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‘Ainise ‘Isama’u

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July/Aug. response: The Real Deal

‘Ainise ‘Isama’u once doubted her church’s women’s organization. Now she is its national president.

by Paul Jeffrey

When ‘Ainise ‘Isama’u was first invited to a meeting of United Methodist Women, she just said no.

“Brenda Tuita invited me to an event they were having, and I said, ‘That’s cool, but no thanks,’” said ‘Isama’u. “She kept inviting me anyway. I told her, ‘Nah. They are too b-o-r-i-n-g.’ She said, ‘Just try it, you might like it. There might be something you’ll really resonate with.’ Whatever. I said no.”

‘Isama’u, a native of Tonga who grew up in the United States where her mother was a United Methodist pastor in Texas and California, remembers attending United Methodist Women meetings as a child.

“My mom stayed after church many times for their meetings, and I remember sitting on the floor as they talked. They made sure all her kids—there were five of us—were well fed. But the meetings weren’t very interesting to us. She couldn’t keep us there long,” she said. “Brenda told me that the meetings aren’t like that now. But I was a skeptic.”

Tuita finally wore down her resistance, convincing ‘Isama’u to go by telling her it was mostly women who were part of Limitless, a special United Methodist Women program for younger women.

“I went, and it was cool. It was a lot of Limitless girls, maybe 12 of us. And we all went out to eat afterward. All of them were talking about Limitless, how they’ve been able to work together with the United Methodist Women, and I thought this was kind of cool.”

Then ‘Isama’u, a member of United With Hope United Methodist Church, a largely Tongan congregation in Long Beach, was invited to a large event sponsored by the California-Pacific Conference United Methodist Women.

“It was a tea. Everybody was wearing a hat, big hats with bows on top. And every table had a different tea theme. I felt awkward because I didn’t have a hat. Somebody had to give me theirs. Brenda sat next to me and I said, ‘Why are we here? To learn about tea?’ Brenda sighed, and just told me to have an open mind.”

The program honored several women who had worked for justice in the region.

“It was a legacy tea. They talked about women who had paved the way for a lot of women today. One woman they talked about had worked on the Charter for Racial Justice. Another led protests to raise wages for women workers. They talked about women pioneers in local churches who’d worked on behalf of women, children and youth. We recognized 25 women that day. I sat there for two hours and I was floored. I hadn’t experienced that kind of recognition for any women in my life. Afterward, Brenda asked me what I thought.

“‘Wow,’ I said. ‘They’re the real deal. You can’t make this stuff up.’”

Tuita then tried to close the deal.

“Brenda asked me if I wanted to come to the next meeting. I said, ‘Let’s see where this goes. When’s the next event?’”

Something just clicked

‘Isama’u was born in Tonga, but grew up first in Hawaii, where her mother had gone to attend school and her father to work in construction. When their church’s pastor moved to Salt Lake City, they joined several other families in following him to Utah. It was while living there that her mother, Amelia Sivi Finau, received a call to the ordained ministry. They built a bed in the back of a van for their children and moved to Texas, where her mother attended Perkins School of Theology. She chose it because Dallas offered the warmest environment for the Tongan family, who ‘Isama’u says shivered a lot during Salt Lake City’s frigid winters.

The family settled in Euless, Texas, which boasts one of the largest populations of Tongans outside Tonga. ‘Isama’u still considers it her home town. After her mother graduated from Perkins, they moved to Grapevine, Texas, where her mom served as a pastor.

After 10 years there, with ‘Isama’u now a teenager, the family moved to southern California. Her mother served a congregation in Inglewood, and ‘Isama’u went to Hawthorne High School. The move from small town Texas to the big city was tough, however.

“I became the rebel in the family and gave my mom and dad a run for their money. I caused a lot of problems,” she said.

“I was the stereotype of the rebellious pastor’s kid. I didn’t want the life my mother had. She had to be a full-time pastor but also a full-time mother and at times we felt like we got the short end of the stick. It wasn’t until later I realized the sacrifices she made, all the things she’d done for us. It took me a long time to figure that out.”

But figure it out she did, and ‘Isama’u soon enrolled in college. After graduating with a degree in computer information systems, she took a job as an academic advisor at a local college.

“I always attracted the students who were seeking prayer or some kind of spiritual mentoring,” she said, “maybe because I had a picture in the corner of my office with three crosses against a sunrise. I became a counselor who prayed with a lot of people.”

‘Isama’u’s sense of ministry only grew stronger as she moved to another college, then another, each time moving up the vocational ladder, finally becoming registrar at a community college. Even as she advanced her career, however, she felt something was lacking.

“I remember sitting at my desk in a nice office with a wonderful view and hearing, ‘It’s time.’ Something just clicked in me, telling me to say yes to this nudge I’d been denying for a while.”

She talked with her husband, Henry. After they’d married, she worked full time while he studied to get certified as an electrician. Now it was time for their roles to be reversed.

