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Marching On: 50 Years Strong

Marching On: 50 Years Strong

The Salvation Army officially began its work in Fiji in 1973. Celebrations to mark this significant milestone took place over the weekend of December 15–17, in the nation’s capital of Suva. Part of the New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Territory of The Salvation Army, Fijian Salvationists were well supported with attendees from all four nations joining the celebrations. International Salvation Army leaders General Lyndon Buckingham and Commissioner Bronwyn Buckingham were also present as special guests for the 50th Anniversary.

Words Jules Badger Photos Jules and Mat Badger, Ben Cola and Kris Singh

You’re celebrating 50 years! It’s a party! It’s a celebration!’ declared General Lyndon Buckingham to hundreds of Salvationists of all ages gathered in Suva’s Vodafone Arena as the anniversary celebrations got underway. Salvationists from all over Fiji travelled to celebrate, encourage one another and hear from God. It was a joyous and moving sight as people who hadn’t seen each other for some years embraced and shook hands in greeting.

Territorial leaders, Commissioners Julie and Mark Campbell attended, along with other senior leaders from New Zealand, including governance board and Rūnanga members, officers, soldiers and friends. A contingent of officers and soldiers from both Tonga and Samoa also supported their Fijian brothers and sisters in celebrating this significant milestone in the Pacific.

A powerful encounter

The weekend’s celebrations began on Friday afternoon with a youth rally. It was a joyful and colourful start to the weekend as entire youth groups arrived wearing matching T-shirts printed in bold colours with inspiring verses on the back. The rally began with the entrance of General Lyndon and Commissioner Bronwyn, and after admitting his favourite food was a cheeseburger with a fried egg added, the General shared what happened to him at a youth event in 1979.

‘I went along with the hope that I might find a girlfriend,’ he said with a cheeky grin. ‘Instead, at the age of 17, I had a powerful encounter with God that changed my life forever. I can testify today that Jesus is my rock, shield, salvation, friend and guide. He is dependable and trustworthy and my journey since 1979 has proven this to be true!’

Throughout the afternoon there was inspiring worship, cultural performances and moving items from different corps, as well as powerful testimonies. Divala from Taveuni Corps shared about her near-death experience, testifying that ‘God is closer than the clothes you are wearing’.

Guest speaker Major Mat Badger spoke about the significance of the number 50 in the Bible. ‘Fifty is the “year of jubilee” and provides an opportunity to reflect on the past and prepare for the future,’ he said. ‘My dream is that some of you will be leading The Salvation Army at Fiji’s 100-year anniversary!’

Lighting the spark

Warriors with conch shells escorted the General and Commissioner Buckingham to the stage as the first main session of the anniversary celebrations got underway. Prayers were offered in Fijian, Fijian Hindi and English. A song ‘Marching in Victory’ which was written especially for the anniversary celebrations by Viliame Leqanidruaivalu (Nadi Corps) was sung for the first time. This song would become an anthem by the end of the weekend.

In 1972, Lt-Colonel Wilfred Arnold was among a group of 13 young Salvationists and four officers who made up the ‘Fiji Trek’—an exploratory trip to scope out the possibility of The Salvation Army coming to Fiji.

Now, 51 years later, The Salvation Army is alive and well in Fiji. ‘The spark lit by that trek is well aflame and Fiji is now adding to the international Salvation Army,’ Wilfred affirmed. ‘You embraced the Army’s holiness teaching and social concern and now in turn you are taking that message of hope to the world.’

Founded by faith

With the overarching catch cry for the celebrations being ‘Marching On: 50 Years Strong’, the three main sessions for the weekend were shaped by themes: founded by faith; inspired by hope; serving in love. The General wasted no time celebrating the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12) whose faith founded The Salvation Army in Fiji.

‘We celebrate this great cloud of witness! The many brothers and sisters of yours—grandparents of yours—Fijian family members who have held true to the faith and seized the opportunity in their day to pass faith on,’ said the General. ‘We are only here because of those witnesses who remained faithful.’ He made it clear that those gathered mustn’t drop the ball. ‘We are here now—it’s on us. The Salvation Army of today—individuals and collectively—are the witnesses in our generation.’

But the General didn’t stop there. Drawing on the rest of Hebrews 12, he reminded Salvationists that their faith is being witnessed. ‘I’m calling us to be ruthless with ourselves in laying down anything that could hinder and slow us down or prevent us from flourishing—any sin or stronghold or past hurts—and look to Jesus and run with perseverance the race of faith that has been marked out for us.’

