Taking pride in their neighbourhood and taking action to help our common home – in line with the teaching in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’– were among the motivations for hundreds of Tongan Catholics doing clean-ups in parks on a hot Saturday morning last month.

Groups of young Tongans, from Catholic parishes and secondary schools in Auckland and in Hamilton, were joined by family members in picking up rubbish in parks at 26 locations on November 30.

Altogether, between 800 and 1000 people were estimated to have taken part in the event, said Kuilei Pulotu, one of the organisers.

She was among those who helped fill the back of a small truck with rubbish bags at the Rongomai Rd Reserve in Otara. Auckland Council staff were at some of the parks and took the rubbish away.

Ms Pulotu was surprised, not only at the amount collected in just over an hour, but at what had been picked up. Items collected at the Rongomai Rd Reserve included a mattress, metal, bean bags, TVs and some dumped rubbish bags. While the park itself looked pristine and clean from the road, some fringe areas furthest from the street were another story.

“Seeing this rubbish today, it is just ridiculous to see that we are part of this,” said Mrs Pulotu, who teaches at St Pius X Catholic School in Glen Innes.   

The clean-up was inspired by the teachings of Laudato Si’. The Tongan Catholic chaplains, Fr Lino Folaumoeloa and Fr Soane Vahe, and members of their community, including young people, had reflected on the encyclical.   

“Bishop Pat [Dunn] has also talked about Laudato Si’ this year – so our chaplains – Fr Lino and Fr Soane – had thought of us going out and looking after our world by starting from something simple, like cleaning up. And for the community to see that this is us. So that is why we chose somewhere close to where we live, because this is our rubbish and this is our world to look after,” Ms Pulotu said.

Tongan Catholics turned out in large numbers to do their bit.

“They all turned up – grandparents, aunties, uncles, parents, teachers. So it is a whole holistic family programme – even though it is for the kids to see, but it is also us, as parents and grandparents,” Ms Pulotu said.

One of the young people who picked up rubbish was Otara local Taufa Taulanga, who said “it was good and a little bit of fun”.

When pressed to explain the “fun” aspect further, the 13-year-old said it was “leading the kids in picking up the rubbish”.

Taufa felt the job was worthwhile and it gave him pride in his neighbourhood. But he said that after working in the hot sun, he was looking forward to a drink.

Ms Pulotu said the God had been with the community in many ways, not least in terms of the “very beautiful” weather on the day.

The clean-up started with prayers on November 30, but, in fact, the Tongan Catholic community had been praying for this event for a year, Ms Pulotu said.

Otara resident Ika Mafi said the clean-up was “great, good”.

“I am proud of my Sunday School, because I am part of this Sunday School from Otara, St John the Evangelist . . .  I am so proud of what they did today – it is a great job. A wonderful day for the kids too,” she said.

Setting an example for children – and for adults too – was a strong motivation for many at the event, several people told NZ Catholic.

Malia Fononga from Otara described the clean-up as “a lesson in respect – to treat others as [you] like to treat yourself. We have to do that”.

She thanked Ms Pulotu and Frs Vahe and Folaumoeloa for their various contributions in seeing the clean-up come to fruition.

Ms Pulotu said the clean-up is not the only Laudato Si’-inspired action for the Tongan Catholic community. In Auckland, “we have made an agreement, a policy, that there [are] no more fizzy drinks and [we] try to reduce using plastics. So we will try to go back and motivate people to do that”, she said.

In the New Year, Auckland Council will work with these Tongan Catholic young people in a project to plant trees.