Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Walk with History

Published in the Fiji Times (Off the Wall with Padre James), Wednesday 27th June, 2012

One of the required courses this semester at the Methodist Theological University was “Understanding Korean Society”. It may have been an ambitious title as almost everyone who has lived in another country may agree, it takes a lot longer than about 13 hours of class time to understand a culture. Just ask many of the vulagis in Fiji who still struggle to understand our way of life after living here for half a decade or more.

However our Professor, Rev. Dr. Joong Urn Kim, did his best at providing us with the relevant materials to read and various snapshots of Korean culture and society during these classes. With exams over and only one term paper due. Professor Kim took our class of international students on a field trip to conclude our course. Our destination was not far from the University – a 20 minute walk or a two-stop bus ride to Gwanghwamun, which is where the southern and main gate of our destination was located. Our expedition was to take us into and around Gyeongbokgung, the main and largest palace of the five grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty, who ruled Korea for over six centuries.

I’ve been to grand locations before. I have walked up to the gates of Buckingham Palace with my mother and late father; visited Windsor Castle with my sister, and visited palaces, castles and cathedrals and temples in a number of countries. I remember watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, “The Last Emperor” about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China and being captivated by the image of the Forbidden City (the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing) no doubt due to Bertolucci’s vision. I remember wondering what it might have been like to live in this huge complex, or to visit it or something like it one day. Twenty-five years later, my wonder turned to amazement, I entered Gyeongbokgung, the imperial palace of Korea.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was originally built in 1394, following the design of the Korean architect Jeong Do-jeon. Over time it came to have some 330 buildings within the palace complex. The palace complex includes the Gyeonghoreu pavilion, which is depicted on the 10,000 Won Korean note, and the National Folk Museum of Korea. At the entrance, guards in traditional costume perform regularly the change of the guard ceremony.

But the complex has had its fair share of disasters and tragedies.  As we walked around the palace grounds we learned from our tour guide that the palace was severely damaged by fire in 1553, and its costly restoration, ordered by then king, Myeongjong,  was completed in the following year. Within forty years (in the late 16th Century), however, most of the Palace was burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasions of Korea. The palace site was left in ruins for the next three centuries. In the mid Nineteenth Century, during the regency of Daewongun, the palace buildings were reconstructed and formed a massive complex with 330 buildings and 5,792 rooms. Standing on nearly 107 acres of land, Gyeongbokgung again became an iconic symbol for both the Korean nation and the Korean royal family. Tragedy struck in 1895, when Japanese agents murdered and violated the body of Empress Mysongseoung. Her husband, Emperor Gojong, left the palace; the Imperial family never returned to Gyeongbokgung.

Following the Japanese annexation of Korea on August 29, 1910 and its subsequent occupation, Japanese colonial government systematically demolished all but 10 of the 330 buildings and constructed the massive Japanese General Government Building in front of the throne hall in order to completely erase the symbol and heritage of the Joseon Dynasty. By the end of the Korean war that followed liberation from Japan, only seven buildings remained including Geunjeongjeon - the Imperial Throne Hall and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion – the state banquet hall built on an island in an artificial, rectangular lake, both which have been declared as national treasures by the Korean government.

In 1989, the South Korean government started a 40-year initiative to rebuild the hundreds of structures that were destroyed by the colonial government of the Empire of Japan, during the period of occupied Colonial Korea. By the end of 2009, it was estimated that approximately 40 percent of the structures that were standing before the Japanese occupation of Korea were restored or reconstructed. Another 20 year restoration project is planned by the South Korean government to restore Gyeongbokgung to its former status.

One of the tourists in the group being shown around by the guide asked about the current status of the royal family. The simple but poignant response from the guide was that after the emperor died, none of the royal family led any type of resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea. Following liberation, the government decided that there was no leadership role for the descendents of the royal family that had stood by and allowed the country to be exploited by the invaders. Whatever romantic or idealistic notions of hereditary rule my fellow tourists may have had disappeared very quickly with that statement about responsibility.

As I continued to walk around the complex, soaking in the architecture, the scenery, the history of this piece of land that had seen so much - life, celebration, death, destruction, liberation and restoration; I wondered about our history, our national treasures. How many living in Suva know that the original village of Suva was located where the Thurston Botanical Gardens are today? Or why Walu Bay is called “walu” bay? How many Christians know that the first official missionaries to Fiji were three Tahitian men who built Fiji’s first church on the island of Oneata? Until 2000 how many Indo-Fijian’s knew that their ancestors were quarantined on Nukulau Island?

We need to share stories, our his-stories and her-stories so that we continue to grow into a nation we will truly have a common story in which each one of us is included and through that, find their place in this island nation we call home.

Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

If you want Respect from others, Respect yo'self

When I was a radio broadcaster, working as a producer/presenter on Radio Fiji Three, I had a show called the “Mid-Morning Mix”. I had inherited that time slot from the Late great Maca Tora who had hosted the AM Show with a special women’s programme before leaving to be the fulltime “Quiz Mistress” (sorry but I’m not quite sure if there is a politically correct form of that title) on the National Quiz. So every morning I would take over from Bernadette Rounds Ganilau, who would introduce me as “Sweet Baby James” (the youngest on that particular station). From 10am to 2pm I broadcasted out of “Studio A” in the then hallowed halls of the Fiji Broadcasting Commission, now the revamped Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and home to FBC TV and its radio stations.
Padre James with Radio Colleagues Viti Browne
and Bernadette Rounds Ganilau in 1993

Back in those days, broadcasters were more than “personalities”. As a producer/presenter I had the freedom to programme my entire show. This was actually a major responsibility as it was national radio and included reading the news on the combined national network of Radio One, Two and Three at lunch time every day; daunting stuff for a 19-year old. I immersed myself in the music, news and information available in the days before the internet. My music programming was nurtured by Sevanaia DJ Tora, who was the music programmer for Ms. Rounds Ganilau’s Early Bird show. This basically means that I would go through all the records that DJ Tora would have selected for the previous show and choose songs that had not been played, and throw a couple of my choices in to ensure I kept to the format of the show.

One day, in the gold vault of FBC which is their audio library, looking for some soul music, I came across a 45rpm record. That’s the smaller version of the LP for those who can’t remember, and the single version of a vinyl record for those too young to now. This particular record caught my attention at first by the title “Respect Yourself” and then the artist, Bruce Willis. Yes Bruce Willis the actor!

"Respect Yourself" is the name of a classic soul song originally sung by the American R&B / gospel  group, The Staple Singers. Released in late 1971, the song was written by Luther Ingram, a Stax Records singer, and Mack Rice, a Stax house songwriter. The version sung by Bruce Willis, with help from June Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987.

The story of the song is very interesting, as are its lyrics. Songwriter Ingram, who was frustrated with the state of the world at the time, told Rice "black folk need to learn to respect themselves." Rice liked the comment so much that he built a funk groove around it, then gave the song to the Staples, who were also signed to Stax. The song had resonance for a burgeoning self-empowerment movement for African-Americans during the post-civil-rights-movement 1970s, as well as women demanding more respect during those same years, but the message had a universal and inspirational appeal.

On Sunday the sermon in church was based on God’s creation of man and woman in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26-28). The message was that each of us a God’s masterpiece.

That’s a powerful message even if taken without the spiritual implications. The basic premise of human rights is our inherent human dignity because we are all human beings. From a Christian perspective that means we were all created by the same God and we all should see ourselves and then each other in this way. If we respect ourselves, we can respect each other. If we love ourselves, we can truly love our neighbour.

With self-respect, we like ourselves because of who we are and not because of what we can or cannot do. A study I read about conducted by Harvard University found that points to the advantages of self-respect. Compared to those with high self-esteem who are still caught in an evaluative framework, those with self-respect are less prone to blame, guilt, regret, lies, secrets and stress.

As a parent I am naturally concerned that my children have a healthy self-respect and respect for others. I recently read an online article which said that Respect for oneself starts at an early age. Young children naturally show empathy and make attempts to comfort and nurture others. This innate compassion can be tapped to develop life-long traits of self-respect.

According to the article, on parenting methods, this is a natural outgrowth of self-respect although it is not always easy. A good start would be to make appreciation lists for each other within the family. Practicing being respectful at home develops children who can show respect in the classroom, which gives them a head start socially.

Children of any age often need a caring adult to help them see things to admire in others. When someone extends respect to a child, even in moments when they are acutely aware of faults, the way is opened up to develop the vital ability to forgive.

Forgiving and overlooking faults while seeing strengths is the yeast ingredient in learning to make and keep friendships. This concept gives a hint that when correcting children there is a need to generate a spirit of respect for them during the process.

That is an important message for parents, teachers, and, in fact, for all of us. The Staple Singers and Bruce Willis put it another, but just as powerful way:

“If you disrespect everybody that you run into; 
how in the world do you think anybody s’posed to respect you?
“If you don't give a heck about the man with a bible in his hand
just get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing!
“You're the kind of gentleman that wants everything their way
Take the sheet off y’ur face boy; its a brand new day!”
“Respect yourself
Respect yourself! 
If you don’t respect yourself 
aint nobody gonna give a hoot, 
a-hoot na na na oh oh! 
Respect yourself!

