United on a journey

Rosemary Sorensen | Bendigo Weekly | 18-Nov-2011 3.15pm

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CHALLENGE: Rev. Eseta Meneilly. Photo: VICKI HARRINGTON
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REVEREND Eseta Meneilly defines herself as a universal woman, with a local focus.

 Born in Fiji, trained as a kindergarten teacher in Australia, she and her husband Chris moved to Bendigo in May this year, where they are both ministers in the Uniting Church.

 Their ministry here is to work within the changing shape of the Uniting Church in Bendigo, to help equip it for what is ahead in a city that slowly, but inevitably, is becoming part of a diverse social culture.

 It’s a challenge, Eseta says, and one which, in retrospect, can be seen as courageous for both the church and the Meneillys.

 Eseta ministers at Forest Street St Andrew’s Bendigo and Axedale.

The first woman to receive a placement at Forest Street and also the first minister from an ethnic background, she is very different from what the church, and the city, has known in the past.

The Meneillys’ path to the Goldfields is, like many lives, a combination of chance and circumstance.

 The first chance came in the 1960s, when Chris was a teenager, on a holiday with his parents. That was the beginning of an interest in, and love  for, Fiji.

 He met Eseta not in her homeland, but at a youth camp in Australia.

The young woman won a scholarship to train as a kindergarten teacher in Melbourne. When they fell in love, and married, it was assumed by friends and family they would stay in Australia, but both Eseta and Chris wanted to honour the conditions of her scholarship, so they headed back to Fiji.

 That was where Chris undertook studies at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, where he was the only non-Pacific Islander.

“That was a very influential experience,” he says, “very formative”.

The decision to return to Australia was made a decade later, when the eldest of their three children was 10, to prepare the way for their education.They left Fiji in December 1987, by chance following the military coups which were the beginning of several decades of political unrest.

 They worked first in St Arnaud, then in Melbourne. Eseta began her studies to become a minister, mirroring her husband’s journey in Fiji.

 When she was ordained four years ago, she worked in Boronia in Melbourne, while he was working in nearby Mitcham.

Then, Bendigo entered their thinking.
“I really knew nothing about Bendigo,” Eseta says.
“When the church called me to it, we came into a situation that we are slowly beginning to understand.
“It doesn’t always work,” she says of the kind of brave decision the church has made to send a woman from a different culture to this country city.
“The Uniting Church declared itself a multicultural church in 1985, and 25 years later we’re still walking the journey.

“Naming it doesn’t mean, yes, we are multicultural; now we have to decide how we move forward.”

Eseta is a member of the Uniting Church’s National Reference Committee on Cross-culturalism, so she understands how important her appointment is.

However, when she received a request to host a Fijian choir for a visit, her first reaction was to say no. She was only just settling in to her new role in a new city, and wanted to concentrate on the work at hand.

“I was just in the process of saying no, when an email came about the choir – and I discovered some of them were people I went to school with,” she says.
That’s why, on December 9, the St Andrew’s Uniting Church Hall in Myers Street will be ringing with the combined voices of 30 Fijians, singing both sacred music and also Fijian songs.

Two concerts of sere and meke (song and dance) will act as fundraisers for the Yarawa Methodist Church Choir, from Suva in Fiji.

The Meneillys are also hoping to take the choir members on a tour of Bendigo’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. “Anything to do with churches, we know they’ll love,” Eseta says.

The presence of these singers in the Bendigo church will be just a small part of the quiet revolution taking place for parishioners and the community at large.

Eseta says there are many people now living and working in Bendigo who come from other places, but who are not yet seen by the broader community.
“There are questions to be asked, about how a person lives their traditions, but still has an opportunity to be an individual,” she says.
“My hope, my prayer, is that people will see I look different, that I speak with an accent, but see too that there are things they can learn from me.”

Yarawa Methodist Church Choir performs on December 9 at St Andrew’s Uniting Church Hall, Myers Street, at 2pm and 7.30pm: $15/$10.

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