Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ocean stewards

Published in the Fiji Times, "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan," Wednesday, July 28, 2010

As a talatala (minister of religion), I often find myself in interesting situations in the performance of my spiritual duties.

Case in point: last Saturday's Business House Outrigger Canoe Regatta. According to the Fiji Outrigger website, ‘The Bring it on Business House Regattas offer a great opportunity for businesses to get their staff out of the office and into a competitive team."

Fiji Outrigger has been running these annual events since 2004 as a way to promote the positive benefits to both individuals and business of having fit, healthy and united staff.

The chief guest for the occasion was Colin Philp, a veteran (25 years) outrigger paddler and more recently the Sail Master for the Uto Ni Yalo. In fact, while Colin was the one forced to make the speech, the entire crew of the Uto ni Yalo and the vaka (double-hulled sailing canoe) itself were the stars for the morning, with the crew performing the bole (challenge) and the Uto ni Yalo receiving visitors whose interest had been piqued by the reports filed by Colin and the crew during their memorable voyage covering 7000 nautical miles, three months and seven Pacific island nations, as well as the current documentary series of the voyage on Mai TV.

I was invited to lead the devotion and offer a prayer seeking God's blessings on the day's events, the paddlers and, of course, the canoes. However this was not your ordinary turn up to the USP Foreshore, say a masu (prayer), and head home again. The organisers thought it would be interesting if "the Padre" would arrive with the chief guest(s).

It made sense to me as I consider myself the unofficial chaplain of the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, having lead the devotions at the launching of the vaka , as well as at the beginning of their epic journey.

And so early Saturday morning, I found myself wearing my Fiji Islands Voyaging Society uniform and being ferried out to the Uto Ni Yalo as she lay anchored in Lami's Bay of Islands, with skipper Jonathan Smith.

As the early morning sun broke through the clouds and the crew prepared to hoist anchor to sail to Suva Point, I was honoured to witness and participate in an intimate and deeply spiritual moment as the crew huddled together, as they have done each time before setting sail, to seek God's blessings on their voyage.

It was wonderful to witness the camaraderie of the crew, having spent a quarter of the year together, who knew each other and their tasks so well. The usual Fiji humour and respondent laughter floated over the waters as we moved out towards our destination. As we made our way to the USP Foreshore, I was able to chat with Colin and Jonathan (a childhood friend from Lautoka) and seek a reflection from them on their experience.

The immediate response was that they were still trying to settle in to life on land after such a long time away.

We approached and berthed at the USP jetty and settled into our roles for the morning. It was a beautiful start to the day.

After the opening ceremony and a delicious breakfast, I found myself aboard the vaka once again, only this time it was to sail out further into the harbour as the tide was quickly going out.

Only when the anchor had been dropped did I realise that I would now be onboard until the tide turned or a passing boat offered me a ride to shore!

With nothing to do but wait for the tide to turn, the crew put up the awning and decided to sevusevu the chief guest (Colin) for his speech and the talatala for not preaching for too long.

The comments were in jest but the opportunity to spend time sitting on the Uto Ni Yalo with the waves lapping on the hull as the crew played their guitars and Tahitian ukulele and sang songs as they had done during their journey was a blessing.

As the kava flowed and the crew took turns telling me stories of their experience, the jokes that they had shared, I was offered a glimpse into the life-changing event these men and women had experience.

Crew member Carson Young shared with me the spiritual experience of sitting in silence and listening to the ocean at night with stars overhead or early morning with the sun rising.

We talked about how the ancestors of almost every group of people who call Fiji home arrived here by some sort of ocean-going vessel. We shared our thoughts of bringing swimming, outrigger paddling, sailing and other marine activities out of the sub-culture and making it a prominent part of Fiji-Island culture.

Then the kava finished, a boat was available to take me back to shore as the Uto Ni Yalo made its way back to Lami and the unexpected adventure came to an end. The thought of the ocean, the experience of the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo remained in my mind as I drove home.

However, I was in for a shock on my return home as I checked my emails. Some of the crew had been sharing with me about their sadness when they approached Suva and saw the number of floating plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers in the harbour.

I opened an email to read about "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or "trash vortex", with an estimated 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region.

The "Patch" is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris - in effect the world's largest rubbish dump - is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting "soup" stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

It is refered to as a ‘soup' rather than an ‘island' by some because instead of a big mass of floating plastic bottles and trash, it is actually more like a plastic soup, constantly moving just below the surface of the water.

This is why there are no real pictures of the island and you can't see it on Google Earth, or in satellite images.

Without pictures of a so-called ‘trash island', people are less likely to believe in its existence and the media has no stimulating images or graphics to catch our attention with.

