By Elise West
On a recent Sunday morning, the St Andrews Uniting Church on Barkly Street, Footscray, was lively with members of the Jien (Dinka) faith community. A Tongan family had prepared the morning tea. A service in Vietnamese would follow.
Reverend Lavingi Fine Tupou’s sermon touched on a problem. She said, “I wish I had a story from the Bible in which, because of the size of a crowd gathered to hear him, Jesus takes to a boat to preach”. For although Lavingi’s congregation is diverse, it is small.
“The number of Anglo-Australians coming to church is falling,” Lavingi says later. “This is happening in every church, all over the world.”
Lavingi was born in Tonga. She was raised in a religious family and always had a sense of service – her first career was in nursing. She came to Australia as a young woman and soon met her husband. They lived for a time in Robinvale, in north western Victoria, attracted by the agricultural work because “it was an outside life, a bit like home.”
In the late 1990s, when she was sure of her call to the ministry, she began five years of theological training at the University of Melbourne. After some years leading a congregation at Springvale, Lavingi came to the Footscray church in 2009.
On the dwindling congregation, she says, “We can’t just wait for people to come to the church. The church must go to the people, and talk about the issues that matter now.” For Lavinigi, one of those issues is justice for Indigenous Australians. “I had good relationships with indigenous people in Robinvale, but I never saw myself – a newcomer to Australia – as part of the problem in reconciliation. Now I understand that all of us, all non-Aboriginal people, must work harder for justice.”
Although the three communities at the church each worship in their own language and style (some prefer more technology, amplification, or live bands than others), her leadership on reconciliation is apparent; the Dinka language service opens with an acknowledgment of country.
You can also meet Rev Lavingi on Saturdays at the Uniting Church Op Shop in West Footscray.