Two Tongan Hearts
“I tried to run away from Bible translation but I can’t!” Tevita Lalahi’s broad shoulders shake as he laughs. Anyone who knows the determined Tongan may not believe this confession, since the Senior Executive Officer of the newly formed Bible Translation Organisation (BTO) of Tonga is single-minded in the pursuit of his vision.
Wearing a black collared shirt, a long black sulu and a woven pandanus mat tied around his waist, the unassuming 35 year old speaks with a low quiet voice as he recounts how he came to pioneer a Bible translation ministry for the Kingdom of Tonga. “It’s really hard to get out of [this calling],” he explains. Tevita shared how he tried to become a pastor and pursue a PhD, but God had other plans. “I know that God really put this in my heart,” he declares.
Never conquered by colonialists and the only remaining monarchy in the Pacific, the Kingdom of Tonga is a monolingual archipelago. Tongans have had the Bible in their language since 1862, and the influence of Christianity is strong. In fact, 98% of Tongans regularly attend church, and all business in Tonga ceases on Sunday for a state-enforced observance of the Sabbath. However, only a handful of Tongans have heard about the worldwide Bible translation movement.
At every opportunity Tevita spends his days traversing high schools, universities and churches throughout the Kingdom of Tonga, and in Tongan communities in Australia and New Zealand, challenging others to join him in the ministry of Bible translation. “People are shocked!” Tevita recounts, “They don’t know there are still lots and lots of people without the Bible in their language.”
When Tevita himself first learned this truth it changed his life. Tevita’s father was a pastor, his grandfather was a pastor, and after a few years of working as a primary school teacher, Tevita also decided to become a pastor. While studying at the Fiji College of Theology and Evangelism Tevita met Greg Fox, a Bible translation consultant who had come to teach a session on Biblical Hebrew. Curious, Tevita quizzed Fox about his work.
Tevita’s forehead crinkles and his voice becomes almost a whisper as he reflects on what happened next. “After the seminar Greg told me, ‘Tevita, if you want to become a Bible translator, I think you have the potential to do the work.’” Tevita shared, “That sentence carried me through.” Tevita set out to learn everything he could about how to achieve this vision he considered was, “high up with the stars.”
Before leaving his home country to serve God as a Bible translator, Tevita resolved to find a wife. He talked with various women about his vision, but no one was interested. Then he prayed and asked God to send the right woman. In 2007 he met Luseane, a young Tongan woman with long dark hair, at church in Fiji. Luseane, whose father is also a pastor, was completing a post-graduate degree in science at the University of the South Pacific.
Luseane never dreamed of living outside her home country, but she and Tevita kept praying and talking about it. One day she said to Tevita, “Wherever you go, I will follow you.” Later that year they married in a small ceremony in Fiji.
Luseane now works full time as a secondary science teacher to support their ministry. She smiles as she talks about their youngest son who is six months old. “We wish that our children will grow up to be involved in God’s work. That’s why we named our baby John Wycliffe.”
“He also reminds us of our goal!” Tevita interrupts, giggling. “Whenever we look at him we remember – Bible translation!” Tevita chuckles and explains that whenever someone asks about the baby’s name they tell the story of John Wycliffe and his passion for translating the Bible into commoner’s English amid great controversy in the 14th Century.
Vision for Papua New Guinea
However introducing his youngest son’s namesake ultimately isn’t where his passion lies – Tevita is desperate to get to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and begin his own Bible translation project. “Right from the very beginning, PNG always came to my mind,” explains Tevita. “My ancestors were missionaries in PNG and even Luseane’s forefathers. But I never knew that there are more than 800 languages in PNG.”
David Gela from the Bible Translation Association of PNG invited Tevita to attend their annual conference in June 2011. “When I first stepped on the soil of PNG – I thanked God!” Tevita recounts “This is the land of my dreams! It really is!”
He had immersed himself in reading books and researching information on the internet about Bible translation, but this meeting gave him a whole new perspective. “You witness for yourself what they are doing and what the problems are, and the blessings, you really see their life,” he explains.
Tevita remembers one translator from PNG who shared about his limited education, having studied only as far as primary school. However, he had a heart to help with the translation of the Bible into his language so he helped as best as he could. “When he talked like that to me,” Tevita said, “I realised that here in Tonga people are well educated so they can help.”
With a fire in their hearts and Papua New Guinea in their sights, Tevita and Luseane encountered a problem – there was no organisation in Tonga that could send and support them to work in Bible translation. Leaders of Bible translation organisations in the Pacific offered advice and encouragement to them as they prepared to pioneer a new path for Tongans.
A simple solution was for the family to join Wycliffe Australia. But then would any other Tongans who wanted to be involved also have to join an organisation in another country? When Wycliffe Asia-Pacific Director Sung-Chan visited Tonga in 2010, he issued Tevita a challenge: Before you go, first send 10 Tongans – then go.
Vision for Tongans
“I was not thinking of staying here in Tonga and setting up an organisation,” Tevita admits, “But I discovered that it is really important to listen to God in everything. The Lord wants us to do this work, to build BTO Tonga while we are training and preparing.” Luseane agrees, “We were so looking forward to going… but when God called us to do this work here in Tonga – it is also exciting – whatever God wants us to do, we are willing.”
The Bible Translation Organisation (BTO) of Tonga was born and Tevita took the leading role. “He is full of energy,” shared Uiliami Fukofuka, Chair of the Board of BTO Tonga. “It is hard for us to keep up with him. He loves the Lord and gives everything from his life, and his family’s life, to make this work. We are very fortunate to have him.”
But Tevita doesn’t always feel deserving. “Sometimes, still now, I still keep asking, ‘God, why me? Why me? I feel I am not worthy to do the work. Why do you choose me?’” Turning his gaze down from the ceiling Tevita immediately adds, “We are so happy that He allows us to be a part of this work. I’m so happy.”
Words and Photography by Elyse Patten
Tevita and Luseane ask for your prayers as they continue engaging with churches and preparing for a move to Papua New Guinea. Please click here to view the detailed prayer request.