Each plastic bag, bottle, plate, container that is discarded into the sea, off seawalls or left on the shore to blow into the ocean or be taken out with the tide from our islands, most likely will find its way there.

The ocean is the source of life, for not just the creatures of the sea, but we who live off the sea. The ocean is what binds the Pacific Islands together - hence the name "Oceania". We are not just custodians of the land; we are also stewards of the ocean, our mother.

"Be still, stand in love, pay attention."

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

Story of courage

Published in the Fiji Times "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan" - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I have just received the plot for a new DVD that is about to be released. It is in stark contrast to the film that I wrote about last week, with themes of oppression, injustice and man's inhumanity to man (or in this case woman). This DVD has themes of hope and life. The name of this DVD is Maiinga. It is a true story.

The plot: Marama wants a baby. She is single and HIV-positive and her status is making it tricky to undergo IVF in New Zealand.

Then on a training course for AIDS ambassadors, Marama meets Tony from PNG. Also HIV-positive, he's lost a wife and two children to AIDS.

He tells Marama he will have a baby with her, despite knowing her for only a day. What follows is a stranger-than-fiction story of two HIV-positive people who overcome the odds to start a family and then fall in love.

It's a story of courage in the face of stigma and discrimination, and the grace and power of God and whakapapa (family/ancestral tree).

Speaking to Marama Pala shared the struggle of an HIV positive woman who yearns for motherhood:

"I'd been told by my doctors I could have a baby and I was really, really wanting to have a baby. We discussed it. We went to a doctor and discussed the complications around it and found that because we were on the same medication, we couldn't infect each other because the medication was going to knock off whatever virus would infect each other, so we could actually have a child naturally. And we did. When Maiinga was born, she came early and we had to have a caesarean section, but we were told we could have had natural birth. She was born and went on medication for six weeks. She's been regularly tested and she's come back negative. So it's a second chance for him (husband Tony) and a second chance for me."

'Maiinga' is produced by the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation to raise awareness and understanding of our people on the issues related to HIV and AIDS, and to advocate for better treatment, care and support for all people (and their families) who become HIV-positive. It will be launched shortly in Fiji.

Meanwhile, Maire Bopp Dupont, the founder and CEO of the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation (PIAF) will be in Suva this week and is to meet with representatives of faith based (religious) organisations in Suva this Thursday.

The forum is being facilitated by UNICEF Pacific as a follow on to consultation on November 20, 2009, - International World Day of Prayer.

Members of the faith based organisations in Fiji requested UNICEF to create a platform where possible collaborations to improve the quality of life of Pacific people could be discussed.

The convening of this forum comes as a similar multi-faith meeting on the eve of the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna has heard calls for faith communities to keep commitments they have made to promote universal access to HIV treatment, care, support and prevention.

"This has to do with a basic issue of justice, not at least gender justice," the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Reverend Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said in an address to the July 17 multi-faith conference at Vienna's Technical University.

The conference gathered more than 250 people, including leaders of religious groups, networks of people living with HIV and international organizations, under the theme, "Rights Here, Right Now: What's faith got to do with it?"

Leadership by faith communities in the struggle against HIV and AIDS, "doesn't come just like that", said Hany El Banna, the Egyptian-born founder and former president of Islamic Relief.

"It comes with responsibility."

Faith communities, he said, are able to mobilize people at the "grass roots", in mosques, churches, synagogues and temples.

"We shouldn't be afraid of religion," El Banna stated.

"We should be afraid of ignorance and a lack of knowledge."

Jan Beagle, the deputy director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, said faith communities can help bridge a "disconnect" between the scientific world and the world of culture, religion and communities.

"We are not asking religious leaders to hand out condoms, unless that is acceptable within your traditions, but to partner with us in approaches to HIV prevention education, health care and referral," she said.

World Council of Churches general secretary Tveit in his address said faith leaders need to exercise care in the way they use religious language and writings.

This means, "not only being accountable about what pieces of our faith texts we quote but how we use these text".

The multi-faith conference began with songs from the Zimbabwean Betseranai Choir, made up of about 20 people living with HIV, which uses music and songs to mobilise people in the struggle against AIDS.

The conference was organized by a multi-faith working group convened by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, an international network of churches and church-related organizations.

"The world expects people of faith to be working together, said Richard Fee, the alliance's chairperson.

"We have recognized that and it is time we started doing that."

If your faith community is interested in working with others on the issue of HIV and AIDS and you would like to send a representative to the forum on Thursday, please contact Donna Hoerder of UNICEF Pacific on 3300 439.

"Be Still, stand in love and pay attention."

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva.

