Rev. Mele Laufilitonga Luani was born in Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu--the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga. She comes from a strong Christian background and has played many leadership roles with her Methodist faith. She was the first woman to do office/clerk work for the Tongan Government. Mele also taught as a history professor at the all girls school known as Queen Salote College. Later she became one of the first people to start the Tongan Methodist Church in the US. Through her ministry she decided to make her work official and become a minister. Now she is retired and continues to work on her faith and relationship with God.
Mele Laufilitonga Luani was born February 15, 1935 in Kolomotu'a, Nuku'alofa, Tonga’s capital. Her father, Pita Tangata 'O Tonga was born in Tefisi, Vava'u, and her mother, Mele Taufa, was born in 'Ahau, Tongatapu. She grew up in Kolomotu'a until she was four or five years old and then moved with her family to the village of Ha’akame, just southwest of Nuku’alofa. Her father, Pita, was chosen to be the setuata konifelenisi, or deacon, by the Tongan Annual Conference. He was a leader for the Methodist Church. Her father was from a noble family, and their name was Luani. (There is a ranking system in Tonga which starts with the royal family, then the nobles, and last are the commoners.) The Luani family moved to Nakolo, the southeastern part of Tongatapu.
Church was a place for community fellowship and worship. Mele and her family were very involved in the church. She was a Sunday school secretary, a teacher, and the choir conductor. Mele’s strong Methodist background has been a foundation for her ministry.
“I’ve been brought up in church, I love church, and knowing everything, singing, and I loved being a Sunday school teacher.”
|A map of Tonga: Mele is from the main island, Tongatapu. Her father was born in Tefisi, midwest in Vava'u, which is another island separate from the main island. Her mother was born in Ahau, which is in the Northwest of Tongatapu.|
A Natural Leader
Mele’s family built a life around church. It was a way of living, and Mele became fulfilled with it. She attended a Methodist Church school in the village of Utulau, which is next to Ha'akame where her father Pita began his ministry. By 1948, Mele moved on to Queen Salote College (QSC), an all-girls school in Kolomotu'a. Mele excelled in her studies with the love and support of family, as well as her faith. She was social and was not shy to speak in front of a crowd. Mele was serious about her education. These qualities molded her into a strong leader. She attended QSC to be a teacher and it wasn’t too long before she earned a teaching job at Siuilikutapu College in Vava'u. There, she taught Geography and History in 1955-56. Mele struggled with teaching in Vava'u because even though she was teaching Tongan students, everyone came from different villages. Mele soon returned to Tongatapu and continued to teach at QSC until 1959.
|Queen Salote College seal|
Bold Woman = Bold Moves
Mele was the first female clerk for the Tongan government in 1961. The job was usually done by men, but that did not stop Mele from breaking barriers. She was confident enough to know what she was capable of. Mele proved she could handle her job well in the finance department. She acquired many skills and learned how to make important decisions. Mele applied her religious beliefs into her daily life. She was passionate about doing the right thing, even in government. Seven years after working as a clerk, Mele was asked to work for the Tongan Shipping Agency (TSA) in Australia, which was part of the Tongan government. Her time there was short because the TSA became privatized and so was no longer under the Tongan government. Mele had a choice to stay or leave, so she went back home.
At this point Mele accomplished a lot in her life and felt like she needed a vacation. Little did she know that a trip to America would change her life dramatically.
Quote: “When I came to America, my family here hid my passport and I couldn't go back. That's how I stayed.”
Mele was homesick at first, but she tried to make the best of her situation. With no clue of what to do, she relied on what grounded her, which was her faith and church fellowship. She began attending the Compton United Methodist Church in Southern California. Reverend Willy Foreman had an interest in the Tongan community and wanted to learn more. There were very few Tongan families in America during the early '70s. Reverend Foreman asked Mele for help. “He was asking me to form a Tongan group in Compton so we can use the church. I starting to inviting the people, all get them to church.” This was the first Tongan congregation in the U.S.
Struggles in the call to ministry
It was not an easy task to form the first Tongan congregation. Mele was questioned as a leader because she was not yet a minister. People had doubts about her and if she was capable of organizing the Tongan community to introduce the idea of forming a new congregation. But it did not break her because she felt she was experienced enough to handle anything due to her leadership background as a teacher and former government employee. She knew a lot about the church because of her upbringing in Tonga, so she had a lot to offer. When asked about how she dealt with the struggles, she replied, "I understand the differences. I have to know God is there. And it's not for me, it's for the community". It took a while for people to take this seriously, so Mele reached out to the District Superintendent and he sent Tevita Puloka to help. He was a seminary student at the time in Claremont, but on weekends he went to preach at Compton. Puloka married in 1978 and moved back to Tonga. By then, the church was stable. Ilangi Fine was the pastor after Puloka and the Tongan community grew. More congregations were formed in Lennox, Pomona, Santa Ana, and Long Beach.
|Mele at a young Tongan couple’s wedding at the Lennox United Methodist Church.|
Pursuing the call to ministry
It wasn't too long before Mele pursued the call to ministry. She had not expected to work in this field, but it worked out well with all of her previous experience and background in Tonga. She studied to be a minister and in 1993, Rev. Mele's first church was the Sun Valley United Methodist Church. Four years later, she was the pastor of Grand United Methodist Church in Santa Ana. By 2001, she was the pastor of the North Long Beach Methodist Church and retired in 2005. Along with running a church, she was also the choir conductor in Long Beach, which took her back to her young days in Tonga. There was another Tongan congregation in Long Beach known as Talafungani. In 2005, both churches joined into one, named United with Hope.
|Reverend Mele Luani at a church gathering at Santa Ana’s First United Methodist Church in 2005|
|Reverend Luani singing a Tongan hymn with fellow church members of Long Beach’s United with Hope|
Although Mele came to be one of the most respected women during her ministry, men were not always supportive of her as a leader. Some were intimidated by her and tried to form alliances with other men to try and take over the church, but Mele says it was never successful. It was hard for men to listen to her because they wanted to be in her position. But she was always the bigger person and did not let this distract her. As a leader, everyone was included and she made sure to let the men express their views. "You have to be open, open to them, let them think whatever they think. Support, just to get together to work together" Mele did not abuse her power because she cared about how the people felt.
|Reverend Luani was one of the first Tongan women in ministry in America|
Mele kept in touch with her family in Tonga throughout the years and missed them dearly. Her family was very supportive of the work she was doing in America. She was not able to attend her parents' funeral because she was still in the process of becoming a citizen. By 2002, three of her siblings passed away and she was not able to go because there was nobody else to take care of the church. It was a tough decision to make, but her faith pulled her through a difficult time.
After six years of retirement, Mele continues her spiritual journey. She feels God brought her to America because she was needed as a leader. It is not what she had wanted at first, but it all makes sense to her now. Her faith is a significant part of her life. "It's the only thing I want more of. More time of reading and doing things to have more of that-- to have faith, stronger faith." Mele has paved the way for many women in ministry today.