By Fr Frank Hoare
Greeted with hospitality and sweet tea, a Columban priest and his companion tell the story of Christmas to non-Christians in Fiji. This article won a ‘Highly Commended’ award for The Far East, the magazine of the Columbans in Australia and New Zealand where it first appeared in the November-December 2008 issue, from the Australasian Catholic Press Conference in Sydney in September.
‘You have walked all this way to enlighten us about the meaning of Christmas. You are a holy man; you are a saint; you are an incarnation of God’, a middle-aged Fiji-Indian man named Ram Samuj enthused after I had shared with him the story of Christmas. I remembered how Paul and Barnabas had torn their garments in horror when, after healing a cripple, the people of Lystra attempted to sacrifice oxen to them (Acts 14:14). My protestations of mere humanity to Ram Samuj were less dramatic, but he accepted them. No sacrifice was performed.
I was living in the settlement of Naleba about 16 kms from Labasa, the main town on the second-largest island in the South Pacific nation of Fiji a few years ago. The 40,000 Hindus and Muslims in the area weren’t beating a track to my doorstep to learn about Christianity. But I had one thing going for me: Christmas.
Their grandfathers, brought as indentured laborers to Fiji by the British, slaved six days a week, 52 weeks a year, in the sugar plantations. So the public holiday on the feast of Christmas was a welcome rest day to enjoy. Thus Christmas entered the calendar of the ethnic Indians of Fiji, though few were Christians. It was, however, a secular celebration for them. The vast majority were unaware of its religious meaning.
With Christmas approaching, I saw an opportunity to evangelize my non-Christian neighbors, by sharing the Good News of joy and peace signified by the birth of Jesus Christ to people of good will. I ordered illustrated pamphlets with the story of Christmas written in the Hindi language.
Armed with these pamphlets and accompanied by Sog Lingam, a young Catholic Fiji-Indian companion, I set out from Naleba. We headed toward settlements I rarely visited. I had a week to visit every house, talk with families about the meaning of Christmas and leave a pamphlet for them to read. I decided to do it in the traditional way of an Indian religious man - by walking and meeting the people.
A Different Meaning of Christmas
I was unprepared for the welcome and hospitality we received everywhere. When we came close to a house, we would first announce ourselves, asking for the dog to be restrained. Inevitably, we were offered a seat and, without waiting for any explanation of our presence, the woman or daughter of the home would bring tea.
In the Indian culture, a guest must be welcomed and treated with kindness because, it’s believed, he could be God in disguise. Then, as we sipped the hot tea, we explained where we were from and why we were making this journey.
All those in the house and sometimes neighbors too, would gather around us as I went through the routine.
‘You know that Christmas is coming?’
‘Yes’, would be the reply.
‘Do you know the meaning of Christmas?’
‘Yes. It’s a holiday. We kill a goat, make curry and have a big feed. The men drink whiskey and beer, the women and children drink soft drinks. Christmas is a sinful day. Look at all the animals that are killed for food and all the alcohol that is drunk.’
The idea of Christmas as a sinful day knocked me off balance. But it did introduce the topic of sin and its opposite, redemption.
I explained how God sent His Son to save the world from sin and its consequences and how this Son, Jesus Christ, was born of poor but religious parents in Bethlehem. This child was God’s greatest gift to a sinful world. He would defeat Satan and inaugurate God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. The angels, knowing this, sang their hymn of praise announcing peace to people of faith and goodwill.
The villagers listened with rapt attention. They examined the pictures with interest.
They could identify with the shepherds and magi who brought their gifts for God’s Son. We would then leave them the Hindi pamphlet and, asking them to say a special prayer on Christmas Day, Sog Lingam and I would move on to the next home.
The hospitality created a problem for us: There is a limit to the sweet tea a person can drink. I soon reached my limit, yet I knew that to refuse the hospitality would be a refusal to accept our hosts. We solved the dilemma by asking, in most houses, for a little water instead of tea.
Walking in the heat was sweaty work, so drinking plenty of water was no problem.
No actions behind words.
On the fourth evening we met Ram Samuj. He greeted us enthusiastically and invited us to sit in a shady spot on the grass. Together we drew the contrasts between the secular and religious celebration of Christmas.
His response was both unexpected and extravagant. I emphasized our shared need for Christ’s redemption. We agreed on the importance of a more spiritual celebration of Christmas.
A few weeks after Christmas, I attended a funeral in the same area. Afterward, I asked a local villager how my friend Ram Samuj was.
‘Oh, that is sad’, he answered. ‘He was drinking alcohol on Christmas Day until he got drunk. Then he went outside and began to curse and swear at a neighbor with whom he had a grievance. He got into a fight. The police were called and now he is in jail.’
Fr Frank Hoare was ordained in 1973 and has been a missionary in Fiji, Australia and the United States. He also served a six-year term as a councilor in the Central Administration of the Columbans.