This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan

Fiji Times, Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On Sunday evening I returned from a pastoral visitation to find my wife and mother watching a movie together. I sat down to do some work at the table and glanced up at the screen. It was a foreign language film and when I enquired as to the title of the movie I was told that the name of the film was, "The Stoning of Soraya M."

Intrigued by the title, I placed my work aside to watch; but not for long. Soon the images and the story unfolding had me feeling so uncomfortable that I turned to my work to distract me from what was taking place in the film.

By the end of the film I felt sick to my stomach, emotionally drained and stunned, because this film was based on a true story in which an innocent woman is falsely accused and stoned to death.

The film was adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 book of the same name based on a true story of one of the victims of stonings in modern Iran.

Stranded in a remote Iranian village, Sahebjam (the author) was approached by Zahra, a woman with a harrowing tale to tell about her niece, Soraya, and the bloody circumstances of her death the day before.

Soraya M.'s husband Ghorban-Ali was an ambitious man, prone to rage with a lust for power. He wanted a way out of his marriage in order to marry a 14-year-old girl but did not want to support two families or return Soraya's dowry. When Soraya began cooking for a friend's widowed husband, he found his excuse: abetted by village authorities, he accused his wife of adultery. She was taken away, buried up to her waist, and then stoned to death.

Zahra's story to Sahebjam is an attempt to expose the inhumanity of Sharia law. Her last and only hope for justice lies in the hands of the journalist, who must escape with the story - and his life - in order to communicate the violence to the world.

According to the Muslimah Media Watch website (a forum where Muslim women, can critique how their images appear in the media and popular culture), rather than just being a film that objectifies and misrepresents Muslim women, the movie is "powerful in its message; incredibly moving and is about extraordinary womanhood and moral courage in the face of injustice." The website goes on to say that the tragic story of Soraya to the world, is not a condemnation of Islam, but a condemnation of men who misinterpret the religion to institutionalize cultural patriarchy and misogyny (hatred of women).

According to a 2009 UN study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women in the light of religion and traditions, at the end of the first decade of this third millennium, many women across the world continue to suffer discrimination in their private and family lives and in relation to their status in society. Such discrimination, which is deeply rooted in the dominant culture of some countries, is largely based on or attributed to religion.

Fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, mixed with oppressive cultural practices continue to provide people such as Soraya M.'s husband with the freedom to treat women as property and objects rather than human beings deserving of dignity and respect. Religious and traditional extremism leads to the persistence of cultural stereotypes which are detrimental to women such as genital mutilation, marriage practices (child brides, consent to marriage, dowry polygamy) and "the preference of parents for male children which often manifests itself in neglect, deprivation or discriminatory treatment of girls to the detriment of their mental and physical health".

According to the report, extremism can be seen in the action of groups or, in some instances, of the State itself.

In Afghanistan, for example, discrimination against women has become institutionalized by the Taliban with the introduction of what is in fact a system of apartheid against women based on the Taliban's own interpretation of Islam: the exclusion of women from society, employment and schools, the obligation for women to wear the burqa in public and restrictions on travel.

Women are barred from society and consigned to an area where they enjoy neither citizenship nor rights and where their total submission to the all-powerful man in the name of Allah is the rule.

In other cases, official representatives of the religious hierarchy condemn abortion or the use of contraception, including where women are raped or exposed to rape in situations of armed conflict.

In some States, widows are subjected to inhuman rituals, which sometimes assume especially cruel forms. In India, for example, sati (widow burning), which was thought to have been discontinued or greatly restricted, is firmly rooted in beliefs. Although officially banned as long ago as 1829 and again in 1987, the practice is tolerated by the State, which turns a blind eye to the many rituals and rites which glorify it in different regions of India.

Still today, widows are viewed in some cultures as witches or sorceresses, shunned by the community and exposed to sexual exploitation by male members of their husband's family. They are in some instances forbidden to remarry. Such status clearly reflects the belief that women have no role outside marriage, a widow being defined by comparison with a wife.

Many Christian religious practices and persuasions agree on barring women's access to positions of responsibility such as the reservation of ordination to men. Exclusion from the priesthood also prevents women from assuming governing authority in the Church, and international or State law respects the internal law of religious communities. Although women have only in the past four decades been admitted to the pastoral ministry in some churches, there is still much dissent on women ministers taking on leadership roles.

The Methodist Church in Fiji only appointed its first woman Superintendent Minister last year, and the appointment of a woman as Bishop in the Church of England is currently a major issue of debate.

However, just as religion and culture can be misused to perpetrate discrimination against women, there are many scriptural references, traditional teachings and cultural practices which honour and empower women.

