevita as he grows and lives into his calling, has been a joy. I am grateful for the opportunity to see how God’s design of Tevita’s destiny will unfold,” she said.