Finding Family in Fiji

Sometimes kinship and solidarity can be found in the most unlikely of places--even the South Pacific.

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I don't recall ever spending time studying the people and cultures of the South Pacific prior to preparing for a missions trip to Fiji. I obviously recognized Fijians as people of color, but did I feel the same connection for these beautiful people that I felt when I met other blacks who lived overseas? No. Because they aren't black. At least, that's how I saw it.

Before I got there, I was so focused on serving with Homes of Hope, a nonprofit that rescues victims of child sex trafficking and other sexual abuses, that this was one of the rare instances in the last couple of years where I wasn't giving a lot of thought to race.

So I was not prepared for the stares when I arrived in Nadi as the only black person in a group of 17 missionaries. I wasn't uncomfortable. At worst, the glances came with welcoming smiles. But they also reflected curiosity. At the airport, Fijians approached me, speaking to me in their native language--which honestly surprised me. I'm darker than most Fijians, so I figured that the Fijians would assume that I was not one of them. Others would approach me, only to be caught off guard by my American accent shaped by stints in D.C., the South, the Midwest and now the Southwest. Others immediately pegged me as an outsider, someone who clearly couldn't claim one of Fiji's 300-plus islands as home--but they still couldn't figure out what country I did call home.  When I told them that I was American, surprise played across their faces. Then came the questions. Lots of questions. Often about Obama.

I was first, shocked by their interest, and then, humbled. These people, whose lives I wanted to know so much about, were taking a sincere interest in mine. Too often, missionaries, despite all attempts to do things differently, travel abroad with the goal of touching--not necessarily with the expectation of being touched.

When we finally arrived on the campus of Homes of Hope, the first mother I met, Salote, greeted me with a smile and wide eyes. ''Hello,'' I told her. She responded in kind--I think--but what I remember most clearly was her saying, ''I've never met a black American before. We have always wondered why black Americans never come over here to serve.''

Awkward.

I assured her that many black Americans were concerned with the plight of oppressed people internationally--particularly blacks and other people of color--and that my being in Fiji confirmed that, as many of the people sponsoring my trip are black Americans. But I'm not sure that really answered the question she was really asking about black American Christians. So I told them this: Yes, the black churches I'd been affiliated with are certainly missions oriented--and had even partaken in ministry opportunities overseas--but their primary outreach is local. In other words, ''We should help our next door neighbor in need before going anywhere else.''

Her response? ''Oh.'' The kind of ''oh'' that says, ''I guess'' before shrugging.

One day, after a cyclone hit our island, I was nailing screens to the windows of Shalom's bure. To keep myself entertained while working, I peeked through the window to watch Rize, a documentary about krumping that Shalom was also viewing. I was certainly familiar with the dance style and had heard about the documentary, but I'd never bothered to watch it. I found it ironic that I live a one-hour plane ride from Los Angeles, but learned most of what I know about krumping in a small house in the Fijian jungle.

In time, I came to understand why many of the locals felt such a connection to me and black America. During dinner at the home of my new friend, Joape, his mother broke it down for me further: Native Fijians, Mrs. Varawa said, were descendants of people who had migrated from Africa to Asia before settling in the South Pacific. This belief went so deep that her family and many residents in their neighborhood--which they have nicknamed ''Kenya''--spent months raising money to support missionaries in Nigeria. The Varawa family's church supports more than 300 missionaries around the world, many of them in Africa and some in America.