Stories, like that of Soraya M. that reach into our very souls and wrench us out of our comfort zones ensure that the cries of the oppressed are not only heard but felt. There are many more women and children whose voices remain unheard.

Be still, stand in love and pay attention.

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

“Modern-day Prophets”

Published in the Fiji Times, 6th July 2010 as "The Roles We Play" - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan

For the last few months and increasingly during last month, I was constantly asked about a certain “prophecy” regarding the end of Fiji as we know it on or about the 23rd of June at approximately 2.30pm.

Shaking hands with the congregation after church services I would be asked, “What do you think about this prophecy?”

In Bible Study meetings, “Padre, what about the prophecy?”

On Facebook, “Rev. don’t you think if this was a true prophecy, more of us would be ‘getting the message’?”

Well the 23rd of June came and went, and I am sure you are familiar with the outcome of this not-quite-mass hysteria.

However, on reflection, I realised that the role of prophets or perhaps the understanding of the word “prophesy” may be largely misunderstood. I offer my own understanding of these terms in today’s column.

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, prophets are “proclaimers,” referring to Hebrew word for prophet, nabi. In the Hebrew/Judaic understanding, the prophet was not merely a man or woman enlightened by God to foretell events, but more of a supernaturally enlightened herald sent by God to interpret and communicate the divine will and intent to the people of Israel.

While the prophet’s task may have included “foretelling,” which is prediction; this was part of a bigger task, “forth-telling” or “speaking out”. The prophet was tasked with maintaining an developing the knowledge of the Covenant (between the people of Israel and God), leading these “Chosen People” back to the terms of the Covenant when they strayed and gradually prepare the way for the new kingdom of God on earth to be inaugurated by the Messiah.

The common understanding of “prophecy” signifies the supernatural message of the prophet and more especially, from custom, the predictive element of the prophetic message.

The prophet generally displayed a sense of divine calling, intelligent (sometimes tough) decision-making, understanding, a sense of responsibility, persistence, organizational skills, credibility, technical skills, sociability and high levels of motivation. The prophetic gift rested upon the fundamental need for communication to take place between the Deity and the fallen family of humankind. God’s call to humanity to enter in communion with the Divine was revealed through the prophets as a call to righteousness and holiness.

In this regards what ever truth was spoken and whatever consequences were heralded (prophesied), were spoken in love. This included divine judgement or punishment through natural disasters such as drought or through military conquest by foreign powers. However along with these admonishments were also given messages of hope and restoration, again reflecting Divine love.

One of the more prominent messages of the prophets was a call for social justice. Key to this prophetic message was the understanding that there was a link between ritual and ethical standards, so that sacrifice, in the temple for example, without justice for the under-privileged members of society was worthless (Isaiah 1:17; Amos 4:1, 5:10; Jeremiah 7:5; Ezekiel 34). Righteousness, materialism and idolatry (serving other gods) also related to social justice but were often addressed in terms of fidelity to the Covenant between God and Israel.

The call to righteousness (seakah) and justice (mishpat) by the prophets is fulfilled by brotherly love and kindness (hessed) and holiness, which is defined by Isaiah as justice and mercy (Is 1:17). The prophetic call to holiness, while still associate with the issue of sacredness and purity in relation to humankind’s relationship to God, is achieved not merely through the rituals of the priests and temple but through ethical conduct.

When the prophets of Israel spoke it was understood that they were speaking the word of God: “Thus sayeth the Lord…” For Christians, the Christ embodied the Word of God in humanity.

So we find the prophetic words of Isaiah: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV) being echoed and lived out in the life and ministry of Christ: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

This paradigm shift of the combination of divine word and deed in Christ results in a new gospel imperative (command): prophetic action.

Such action defines the modern-day prophet such as Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the “rebel rouser for peace” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the 20th century. King’s concept of the prophetic role of the modern-day Church held that the churches must affirm that, “every human life is a reflection of divinity and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.

Archibishop Petero Matca once said to me, “The truth gives joy and it an also hurt. But the must be told. Hence the truth is prophetic. So when the news media reveal the truth it has a prophetic voice in society. The news media need reporters and journalists who are committed to finding and reporting the truth.”

In the midst of these statements of prophetic action and speaking the truth in love (forth-telling), the question still remains, ‘what of those who prophesy (fortell) of events that do nothing but cause fear and panic?’

We all dream, and for the most we can remember the vivid ones. However not all of us understand our dreams and visions, whether divinely inspired or otherwise. We interpret our dreams, from our individual contexts and understanding.

For those who believe that they receive visions and dreams from God, I urge, I plea for careful understanding, for educated inspiration and above the deep discernment of God’s will in one’s own life before that of others.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light, peace and commitment to prophetic action.

* Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email: