One week ago today, I was retelling the story of Zacchaeus with a cardboard cutout Zacchaeus for the 10th time, as one member of a diverse group of people seeking to serve alongside In-Kwon Kim and his lovely wife Jeong-Seok and the staff of Mango Tree Ministries. Mango Tree is a place and a ministry that captured my imagination when I first read about it earlier this year. Mango Tree is a place that seeks to care for the disabled and their families in the island kingdom of Tonga, where few other resources are available to those with disabilities. Mango Tree provides therapy, practical training, and a support network. It is a place where people gather to receive care, and it is an organization that goes out and engages in the broader community. It is highly respected across Tonga as well as by the Chinese, Japanese, and Australian governments. Certainly, the high-quality services provided by Mango Tree’s staff have rightfully earned that place of respect over the past decade.
Historically, Tongans have believed that disabilities of any kind were the result of a curse or a sin. This belief still permeates Tongan society today. Our Kiwi-Tongan teammate told us of a time her great uncle was having joint pain. The doctor determined it wasn’t arthritis and said his father’s bones must be crooked in his grave. So in order to treat his joint pain the family exhumed the bones from the grave, rubbed the bones with oil, straightened them in the casket, and buried them again. Similarly, disabilities or infirmities are seen as bringing shame on entire families. According to superstition, if a person is disabled it is directly linked to something someone else in the family has done. Because of this and a sheer lack of resources to provide adequate care, the disabled are often hidden in dark houses, often spending decades lying in bed, seeing only what the nearest window reveals of the world.
As I experienced Tongan culture, I found it to be a place of stark contrasts, beauty and ashes, joy and pain, hope and despair mingled to form a complicated picture of daily life.
The hope offered by Mango Tree stands in such stark contrast to the hopelessness so many families experience. Through wheelchairs and transportation and prayer and love, the least of these are granted dignity and the hopeless are offered a cup of hope where they would otherwise experience none.
But the contrasts don’t stop there.
Incredible poverty & Incredible generosity
Our Kiwi-Tongan teammate’s family had us over for a meal that would rival Thanksgiving dinner for 50. There was a whole roasted pig standing on the table instead of a turkey. If they didn’t have cash readily available to fund the meal, they would have taken out a loan to provide it for us. Generosity at all costs.
Strict religious expectations & Deep-seeded superstitions
Everything is required to be closed down for worship on Sundays, and everyone is expected to attend a worship service of some kind, but family members avoid playing at the beach below where the aunties are buried on the hillside above for fear of the aunties’ wrath.
Beautiful singing & Addiction driven conversations
It is a place of beautiful singing by day and raucous dealings of drugs just outside the Mango Tree gate by night. Oh the singing we heard all day on Sunday. Beautiful praises to God that make you want to throw your hands up in worship. Oh the tire screeching and negotiating over freshly grown weed we heard at night… until the salesmen packed up their stand and left, leaving behind only old church pews (The irony of it!).
Sunday morning church bells & Week night Kavas
Actually, we heard the peals of church bells calling people to worship all day on Sunday. It was a constant reminder that called our attention back to the focus of the day—Sabbath, worship, and rest. As we drove back from a cultural dinner at 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. The lights were on at every corner shop. People wandered the streets. Doors to some churches and many community buildings were wide open. Groups of men sat cross-legged on the floor drinking kava and telling stories into the wee hours of the morning. Kava, a drink made from the root from the kava plant, is known to have a sedative and euphoric effect. Men who stay long enough to fill themselves with stories and drink often return to their tired wives drunk and abusive. Push repeat night after night.
Western shirts on top & Freshly starched lavas on the bottom…
Lavas are the wraps that it seems every South Pacific culture sports. It is a straight wrap tied at the waist and worn by both men and women. Secondary school boys wear them as a part of their uniforms. Men wear them to church. Women wear them around the house. They are seen everywhere.
Sparsely furnished homes & Email addresses and Facebook contacts written on the wall…
One of the houses we visited contained only one room. It reminded me of the kind we built in Juarez, Mexico as high schoolers. There wasn’t any sheet rock on the inside. It was furnished with two mattresses, one occupied by a young adult with severe cerebral palsy. Between the 2x4s, I caught sight of email addresses, Facebook contacts, and Gmail logins written on the back side of the siding.
Top Up signs on every dairy & No wheelchairs and limited school supplies…
Switching out our SIM cards for cards with data was easy enough. Even when we trudged through the bush one day, we saw the notorious Digicel “Top Up” sign on a random shack-like shop. However, the kids at the primary school we visited were starved for paint, colored paper, and fluffy pompoms. The week before we arrived, an OT and Orthopedic Specialist couple had spent long hours fitting more than 50 donated wheelchairs to bodies that have tightened and contorted with lack of mobility. Basic needs are often not provided for, but cell phone service and data has become readily available.
The contrasts just kept coming.
Pigs in every yard & Few dogs…The pigs will become dinner soon enough. The dogs have already been eaten.
Unlimited coconuts, which have become a commodity worldwide in recent years, fresh off the tree & People limited by the age-old constraints of monarchy…
Beautiful cultural dances & Fatigue etched on tired mamas’ faces…
Silhouettes of soaring coconut trees against the backdrop of the most beautiful blue skies & Rubbish littering the ground at our feet…
School girls with two perfect pigtail braids tied with ribbons that matched their uniforms & Aunties with children of their own caring for 5 more nieces or nephews…
Stunning blue and aqua ocean views & Clothing and toiletry items sent from family members abroad for sale in front yards…
For me, Tonga is indeed a place of stark contrasts. A place where beauty and brokenness collide. A place that I find both humbling and encouraging, hopeless and hopeful, in desperate need and with great wealth. A place that has shaped and challenged me. A place I look forward to returning to (and taking my guys along too)! I am grateful for In-Kwon and Jeong-Seok and their humble service and leadership that remind all of us what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus.