Writer: Anendra Singh
Mother Earth speaks volumes when it comes to defining life, but the Reverend James Shri Bhagwan believes a more universal dialect does that better.
In trying to put global existence on its axis from a Pacific Island perspective, Reverend Bhagwan goes deeper to elevate Mother Ocean’s role as the planet’s life source.
That isn’t because he has anything against other forms of nature, or because the ashes of his mother, the late Rachel Bhagwan, are scattered in the sea.
“I see the ocean as mother, and I see the industrialists as people who are willing to prostitute and rape their own mothers,” says the 47-year-old as he spearheads the daunting task of keeping ecological ogres at bay.
The Methodist clergyman from Fiji is the first to acknowledge the potency of his statement is at odds with his message of love and humility from the pulpit. However, he remains unrepentant in his crusade as the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC). The organisation, which promotes unity among Christian denominations, beckons 19 nation members, comprising 32 member churches and 10 national councils of churches under its Pacific umbrella. Its region spans from West Papua to Marshall Islands, New Zealand and French Polynesia.
“Industrialisation and globalisation are about grabbing what you can now,” he says after taking time out from a hectic schedule of meetings and forgoing his early morning ocean standup paddle to fulfil this interview obligation.
With the population booming in the Pacific region, Rev. Bhagwan highlights the need for a subsistence contract with the teeming marine ecosystem, and the need to recognise sustainable ways to achieving that. With ecological enemies dangling the carrot of economic gains in front of smaller island nations, he emphasises the need to find and maintain balance in the marine ecosystem amid its fragility.
“If we don’t address that the planet will suffer,” says Rev. Bhagwan. “The poor and vulnerable will feel the impact most.”
He feels a moratorium is necessary, if not a total ban on activities such as seabed mining, overfishing and “everything in between”.
“I don’t really care what the industrialists want because they benefit and profit … so the ocean suffers.”
In his universe, there’s no room for a utopian existence. That’s because its fictional society projects an “unachievable vision”. In his realm, it’s do-able if everyone acts on their spirituality and faith rather than paying lip service to it.
Rev. Bhagwan, who has degrees from the Pacific Theological College in Suva and the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea, reckons upholding the values of peace and harmony in the “Kingdom of God” is crucial.
“The ocean is not an empty space,” he says. “That’s my biggest issue.”
From where Rev. Bhagwan finds his perch, the ocean accommodates islands teeming with life. It provides food, energy and a pivotal link to the oxygen cycle.
“There’s so much [written] about the Amazon rainforest as the lungs of the earth but the Pacific Ocean is one of the lungs of the earth,” referring to the ocean’s role in regulating currents and temperatures and in storing carbon.
“I think it’s a disgusting attitude that industrialists will choose to see there’s no dignity for the rest of creation.”
In the court of contention, he tables exhibits from the ocean. One, the biggest mammals in the world live there and, two, there’s science around how fish feel.
The Pacific peoples are the custodians of the ocean by default because it’s their home. That makes it their responsibility to safeguard against exploitation, the “blue economy concept”, deep-sea mining and the dumping of nuclear waste.
To know Rev. Bhagwan better is to understand his affinity with the ocean, thanks to his parents who were lay preachers.
His father, the late Benjamin Shri Bhagwan, wasn’t a powerful swimmer but taught Rev. James and his older sisters, Lois and Sharon, how to swim at Suva’s Olympic Pool from the time they were preschoolers. The lessons continued when they lived in Lautoka. Drasa Avenue (Lautoka) and Suva International schools honed those skills.
It helped immensely that his mother worked for the ‘islands in the sun’ Beachcomber and Treasure Island resorts owned by the late Dan Costello. Going on day cruises on Costello’s Seafarer Cruises to the Mamanuca and the Yasawa islands was the norm for the family.
“That’s when my passion for the ocean began,” says Rev. Bhagwan.
He who offers his blessings in the launching of forestry and fisheries projects, was in awe of jellyfish and coral-hugging marine life he spotted from glass-bottom and island-hopper sailboat cruises during the 1970s. That curiosity led to snorkelling and kayaking at Beachcomber resort. Years later, the Reverend was involved in the blessing of the Uto Ni Yalo (a Fijian sailing canoe) to help raise awareness of ocean ecological issues. He went on to become the chaplain of its crew.
His mother was the eco-president of the Bhagwan home, marshalling the recycling of household wastes and composting. His selfless father instilled the values of ethical issues and community service.
“Both of them put their Christian faith in everything they did.”
Rev. Bhagwan says regardless of what faith and spirituality people subscribe to, the journey has got to be more than a lived exercise. It’s not just the things people say, he reckons, but what they believe that matters most. It took him the third decade of his life to explore his spirituality. That came with the enlightenment of other faiths and spiritualities.
Rev. Bhagwan walks the talk. In the past two years, he has joined university students during ecological protest marches. It marks a resurgence of youth awareness.
“We need to bring the young into our space, as scary as that may be for them,” he says of the drive to engage the texting/posting generation.
While the science of deep-sea mining isn’t conclusive, Rev. Bhagwan is happy to play the waiting game but wants to make it clear the Pacific peoples are the custodians who need to drive the campaign, not industrialists.
“It’s the development that puts the ecology first, ahead of profits,” he says. “In the Pacific, we know that, but we need to articulate that narrative.”
Rev. Bhagwan is a descendent of indentured labourers from India, known as Girmitiyas, who the British shipped to Fiji to work in sugarcane plantations and rice fields. His father was born and raised in Rewa Province, along the southeast coast of Viti Levu. That makes them the “Luvedra ni Ratu” (children of the Chief). “We must take ownership to make us feel included in the vanua,” he says. To find a sense of connection and roots to a place in the Pacific, Rev. Bhagwan believes they can learn from the Māori concept of ‘turangawaewae’ or ‘place on which we stand’.
He studied at King’s College, Auckland (1985-88), as a boarder but returned to Fiji following the military coups to ease the financial burden on his parents.
After his tertiary pursuits in Suva, he served as assistant lecturer/librarian at the Davuilevu Theological College from 2007-10 while assisting the Dudley (Indian) circuit of the Methodist Church of Fiji from 2009-11. On returning from Seoul in 2013, he was appointed secretary of communications for overseas missions of the church for five years. In 2017, Bhagwan served as acting general secretary of the revived Fiji Council of Churches (FCC).
“That was also significant because my father, at the time of his death, was serving as the general secretary of the [FCC] in 2004,” he explains. “I was continuing some of the key work he had done.”
Rev. Bhagwan’s work is his passion through his faith, which he sees as a vocational call to the ministry. Zoom has helped with rapport among the clergy during the pandemic but some of the “real work” happens when they chat face-to-face between meetings abroad.
He thought his PCC predecessor was joking when he said the job entails nine months away from home. Missing wife Maelin Pickering-Bhagwan and children, Francisco, 16, Antonia, 15, hits home when he returns to the hotels from conferences.
“I love my time with the family and with the children growing up so I want to spend as much time as I can with them until they don’t want me around anymore,” he says.
Anendra Singh is an award-winning New Zealand journalist. The Fiji-born scribe published his maiden book, Workplace Bullying, The Beat Up – Ultimate Betrayal in the Fourth Estate, in June. He now works from home as a freelance writer, editor and proofreader.
This article originally appeared in Islands Business in September 2021.