“I was not a very forceful person and I waited around wondering what this call was,” Rev. Waqabaca recalls. “I didn’t know that I would get married, have eight children and move to Australia before it would happen.”
In 1998, Rev. Waqabaca became the first Fijian woman to be trained and ordained in the Uniting Church in Australia.
It was a milestone for both the Church and a personal one for Rev. Waqabaca, finally fulfilling God’s call on her life to serve Christ and her Fijian community in Australia.
Rev. Waqabaca’s ministry has been a rich blessing for many. As she retires, the UCA celebrates her contribution as a forerunner in multicultural and cross cultural ministry, a great pastoral carer and a role model to the next generation of leaders.
Coincidentally, it was 1977 when Veitinia Waqabaca and her family migrated to Australia, the same year the Uniting Church was formed. Before this, she was a teacher in Fiji for 14 years, cementing her love of learning and education. In Australia, Rev. Waqabaca gained a Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics from Macquarie University. The following year, her eighth child was born.
Rather than take up job offers in the public service, Veitinia chose to work with the Church, accepting a new position with the NSW Board of Mission as a consultant with Ethnic Congregations and Aboriginal Ministries.
She undertook pioneering work with multicultural congregations in their struggle to find a spiritual home in Australia. Subsequently, she began working with the Pacific Islands Council, an organisation supporting new migrants from the Pacific. She held the position of Chairperson for 10 years and in 2010 was a recipient of a “Living for Others” award by the Universal Peace Foundation in recognition of her invaluable contribution to Pacific Island communities.
It was through this work that Veitinia felt God’s call return and she became a candidate for ministry in the Uniting Church.
After completing her Bachelor of Theology at the United Theological College, Rev. Waqabaca began her ministry as the assistant minister in the Fijian Parish in Canterbury.
“It was difficult at first to be a Fijian woman minister – all Fijian ministers are male. I was not even sure if I would get a placement, but the placement in Canterbury opened up for me.”
Then, in 2002, Parramatta Mission was seeking a locally-trained minister to fulfil a dual role, part-time with the multicultural Westmead congregation and part-time with the Fijian Congregation. At the time, Rev. Waqabaca was the only locally trained Fijian minister. She took up the placement and it was here that her ministry flourished.
“I discovered that Parramatta had welcomed many highly respected Wesleyan missionaries to and from Fiji since 1867. Even the first King of Fiji, Ratu Cakobau, had visited and spoken from its pulpit. I felt a high sense of privilege in my call to be the first Fijian, and a woman, to become the Minister of this historical Parramatta Fijian congregation. I realised that this unexpected call was the privilege that God saved for me ever since I was 16.”
Rev. Waqabaca served at Parramatta for the next 12 years with immense energy, dedication and compassion. At the same time, she made a significant contribution as Deputy Chairperson of the Fijian National Conference for 10 years.
“The Fijian National Conference happens every two years. We encourage all Fijian congregations to come together. We sing, dance and worship in our own language. It is an opportunity for us to discuss the old ways and becoming a new Church.”
Rev. Waqabaca takes great pride in the Fijian heritage of her community and has been a connecting bridge for the second generation who are finding their own identity as Fijians living out their faith in Australia.
One significant step has been allowing the local Youth Band to conduct the whole of the Sunday Service in the English language, every second Sunday of the month. “We will continue to lose our young members unless we minister to them in English,” she says.
Over time, with Rev. Waqabaca’s encouragement, the Fijian congregation, which numbers 130, has become an actively involved in the wider Parramatta Mission congregation. They are strong supporters of the Mission’s community work with disadvantaged people.
Rev. Waqabaca laments the shortage of locally trained indigenous Fijians. There are only four ordained ministers nationally who speak the Fijian language and can minister to Fijian communities. Another two have almost completed their studies. Rev. Waqabaca set her mind to encouraging new leaders to go to college. To help motivate them, she completed her Master of Theology in 2012 at the age of 69.
At the same time, she has been dedicated to preserving Fijian culture and history and has written books and resources about the beginnings of the Fijian Church in Australia. Her biography of one of the elders of the Parramatta congregation, Adriu Rogoimuri, is now in its second edition.
“Fijians are basically oral people. We need to encourage people to write down their stories. Adriu is a role model in our Church. Younger people no longer listen to older people in meetings, not so in Parramatta! We take pride in attending Church meetings because Adriu is there.” Hundreds gathered at Parramatta Mission on 24 January to give Rev. Waqabaca a traditional Fijian farewell. This included the exchange of the tabua (whale’s tooth) and meke (Fijian dance) performed by the young people, followed by a huge feast.
National Director of Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry Rev. Dr Tony Floyd paid tribute to the Rev. Waqabaca’s contribution.
“Talatala (Rev.) Waqabaca was and is a role model and mentor for women in leadership and has been a strong encourager for the next generation of leaders,” Rev. Dr Floyd said.
“She has played a guiding role as leader and pastor to people of Fijian background who are journeying within and into the Uniting Church. Beyond this, she has made a significant contribution across other areas of UCA life and witness.”
“We are thankful that she both heard God’s call on her life and found a place in the UCA where that call could become reality.”
Chairperson of the FNC Jone Lotu commended Rev. Waqabaca for her leadership.
“She brings with her so much experience on the relevant issues that Fijians within the Uniting Church face each day and that is reflected in the pastoral care she has rendered to the Parramatta Fijian congregation.”
“She does not shy away from the hard questions and her advice and suggestions are very much sought after. She excels in bridging cultures, age groups, genders and ideas. Vinaka vakalevu na qaravi tavi Talatala Veitinia.”
Rev. Waqabaca has retired from full-time ministry but will remain a strong support and role model to the Fijian community in Parramatta and beyond.