Bats! Skinned bats’ wings poked out of hand-woven grass baskets. Their tiny fox-like heads and beady eyes stared at me although they were dead and prepared for cooking. Bats are an island delicacy and would, no doubt, be part of the fare.
I sat awaiting my meeting with King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga in a covered area next to the Royal kitchen. My gracious Tongan hostess had cinched a Tongan ta’ovala tightly over my dress so I’d be appropriately dressed for the King. However, the finely woven Pandamus leaf mat, which extended from my midsection to knees, made it hard to breathe. I sat straight as a board, sweat beading on my forehead.
The king’s chef busily prepared a sumptuous feast for his majesty and distinguished guests, which, I presumed, included the beady eyed fox-bats. And for that I’m glad I wasn’t invited. He could see me through a window and spoke to me, admiring my traditional dress. “You look beautiful, like a Tongan woman.” Amazing! I felt anything but beautiful, damp with sweat and hair done without benefit of hair dryer or curling iron!
We came to the Tongan islands representing South Seas Christian Ministries (SSCM), in August, 1998, leading a team of 12 young adults and five leaders for an outreach. The king lived 300 miles away on the main island of Tongatapu.
After settling into our hosts’ home we discovered a big celebration would occur during the next three days. The king himself would be on our island. We would see him in person, this monarch we’d only seen in pictures and all of us were excited.
Sunday our SSCM team attended the Wesleyan Methodist Church where his majesty and the princess attended. This island royalty sat across from us in beautifully carved chairs set apart from the congregation. We were escorted up front where a choir would generally sit, as honored guests. We couldn’t help staring. But no one could tell where the king cast his gaze since he wore very dark glasses.
After the service I mentioned to the pastor, Mosesi, my desire to give my book, No Regrets, to the king. Mosesi contacted the king’s secretary and the next day I was introduced to her.
After looking the book over and reading my personal note inscribed on the inside front cover, she suggested I give it to the king personally. “Although his majesty is quite busy with heads of state from all the Asian Pacific Parliament,” she told me, “I’ll try to set up an audience for you.” If the secretary could arrange it, the meeting would be on Thursday right before he left the island. It was an answer to my prayer, this rare audience with the king. I’m no dignitary, in fact I’m considered a “commoner” in Tonga.
On Wednesday, I planned to visit a village across the harbor with a SSCM team member, Joyce. Strangely, we couldn’t hire a “water taxi” even though we tried several fishing boats. Hot and thirsty, we walked to a sandwich shop, disappointed we’d been unable to reach our destination. We sat instead, enjoying a rare iced soft drink in the Bounty Bar.
Just as a waitress served our sandwich the proprietor announced; “Is there a Judy Robertson here? There’s an urgent phone call.”
On the phone I recognized the high pitched voice of Leisl, the leader of our SSCM team, “Judy, the king’s messenger has been looking all over Vava’u for you. You have an appointment with the king at 2:00 pm. Today!”
“Today? Oh my gosh! Thanks for finding me, Leisl.” Butterflies looped in my stomach. “Joyce, I’ve got an hour to get ready. The king wants to meet with me today instead of tomorrow!”
The ten minute walk to my Tongan hostess’s home gave me time to collect my thoughts. Lord, this king is only an earthly king but You are the King of Kings. I pray to be Your ambassador. I don’t have a clue what to say.
I told my hostess when she came into the house, “Tina, I have a meeting with the king at 2:00!”
Her eyes misted and she began singing, “God is so good, God is so good, God is so good He’s so good to me.” She hugged me and said, “You can wear my ta’ovala.”
The trickle of water from the shower barely rinsed the soap off me and my hair. Then my hair dryer refused to work. I slicked back my hair the best I could…it’s not my hair or my looks that’s important, it’s what I say to the king.
Tina brought in her prized ta’ovala and tied it tightly around my waist. She topped off my attire with another prized possession; a belt made of her sister’s hair.
Mosesi drove me to the king’s palace, let me out and pointed to the outdoor receiving area. I walked slowly over the grassy hill and sat on what appeared to be a chair for guests. It was graced with beautiful Tongan tapa cloth. Its natural background emphasized the dark brown designs hand painted on it. Suddenly a Tongan woman appeared motioning for me to move to the grass mat on the ground. “Only for the princess,” she motioned to the chair I sat on. Embarrassed, I sat on the mat with legs folded tailor-fashion, humbled, below the princess’ chair in the proper place for the “commoners.”
Soon, a uniformed guard escorted me to the front of the palace where the king, dressed in official royal garb, sat on the verandah facing the emerald blue Vava’u harbor. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV stood and greeted me. I felt honored and at the same time mumbled a silent prayer; Lord, what do I say to this earthly king? Please give me words.
I handed him my book with my greetings scrawled inside. He said, “I am so glad to meet the author of this kind of book,” he said. “I am excited to read about this subject.”
Talking about the book put me at ease and we went on to other subjects of interest to the king, his travels, improvement to his islands, food and his exercise regime.
I felt strange talking small talk with this man who was used to visiting with all sorts of dignitaries. Why does he feel so comfortable chatting with me? I felt quite relaxed, too, visiting with this king even though we came from such opposite positions in life.
“Your majesty, my husband and I visited eleven of your beautiful islands. We’ve come for twelve years with teams from America to offer Bible camps for the children and assistance for the pastors and lay people. Is there any other way we can help in your islands?” King Taufa’ahau shook his head, no.
Our visit lasted one hour. His majesty, who just turned 80 the month before, was gracious to me and wished me well as our visit ended. In that brief hour I became a friend of the king of Tonga. Walking away from the palace down the dirt road, I realized the king didn’t want anything from me, he only wanted my presence.
As exciting as it was to be in the presence of this earthly king, even more exciting is that I have met the King of Kings. He too, doesn’t want anything from me, He only wants my presence. And not for only an hour here on earth….but for eternity.
And He calls me His friend, too. Imagine!