“If youre walking around thinking that the world owes you something cause you’re here; 
you’re going out the world backward, like you did when you first came here.
Keep talking about the president won’t stop air pollution. 
Put your hand over your mouth when you cough; 
thatll help the solution.
“You cuss around women folk; 
you dont even know their name. 
Then you’re dumb enough to think that it makes you a big ol’ man!
“Respect yourself! 
Respect yourself! 
If you don’t respect yourself aint nobody gonna give a hoot, 
a-hoot na na na oh oh! 
Respect yoursel

Here's a clip of the Bruce Willis Version:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What are friends for? (Unedited version)

Published in the Fiji Times (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan) on Wednesday 13th June, 2012

I remember when I was younger being instructed by my elders to have many acquaintances but few friends. These wise ones did not envisage the advent of social networking and its impact on what we consider friendship.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m generally a friendly person, whether it’s because I’m a Christian minister, whether it’s because I’m away from home or a combination of all these and more; but the number of my “Face-book friends” has increased considerably over the last year. My wife suggests it is because don’t like to ignore the “friend requests” I receive. Maybe that’s also true. My last count of face-book friends was 3,049. Some of my friends, though have in excess of 4,000 friends. Some have only a handful – by choice I believe.

As a minister, I find social networks an important tool for ministry – not just for receiving and sharing news and information, or being part of a community even when I am physically absent from it. Some of my virtual and physical friends use it as a counselling tool. We can share our thoughts publically, but at the same time we can reach out to someone we feel will understand us, even if they are not physically present.

Some of my friends have multiple face-book accounts. I’m told one is for acquaintances, one for family and one for really close friends. My social life is not as complicated so I just have the one. However I wonder how many of these friends I have really met, conversed with and get along with. Simply put, how many are virtual friends and how many are real friends? Perhaps it is easier to have virtual friends than physical ones. I remember meeting a young Korean theological student and being told on introduction, “Yes, I know him. We’re friends on Face-book!” That also made me think about how sometimes our “profile-pictures” don’t match the real us. That is something that has been abused by the social predators who prowl the virtual world.

In Oceania, where our concept of identity lies in our relationship with others, where we live in extended families and are part of small (and big) communities, perhaps it is possible to have many people that we consider friends. Maybe not close friends; maybe not good friends; but friends nonetheless.

So what is true friendship?

Last Sunday, Rev. Sung-ok Ahn, who is the senior pastor of Gaepo Methodist Church, preached on friendship. His message was a reflection from two passages of the Bible. The first was from the book of Samuel in Old Testament which told the story of Johnathan, son of King Saul and best friend of David (who would later become king) who intercedes with his father to stop persecuting his best friend. The second passage was from the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that he no longer considers them his students but his friends and then tells them that, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).

American President, Woodrow Wilson said friendship is, "the only cement that will ever hold the world together".

For me, true friendship goes beyond differences in opinion, culture and taste. True friendship sees the best in the other while acknowledging and accepting the flaws that are part of our broken humanity. I found myself nodding in agreement when I read a quote by Mother Teresa of Calcutta who said, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them."

The group War, ask the question, "Why can't we be friends?" as they examine the struggle for many of us to make friends with people we perceive to be different from us despite the similarities we have under the surface. The light-hearted lyrics point to a deeper message which reminds us that friendships do not have to be limited by culture, ethnicity, gender, social status or even age. 

I seen you walkin' down in Chinatown
I called you but you could not look around
Why can't we be friends?

I bring my money to the welfare line
I see you standing in it every time
Why can't we be friends?

The color of your skin don't matter to me
As long as we can live in harmony
Why can't we be friends?

I'd kinda like to be the President
so I can show you how your money's spent
Why can't we be friends?

Sometimes I don't speak too bright
but yet I know what I'm talking about
Why can't we be friends?

I know you're working for the CIA
they wouldn't have you in the Mafia
Why can't we be friends?

I like  "buddy" movies because they usually include an examination on the nature of friendship and the commitment required to maintain often complicated relationships. One particular series of flims is the "Lethal Weapon" series. Well I like the action and comedy elements also, I guess.  The film Lethal Weapon 3 features a theme song by Sting featuring Eric Clapton. I'm including the clip here for you to listen / watch, but the lyrics are what got my attention, apart from the great music of course. 