As the appeal was given, the brass band from Suva Central quietly played ‘Just as I Am’, and a gentle move of the Holy Spirit began. The peace and presence of God was palpable, as many people poured forward for prayer.

From left: Playing in the rain during the march of witness on Saturday; Major Iliesa Cola (right) receives his Certificate of Retirement from General Lyndon Buckingham.

Inspired by hope

On Saturday morning the General’s message was put into action with close to a thousand people taking part in a ‘march of witness’ through downtown Suva. Rain was no deterrent as a tropical downpour hit just as the march stepped-off. Proud participants carried on and the atmosphere was joyous and celebratory. A cacophony of sound reverberated around the streets as brass music filled the air with hymns and Christmas carols and plenty of singing in the rain.

A children’s rally, a special event for women and a meeting for the men filled the afternoon before everyone gathered again in the evening. Honoured guest, President of The Republic of Fiji, H.E. Ratu Wiliame Maivalili Katonivere, addressed the congregation, expressing appreciation for the work of The Salvation Army in Fiji over the past 50 years.

With Lamentations 3:21 as her text, Commissioner Bronwyn inspired everyone with a message of hope. Acknowledging that some may feel ‘hope-less’ because of the state of the world or debilitating personal circumstances, she empathised saying, ‘I have those days’. But she pulled no punches when she boldly called the congregation to put their hope in Christ.

‘My brothers and sisters, now is not the time to be defeated! This is the time to lift our eyes above what we see—as difficult and distressing as that may be—and place our eyes confidently back on the One who knows the beginning from the end and can be trusted to bring us through. Now is the time for our lives to express confident hope in Christ.’

Examples of hope-filled lives were celebrated as the meeting continued with long service awards presented to soldiers, local officers and staff. The retirement of the territory’s first Fijian-born divisional commander of Fiji and much-loved officer Major Iliesa Cola was a special moment.

Serving in love

No one could mistake the theme for Sunday morning as anything but a celebration of God’s love, and the response of Fijian Salvationists to that gift of love. One such expression was the enrolling of 12 new soldiers by the General, who said, ‘I’m delighted that the first soldiers I enrol as General are all from my home territory!’

More expressions of loving service for God were celebrated as faithful officers received long service awards and promotions. An appeal for candidates followed with close to 100 soldiers swarming forward in response.

Top: General Lyndon Buckingham enrolling soldiers on Sunday morning at Vodafone Arena in Suva. Bottom, from left: Patricia Richardson (left) and Lt-Colonel Wilfred Arnold (right) from the 1972 trek to Fiji, with Commissioner Bronwyn Buckingham and General Lyndon Buckingham; jubilant Salvationists at Vodafone Arena; the kids letting out the joy!

As the General began his final message for the weekend, he asked what motivated officers, soldiers, staff and volunteers to keep going. ‘What motivates me,’ he declared, ‘is my understanding and experience of God’s great love for me.’

Leaning into 1 John 3:12, the General explained that ‘the great theme of the New Testament is God revealing himself to us as a God of love. He wants us to understand that his motivation towards us, his provision for us, his care of us, is all motivated by a deep and lavish love for each one of us. How great is the love God has lavished on us! Lavish means that what God is giving to us is his absolute abundance.’

The General asked the congregation, ‘Do you know his love?’ Then he asked, ‘How is it then that you are expressing your gratitude to God for his love?’ Sharing from the depths of his own compulsion to respond by making himself available for service the General said, ‘We can’t just talk about the love of God, we must share it.

‘God wants us to receive his love and then share in his work of redemption and reconciliation. Go out and feed the hungry, clothe the naked. Go out and love the unloved. Go out and be a demonstration that the world doesn’t have to be ugly. That the world doesn’t have to be violent, selfish and greedy, and that people don’t have to live in fear. Under the guiding hand of God, we can demonstrate that this is possible—we can live differently and build communities that reflect the values of the kingdom of God. We must be men and women who know what it is to be loved by God, to have received mercy and grace and then out of gratitude—not duty or to win favour or earn points, but simply out of gratitude—present ourselves to God as living sacrifices and be agents of his love in the world. Will you do your part?’

Another 50 years

The General concluded by encouraging Fijian Salvationists to keep going for another 50 years. He asked the congregation, ‘Are you with me?’ Hundreds of people, young and old, stood and moved quickly to the front of the arena to stand with the General in a powerful, public declaration of their commitment to the mission and ministry of The Salvation Army in Fiji.

Many lingered after the meeting concluded—not in reluctance to return to their mission stations, but because clearly, God had been present.  

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