Charissa was told she couldn’t be a minister. She’s about to take a ‘historic’ step

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul8,2024
Reverend Charissa Suli dreamt of becoming a beautician when she was growing up.
“I wanted to make people feel good about themselves … get their nails done. That was kind of the immediate thing that I wanted to do,” she told SBS News.
“But as I look back now, I think God wanted me to concentrate on the inside. It’s not about the outside.”
Suli’s life has taken a different path. Next week, she’ll become the new spiritual leader of the Uniting Church.

The second-generation Tongan migrant, 41, will be the first person of colour, and the youngest, to lead Australia’s third largest Christian denomination of 670,000 members.

Announcing Suli as president-elect, the Uniting Church’s reverend Sharon Hollis celebrated the “historic moment”.

“You (Charissa) are the youngest person ever elected and you are the first person of colour. We rejoice for you in this election, for what it means for you, for your family and for the church.”

Moving through ‘shame’ and ‘judgement’: ‘It didn’t stop me’

Suli’s journey to this point has been a winding road.
At 16, she says she faced the “shame” of teenage motherhood when she fell pregnant.
“I saw the judgement, not only of the church, not only of the family, but of wider society. It was almost unbelievable to see a young person with a belly walking the streets,” she said.
“I felt the judgement immediately.”
Suli married her partner, Langi, before the baby’s birth and the couple went on to have three children.

She credits him and her mother, Liekina Vaka Kamisese, with supporting her through a “dark and lonely place”.

Members of a family smile for a photo.

Reverend Charissa Suli with her husband Langi, mother Liekina Vaka Kamisese and children. Source: Supplied

But the stigma returned years later when she felt her call to ministry.

“The story of me being a teenage mother came back. I would often get people say, ‘You can’t be a minister. That’s your husband’s job. You’re a woman.’
“I brought shame on family, shame on culture, falling pregnant out of wedlock and as a teenager, but it didn’t stop me.”
Suli will be installed as president of the Uniting Church on 11 July, where she’ll serve until 2027.
Her appointment as the first person of colour to lead Uniting Church follows some other progressive steps by the church in recent years.
The Uniting Church was the first of the three major Christian denominations in Australia .
The church was also part of that supported the failed Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum last year.

Faith and Pasifika heritage: ‘Never a time when you turn anyone away’

Suli says her faith has been influenced by her Pasifika heritage.
“Growing up as a young Tongan woman in a Pacific community, there was never a time when you would turn anyone away, even if they turned up to your house unexpected, uninvited,” she said.
“We’re always about being in community.”
She says she hopes to amplify voices on the margins.
“The way that Jesus connected to people, he connected to the people on the margins, he connected to the women and the unnamed women.
“I think there’s also a humility by hearing the diverse voices, and also, it helps me check my privilege as well.”

The number of Australians who identify as Christian has been steadily declining since the 1970s, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2021 Census.

Suli says migrant communities, especially those from the Pacific, often buck that trend because religious beliefs are intergenerational.

‘Giving young people a voice’

However, she recognises the church needs to address issues of concern to young people, such as mental health and domestic violence.
“What does it look like to raise up and actually see cultural diversity in terms of leadership and even giving young people a voice?” she said.
“We see domestic [and] family violence as a big thing. So, what would it look like if the church started talking about healthy relationships with a boyfriend and girlfriend or with your husband and wife?”
“[Young people] are just trying to find a space where they can have an open dialogue and not be judged.”
Suli believes the church she is part of is “affirming of young people”.

“They are affirming of our queer communities and our migrant communities. But then, what’s the next step? What’s the next step to be in relationship with our First Nations [people]?”

New church leadership aims to empower diverse voices   image

‘I see her as a role model’

Her eldest daughter, Susitina Suli, 25, says she is proud of her mother.
“I see her as a role model for emerging young women. I see her as a role model for people of colour, see her as a role model for people who are afraid to speak their voice or speak their truth.”
Sione Hehepoto belongs to the Uniting Church’s Tongan National Conference youth body Second Generation.
He says Suli’s appointment is a powerful example of what is possible.
“It’s incredibly inspiring. You don’t see it often. You don’t see it at all, to have somebody that looks like me stand there in positions of great influence,” he said.

“I see myself there and I take heart in that.”

Two women and a man smile for a photo inside a church.

Reverend Charissa Suli with daughter Susitina Suli and Second Generation member Sione Hehepoto. Source: Supplied / Michael Zewdie

More than 300 years after Christian missionaries settled in the South Pacific, more than 90 per cent of the region identify as Christian.

Brian Alofaituli is a senior lecturer in Pacific cultural heritage and religion at the National University of Samoa, who graduated with a PhD in Pacific history.
He says the embrace of Christianity has informed human rights and climate change movements in the Pacific – but has also, at times, excluded important cultural beliefs.
In recent decades, there has been more room for those beliefs.
“We are seeing within the last 30 years the … renaissance of Indigeneity and revaluing and valuing systems and knowledge systems that were devalued by missionaries and even Indigenous peoples who became part of the clergymen and even chiefs, if you will,” he said.
For Suli, faith is a broad church that embraces her Tongan roots.

“We’re a community that loves to eat, break bread together, and also bring joy, bring colour — colour in the sense of hearing that diversity as well as what we see in our young people, what we see in our children.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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