"If the night turned cold, And the stars looked down 
And you hug yourself , On the cold, cold ground
You wake the morning, In a stranger's coat
No one would you see

You ask yourself, 'Who'd watch for me?'
My only friend, who could it be?
It's hard to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

When your belly's empty, And the hunger's so real
And you're too proud to beg, And too dumb to steal
You search the city, For your only friend
No one would you see 

You ask yourself, 'Who'd watch for me?'
A solitary voice to speak out and set me free
I hate to say it , I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

You're not the easiest person I ever got to know,
And it's hard for us both to let our feelings show
Some would say, I should let you go your way,
You'll only make me cry
But if there's one guy, just one guy,
Who'd lay down his life for you and die
It's hard to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

When the world's gone crazy, and it makes no sense,
And there's only one voice that comes to your defence
And the jury's out, And your eyes search the room,
One friendly face is all you need to see
And if there's one guy, just one guy,
Who'd lay down his life for you and die
I hate to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me ...."

 True friends are also forgiving, as many of us have experienced when our broken relationships are restored. However, true friends also challenge us to be better human beings. They call our bluff, even if it is done in a humorous or loving way. In the end we respect their honesty and accept the constructive criticism – even if it takes a long time. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a valuable truth on the impact of friendship on our responsible living: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." 

To come back to virtual friendship, last week I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of birthday greetings I received on face-book. In response, I share the following post on my facebook page to say thank you to the many friends who literally made my day:

This morning I climbed a mountain...well I walked most of the way (in my flip-flops). As is my usual practice every year, my birthday is my annual day of reflection so I though the mountaintop might help me get some perspective, seeing as I am in the second-last week of the semester and inundated with assignments.”

“I began the walk at the hour of my birth (Fiji Time) - it wasn't planned, that's just how things worked out (as they usually do in my life). Each minute I walked represented a year of my life and by the time I reached this year I had ascended - to the summit, not to heaven.

“I looked down, back along the path I had walked. I realised that not only did you - my friends, my family, my soul brothers and sisters - walk with me; you had carried me up the mountain- with your prayers, your positive energy, your affirmations, your friendship, your love. At the summit, you filled my cup and held it to my lips. You cheered as I drank deeply. You pointed out the view; you watched with me the new day, my new year begin. Thank you all for making this day special in your special way. With deepest love and appreciation for whom each of you are and what you mean for me.”

Value your friendships - whether you have many, or a handful. The best way you show your appreciation to your friends is simply to be a good friend in return.

Please enjoy this video clip of another wonderful song  - it's Dionne Warwick and friends feat. Stevie Wonder... "That's What Friends Are For"

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Monday, June 11, 2012

A prayer of thanksgiving, on the return of the Uto Ni Yalo and her crew:

God of the Vanua and the Wai Tui,
Creator of our land, sea and sky and all creation;
We gather our hearts and minds together,
So that as one we can give you thanks and praise,
honour and glory.
We are here in the tradition of our ancestors,
to welcome travellers, welcome warriors, 
welcome messengers of your peace,
to welcome your sons and daughters.
We are here to give you thanks for keeping your promise.
As we gathered together so many days and nights ago to seek your protection,
Your guidance, your blessing on this vaka, her captain and crew,
as they prepared to cross our liquid home of Oceania.
Thank you for hearing our prayers.
We thank you for Brother Sun, for Sisters Moon and Stars,
for guiding our seafarers across the waters.
We thank you for your Word which has been a light to their path.
We thank you for Mother Ocean,
who has welcomed, protected, nurtured and taught her children during their journey.
We thank you for the creatures of sea
– for Brother Qio and Sister Vonu who have kept them company,
– for those who gave of themselves as sustenance to the hungry crews.
We thank you, O Lord,
for bringing our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters
husbands and wives, fathers and mothers back to us.

For the joy we experience in this reunion,
For this time of celebration,
For this time of sharing of adventures and lessons learned,
And for the sacred task you have entrusted this crew with as the voice of the Ocean;
We say “Vinaka Vakalevu”
We say “F’xi’a”
We say “Dhanyavaad”
We say “Thank you”

May your name be forever praised
May we always experience your empowering love
May your Spirit always fill our sails and guide us through dangerous reefs
Until we reach the lagoon of your Peace.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Written by James Bhagwan, Chaplain Fiji Voyaging Society.
Read by Rawiri Paratene the Canoe arrivals ceremony in Suva on 11/6/2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Progress and Peace

Published in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James" on Wednesday 6th June, 2012

On Monday morning I woke up to find my dormitory occupied by uniformed soldiers of the South Korean Army. My initial shock was replaced by confusion when I recognised the faces of the young men in uniform. These were my fellow students of the Methodist Theological University! 
I immediately asked if anything was wrong, praying that there wasn’t as our new Fiji Embassy is still six weeks away from opening. 

