By Kalafi Moala
20 November 2021 – He was one of the most proficient church leaders, not only in his preaching, but also in the way he led and grew his evangelical church movement to be a major denomination in Tonga and overseas.
Those who knew him noted he had an unique gift of oratory, and arguably the best preacher of his generation. His passionate preaching of the Gospel and expansive knowledge of the Bible were major features in the life of this controversial man of God, who as an evangelical leader, was uncompromising in his stand for his beliefs.
He was the Rev. Dr. Liufau Vailea Saulala, who died in Auckland, New Zealand on Thursday 19 November, at the age of 75. His wife, Falamoni Naitoko Saulala, had passed away just over a year ago.
The Rev. Dr. Liufau Saulala was known as the President and leader for life of the Tokaikolo Christian Church.
The Tokaikolo Christian Church, which was originally “a fellowship” was pioneered by the late Rev. Senituli Koloi, splitting from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWCT) in 1978. Rev. Koloi was a FWCT minister.
Dr. Saulala was one of the leading adherents of this movement that rapidly grew to be a major church denomination.
The death of Rev. Koloi in 1980, gave way for Dr. Saulala to become the President of Tokaikolo. If he was controversial, it was for the fact that he ran the Church in a most unconventional manner, being often accused by his critics as dictatorial.
He was also criticized for his role in getting the Church to be involved in several business enterprises, most if not all failed. But the worse came when he became associated with an Australian convicted conman, David Hobbs, who allegedly got Tokaikolo to invest US$250,000 in a Ponzi scheme, with little or no return on the investment.
Probably the biggest controversy that plagued Dr. Saulala and Tokaikolo was when a group split from the church in 2013, with “up to 50% of the people in the church leaving.”
Several reasons were given for the split, but the dissenters were basically unhappy with the way he allegedly “ruled and ran the Church” without much consultation.
A new group Mo’ui Fo’ou was formed, and one of the leaders of the new group is the current Prime Minister of Tonga, Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa.
There have also been mixed results as the two groups have battled it out in Courts of Law for church properties in both New Zealand and Tonga.
But perhaps Dr. Saulala’s most significant contribution to Tonga and legacy is his vision and work on Christian Education.
He co-founded Lavengamalie School 40 years ago with Rev. Senituli Koloi, who died one week after the founding of the school in February 1980.
The growth and progress, both academically and socially of Lavengamalie was remarkable. It started with Form 1 – 4 classes, Higher Leaving being the national graduating class. In 1981, Lavengamalie added Form 5, and the New Zealand School Certificate. And then in 1982, Form 6 and the University Entrance exam, with 5 students passing on their first attempt.
Lavengamalie is also known for its excellent performance in sports, and the Lavengamalie Cup for Rugby started in 2000. It is touted as the biggest school rugby competition ever held in the kingdom with cash prizes for the winners. With the success of Lavengamalie, Dr. Saulala went on to establish an University education branch for Lavengamalie in 2004. And then in 2016, a full-fledged Christ University in the Pacific (CUP) operated out of Maseia Plaza in downtown Nuku’alofa.
CUP is one of only two Universities in Tonga accredited by Ministry of Education’s TNQAB. The other is University of the South Pacific (USP) Tonga campus.
Degrees up to the PhD level have been awarded to students in the past couple of years.
The Toloa boy from Leimatu’a, Vava’u, who was one of the pioneering students of Tupou High School, and who went on to Monash University in Victoria, Australia, to graduate with his higher degrees, is remembered as a powerful church leader who heralded Christian education as foundational to Tonga’s development.
A man who was always for King and Country, he will be laid to rest in Auckland, New Zealand this week. He is survived by five sons and one daughter, and several adopted children. RIP Rev. Dr. Liufau Vailea Saulala.