“He totally understood. He said, ‘You carried me all this time so I could go to school. I’m now done and I can carry us so you can go to school.’ I cried my eyes out.”

After the couple fasted and prayed about their decision, ‘Isama’u enrolled for classes at Claremont School of Theology. She would have to commute across Los Angeles, but she felt that was better than uprooting her family and forcing her daughter Polyana to restart her life somewhere else. (And anywhere other than Claremont was likely colder.)

“I’ve long felt called to offer spiritual guidance to people seeking it. Going to seminary gave me an opportunity to pursue my calling, to connect me with resources for learning about ministry. I felt good about my choice, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing this just to follow in my mom’s footsteps. She had her own journey of ministry, and I have mine. Going to seminary also pushed me out of the shelter of the Tongan community and forced me to grapple with a diverse world. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be in a Tongan church to learn about God. I can know God anywhere in conversations with people, and if they’re from another culture, it simply adds flavor to my understanding.”

Although she doesn’t want to follow her mother’s exact path, ‘Isama’u says her mother’s journey makes her own easier.

“Tongan culture can be very patriarchal. And my mom was a trailblazer. At the time she entered the ministry it was almost exclusively Tongan men who were ordained elders, and they helped one another. If you mention my mom’s name in some Tongan circles, even today people will respond, ‘Oh you’re the daughter of that woman.’”

The tension is larger than just who gets called to ordained ministry.

“My mom would probably scold me for saying this, but growing up it was hard to be a Tongan woman, especially if you wanted to grow outside your own church. We’re very territorial. My going to seminary bothers some people because I’m a woman and because I can’t speak full Tongan. I’ve worked my way up the ranks: Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, youth director, even chair of board of trustees. But I still wasn’t completely accepted, because I couldn’t speak full Tongan. I always gave my reports in English. Then someone would say, ‘Next time give your report in Tongan.’ My Tongan isn’t that bad. My husband, who grew up there, has helped me by correcting the way I say things. I love Tongan culture and the Tongan community, but I felt like they could never completely accept a young adult woman in leadership.”

In 2020, ‘Isama’u began an internship as director of congregational life at Faith United Methodist Church in Torrance. It’s largely a Japanese-American congregation, and working there has helped ‘Isama’u understand how ethnic communities adapt over time to new cultural contexts.

“The second generation often straddles a thin line between their culture of origin and where they now find themselves. In the Tongan churches here, the first generation is reluctant to give up the reins, and just because you went off and got a degree doesn’t mean you can come back here and talk. They’re not ready for that conversation. But at Faith they’ve already had that conversation. They’re now on the fourth and fifth generation. They’ve gone through what we Tongans are going through now. There are a lot of similarities with my culture, including respect for elders and a belief that pastors are very close to God, and they’re teaching me a lot about how to be the church as culture changes.”

From boba shops to the beach

Following the tea that opened her eyes to the delights of United Methodist Women, now United Women in Faith, ‘Isama’u immersed herself in the organization. “I became a yes person. I did whatever they asked. And I loved it. I learned about the committees, the organization, and I couldn’t get enough of the women’s stories.”

She attended Limitless gatherings, in which young women eschewed church parlors for more unconventional settings, from boba shops to the beach. Because her church had no unit, she started participating in meetings at First United Methodist Church in Lakewood, where she became reacquainted with Jane Stewart, the woman who had loaned her a hat at the legacy tea.

“Jane taught me the ropes of the then-United Methodist Women and became a mentor for many of us,” she said.

As her involvement deepened, ‘Isama’u became communications coordinator at the district and then conference level. Yet she believed that such work needs to keep a focus on local gatherings of women.

“Working with the local unit is the key to this organization’s success. If none of the information ever gets to the local unit, then what’s the purpose of the national organization? I’ve tried hard to connect the national office to the local unit, to make sure the information keeps flowing, to make sure that the local unit doesn’t feel like they’re at the bottom of the totem pole.”

Isama’u worked with women in her conference to explore new methods of communicating what they were doing.

“They would have events, but wouldn’t let young women know what was going on. So the young women wouldn’t respond, because they didn’t see the whole picture. We worked on Mission u, for example, which young women perceived as a place where older women went to learn more about United Methodist Women. How can we help them understand that it’s so much more than that? We used Facebook and Instagram and Gmail and other platforms to connect women in many new ways. When the pandemic hit, I started doing workshops in how to use Zoom. We’d go step by step, so women wouldn’t feel intimidated by the technology. This gave me a way to use the skills I’ve been given. Our organization does so much for the community and the world, and I wanted to help share what we do, showcasing our ministries so that people can know what we do and who we are.”

A virtual president

In 2020, as her participation in United Methodist Women continued and she began her second year in seminary, ‘Isama’u received a phone call from Gail Douglas-Boykin, a deaconess who chaired the governance committee of the organization’s national board of directors.