Fortunately the reason for all these ministers in training to be donning their military fatigues was because it was the day of their annual camp. In South Korea all men between the ages of 20 to 30 are required by the country’s constitution to perform military service for up to 24 months. While the Conscription Law, applies only to males although women can volunteer as officers or non-commissioned officers. Following the 2-year period the servicemen become territorial soldiers and are required to attend a 3-day camp every year, with the exception of university students, such as my dorm-mates, who only need to attend a day-long camp every year. 

Later that morning I went for a walk up the mountain which is behind the Methodist Theological University. It was part of my “time out” of reflection and prayer as I was celebrating my birthday, which as I have shared previously in this column, is my New Year’s day of “personal stocktaking”. 

As I stood on the summit of the mountain, I could see two rivers. The first was shimmering and flowing rapidly as the sun reflected off the roofs of hundreds of cars carrying their occupants in the busy Seoul streets. The second, the Han River, is the fourth longest river in the Korean peninsula. The Han River and its surrounding area played an important role in Korean history. These days, the river is no longer actively used for navigation, because its estuary is located at the borders of the two Koreas, barred for entrance by any civilian.

As I stood on the mountaintop reflecting on the past year of my life and pondering the future, the strains of the Korean national anthem rose up from a military base located next to Independence Park, less than a kilometre from my university, both located in Seodaemun District. From my vantage point I could see platoons of soldiers standing at attention, on parade.

I reflected on the fact that some of those soldiers may be my colleagues - theological students; Methodist pastors/ministers in the making. It was a reminder of the fragile peace this nation has known – a nation technically still at war with their own people, still wary of their brothers and sisters in the north.

The main reason for this compulsory military service is because South Korea is technically still at war with North Korea. The two countries have been involved in a number of skirmishes since the 1950-1953 war, which ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty. 

The most recent of this was in November 2010 when North Korea fired  artillery rockets at South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near a disputed border, setting houses on fire and prompting the South to return fire and dispatch fighter jets to the area. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were reportedly killed. 

More recently, in April 2012, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun finished his first public a speech since ascending to power on the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, with 'Let us move forward to the final victory,' words associated with his grandfather Kim Il Sung's oft-stated desire to control South Korea as well as the North.

Young men of God stood in military fatigues, mindful of the call to serve, to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek but also painfully aware that they lived in a situation where they may be called at any time to defend their homes from invasion, to stand strong in the face of a repressive ideology that has disposed and disempowered its own people.

My friend Yong Seok Park, who is the coordinator of the international students residing at the university, shared with me the dilemma he finds himself in. On one hand as a Christian minister in training, he is strongly aware of the ethical and moral responses that Jesus would have him follow - loving enemies, turning the other cheek and advocating non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. 

On the other hand, he faces a clear and present danger to his nation, his family, his own life and lives in a society that only seven decades ago overcame the shackles of oppressive dehumanising colonisation by another Asian country and still remembers a war which has kept the nation divided. 

There is also, in more recent Korean history, the paradox of military dictatorship. For twenty six years until democratic elections in 1987, Korea was governed by a series of military dictatorships. This period was also marked by rapid development and economic growth. According to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, South Korea joined is a member of the “trillion dollar club” of world economies. 

However it was also a time of suspended civil right and often brutal suppression of dissent and widespread oppression. Today many Koreans I speak to who grew up during this time continue to struggle to weigh which was the more important for them – democracy or development. They remember their struggles but they now enjoy the benefits. 

Today is Hynchoong, or Heroes Memorial Day in South Korea. It is a public holiday set aside to remember the martyrs who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom – for independence from Japan, liberation and resistance during the Korean War and perhaps even for democracy against the repressive regimes that ruled for nearly three decades. 

Remembrance Day in Fiji, as in all former British Colonies is traditionally commemorated on the 11th day of the 11th month (11th November), with ceremonies usually at 11am in a parallel to the official end of World War I. We remember those who have given their lives in defence of the country or for the cause of freedom in other countries. 

The phrase “we will remember them” is part of a poem to remember the fallen soldiers.  Perhaps as we reflect on the lessons we can learn from our brothers and sisters on the western edge of the Pacific, we might want to think of all those who shed their blood, sweat and tears for our country - for development, for democracy, for progress, for prosperity, for peace, for Fiji. 

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”  We will remember them.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”