Tema (right) with Chaplin Michael Harper at their station in the "holiday tent," where they offer prayers, a listening ear, and Bibles to people in the cars that come for material and spiritual assistance. PHOTO: COURTESY OF METROPOLITAN MINISTRIES

Tema (right) offers Bibles, prayer and a listening ear with Chaplain Michael Harper at the annual holiday tent set up by Metropolitan Ministries to provide material and spiritual help at Thanksgiving and Christmas. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MELEANITEMA SAPOI-FINAU

Meleanitema Sapoi-Finau joined the Global Mission Fellows program, traveled across the country and discovered what God had been preparing her for all along.

By Christie R. House
March 21, 2022 | ATLANTA

Meleanitema Sapoi-Finau, known as “Tema,” grew up in Anaheim and Long Beach, California, part of the busy metropolis of Los Angeles. Like many United Methodists in the U.S., she grew up among a diverse population of many cultures, but when it came to Sunday mornings, her church family all looked pretty much like her.

“We’re all Tongan,” she laughed. “We have a very strong sense of community, and it’s a large community on the West Coast.”

She earned an Associate degree in communications from Long Beach City College and a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology with an emphasis in culture from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Both have come in handy in her Global Mission Fellow US-2 assignment in Tampa, Florida.

Tema Sapoi-Finau models how to be a holiday light of hope in front of Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, Florida. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MELEANITEMA SAPOI-FINAU

Stepping out in faith

“I think I had the notion that Tampa was going to be like Long Beach, because they are both on a coastline and the weather is similar, but there are very different demographics. Moving was actually a big culture shock,” Tema said.

On the West Coast, there are more Asian Americans, and she was used to being among people from the Philippines, Korea and Guam. But in Florida, Latino populations are more prevalent. Yet, even the Latino populations in Tampa were different, generally from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “In California, I’d never met a Dominican. There are mainly Mexicans and Central Americans,” she explained.

While she had grown up in the Tongan United Methodist Church, it wasn’t until she reached college that she consciously started to seek spiritual guidance. University Methodist Church in Santa Barbara hosted open class discussions on controversial subjects and advocated for ways to name and reconcile historical injustices. These were some of the same topics she was grappling with in her college classes. “It became my beacon of hope, combining these two features of my life together,” she said.

Tema comes from a long line of Tongan Methodist pastors, back to her great grandfather and his brothers in Tonga. Her grandmother is a retired pastor of the UMC. But she felt pressure from this heritage, as it created high expectations for her life.

Her aunt, ‘Ainise ‘Isama’u, is currently the president of United Women in Faith, the new name of United Methodist Women. She convinced Tema to apply for the Global Mission Fellow program. Though Tema had decided she did not want to pursue any kind of religious profession, the way that Global Mission Fellows combines spiritual life with work and study about social justice issues appealed to her, as it was similar to what she found with her college UMC. And, she discovered, God had a different plan for her.

Growing in confidence

At first, she was apprehensive about the placement and the move, but after being in Tampa for eight months, she has become more comfortable in her role. Her assignment is with the Spiritual Formation Team of Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa as the Youth and Children’s Ministry Coordinator. Metropolitan Ministries is a nonprofit agency working to find shelter, permanent housing and job opportunities for homeless families. Tema’s assignment is particularly concerned with the spiritual well-being of the children and teens in Metropolitan Ministries’ shelters.

Tema leads the children’s moment at Metro’s outside worship service for client families before Thanksgiving dinner. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MELEANITEMA SAPOI-FINAU

She holds Bible study with teens and children at Metropolitan’s shelters and is part of the team that prepares the weekly chapel service held for staff online.

“I was, typically, the one who was listening during Bible study. Now, I’m the one leading it, though that took some time. I have created my own identity at my work space and now I’m confident enough to take leadership spaces,” she said.

While she feels she is growing, a chapter in her life she describes as “self-realization,” Tema also credits the Spiritual Formation Team and other colleagues and volunteers at Metropolitan Ministries for allowing her to find her way and helping her through the rough spots.

“My degree in anthropology helped me be in the mindset and mentality of people coming from different walks of life – listening and processing from a point of understanding rather than a point of judgement. I absolutely love the classes I took in college. I think in the space that I am in now, I am able to apply my college studies to my life.”  

The communications degree has also helped her. She sees the main goal of her position as being a consistent and caring adult for the children and youth she is with, on the days she is with them. She tries to be a helping hand and someone who will listen to them. “I think that kids who are in this situation – and kids who are not – just want an adult to listen to them, to know that their words carry meaning. Just because they are teens or kids doesn’t mean they are not valued.”

Tema confirms that becoming a Global Mission Fellow has changed her perspective on her home church. She spent years in youth group, worked as a camp counselor, volunteered for service projects and worked with kids in a shelter.

“I think being brought up in the UMC helped to mold me into being someone who can lead groups and be comfortable in conversations where there are different opinions being expressed. That foundation has carried over into my current position, and the GMF program has helped to strengthen that and helped me see what it fully means to be United Methodist and why our church is different from other denominations.”

The Global Mission Fellows program will be accepting new applications for U.S. service for the 2022-2024 class through March 31, 2022. GMFs serve with Global Ministries for two years in mission-related placements outside their home context. For more information, visit: https://umcmission.org/global-mission-fellows/.

Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries and UMCOR.