“Gail called one morning to ask if I’d serve on the national board of directors. I said, ‘If you think my gifts and graces can contribute, that’s cool. I’ll do it.’ Then she called back in the evening and asked if I’d like to be national president. I said, ‘Whoa. I need a day to think about this.’ Over the next several hours I had conversations with friends and people at the seminary, people who asked hard questions, who kept me grounded. This was just before COVID, and they asked how I would juggle the travel that goes with being president while going to school and raising a daughter. They asked if this was truly where I felt God was leading me. I fasted and prayed and had a long conversation with my husband. We answered those questions together, and when the yeses became more than the noes, he said, ‘Let’s do this. We’ll do it together.’ And I called Gail back.”

Once she was elected and it became official, ‘Isama’u called her mother.

“She told me, ‘You gave us the hardest time as parents. You do remember all the things you put me and your dad through, don’t you? I didn’t know this is where it was all leading to.’ She cried. She was proud. She was a proud mom.”

“Isama’u need not have worried about the burden of traveling. The pandemic quickly took care of that. Although she became national president in 2020, ‘Isama’u didn’t travel to a meeting until April 2022, when she flew to New York to prepare for Assembly in Orlando.

Being a virtual president, however, has its advantages.

“I’ve been able to participate in many annual meetings of conference United Women in Faith, all from the comfort of my home. Many more than Shannon could, because she had to get on an airplane and often fly across the country,” she said, referring to Shannon Priddy, who was national president during the previous quadrennium.

“It has also allowed me a better balance between United Women in Faith, work at Faith, classes at Claremont and caring for my family. I can still pick up Polyana from school. She has a full schedule, with volleyball, cello les-sons and dance, and being a virtual president allows me to still be part of her life.”

‘Isama’u says she’s had to up her game on managing time, however.

“We island people practice what we call ‘coconut timing.’ We wait until the coconut falls from the palm tree, and then we know it’s time to go. That doesn’t work with so many responsibilities, so I’ve had to push myself. I’ve still got to work at improving my time management.”

After two years of Zoom meetings with the board of directors and other United Women in Faith groups, ‘Isama’u—who lives in sunny southern California—has learned when to keep quiet.

“During our meetings online, women on the East Coast always talk about the weather. They talk about snow and frozen things and how cold they are. They’ve learned not to ask me about the weather where I live. When they talk about the weather, I always remain silent.”

‘Isama’u has also served as national president during the change of the organization’s name to United Women in Faith. While some were surprised by the change, ‘Isama’u said it was a long time coming.

“United Methodist Women has been an organization that’s often 10 steps ahead. They’re really looking at what this organization will look like in the next 5, 10, 15 years. They’ve been doing research for the past several years, and the data show a shift happening, convincing us to make a bold move to rebrand ourselves. And when you look at what’s happening in the denomination today, it reinforces the wisdom of that name change.”

The name change, ‘Isama’u says, helps facilitate the development of a new generation of leaders.

“There’s a cultural shift underway. The pandemic pushed that shift even more, and many people, especially women, aren’t looking to go to church today, they’re not looking to be part of organizations structured like United Methodist Women. Rebranding means figuring out ways and programs that keep the good stuff happening but also create spaces where younger women and new women of all ages can find a home. It’s more than just a name change. The structure and program of the organization was built for another generation. While we tried with Limitless to focus on women 18-25, we’ve learned from the research that it’s women in the 30-50 age range who are most willing and likely to identify with our work of social justice, mission, leadership development and mission education. The future of United Women in Faith is continuing to do that work, but not just as Methodist women. We want women from every walk of life to join us. We want to be a group that invites everyone to the table.”

‘Isama’u says there’s one element of the United Methodist Women tradition that she hopes will remain in United Women in Faith.

“One of the best things we do as an organization is tell stories. We talk about women who courageously engaged in mission and paved the way for us. We need to hear about them, we need to learn new ways of telling their stories, of connecting their legacy to women of today.”

‘Isama’u was reluctant at first to join United Methodist Women, but today she is enthusiastic about belonging to United Women in Faith.

“I belong because I found an organization that allows me to be my authentic self and have my own voice while doing the work of God. Some organizations try to get you to conform to a certain pattern, to be like them, but United Women in Faith doesn’t do that. We don’t bring young women into the fold and manipulate them, try to force them to become something they’re not. Instead, we want them to be truly who they are called to be. That has been my experience, and it’s what I expect from an organization that stands for faith, action and sisterhood.”

‘Isama’u admits she has fallen so much in love with the organization that she finally has her own hat.

“Maybe it’s just me getting older, but now I think that wearing hats to some meetings is pretty cool. We even had a hat workshop at Mission u, and all the young women from Limitless made hats. So now I have my own hat.”

Paul Jeffrey is senior correspondent for response and a photojournalist who has long covered the world for the magazine. He lives in Oregon.