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United Methodists mourn deaths of Tongan royals, driver

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Bishop Beverly J. Shamana
July 10, 2006

By Jeneane Jones*

SAN FRANCISCO (UMNS) — United Methodists are joining the Tongan community in the Bay Area and abroad in mourning the loss of two members of Tonga’s royal family, killed July 5 in a traffic accident in Menlo Park, Calif.

According to San Bruno, Calif., police, the car carrying 56-year-old Prince Tu’ipelehake and his 46-year-old wife, Princess Kaimana, was hit by a teen driver racing her vehicle on Highway 101. The couple was returning from an evening reception when their car was clipped and rolled several times. Their driver, Vinisia Hefa, 36, a member of San Bruno United Methodist Church, was also killed.

“I join the Tongan community in our conference in mourning this loss to the royal family,” said Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, who leads the United Methodist Church’s California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference.

“The connection between the United Methodist Church and the Tongan Wesleyan Church is historical and very close, and we share the pain of these deaths with our brothers and sisters of Tongan heritage,” she said.

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Vinisia Hefa
The prince and princess of Tonga had been in the Bay Area to gather feedback from Tongan communities in the United States to promote political reform in their country. Prince Tu’ipelehake, who was chairman of the National Political Reform Committee from Tonga, is the nephew of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. He was to speak at San Bruno United Methodist Church the following evening, July 6.

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to one of the largest populations of Tongans living outside the South Pacific island nation. According to the 2000 census, more than 8,153 Tongans reside in the Bay Area, with nearly 5,000 living in San Mateo County.

“This is a great loss for the Tongan people everywhere,” said Kalafi Moala, publisher of the Taimi ’O Tonga (Tonga Times) newspaper and a member of Laurel United Methodist Church in Oakland. “The prince was called ?the people’s prince.’ Of all the members of the royal family, he was the only who could connect with the common people and their cause. That is the reason he was part of the reform movement — to give people more power in political government. He was the connection between the people and the royal family.”

Tonga, one of the world’s last true monarchies, has been moving toward democracy over the past two decades.

“The loss of Prince Tu’ipelehake is a setback for that movement,” Moala told Instant Connection. “Ours is a government hand-selected by the king. The prince has been a major force for reform, and that will be his legacy. With his death, there is no one in sight to provide the link to the king, to negotiate and talk with him in terms of the political process.”

The prince’s eldest sister, Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Fotofili, may be the person who can step into her brother’s shoes, according to Moala. Princess Siu’ilikutapu a woman of faith and a strong Methodist, attended the annual conference session of the California-Nevada United Methodist Church, held in Sacramento last month. She is credited with introducing her brother to Methodism and Christianity.

Map of TongaBoth the prince and his wife had been active lay speakers, speaking at United Methodist churches around the bay area each time they visited. When Princess Siu’ilikutapu learned of the accident, she was in Salt Lake City visiting family and returned immediately to the Bay Area.

She stepped in to replace her brother at a rescheduled public forum July 7, offering Tongans an opportunity to hear from the royal family and to address the Reform Committee’s agenda.

“It’s still too early to know what her plans are,” said Moala, but “it shows she is taking charge and taking initiative to be the front person. (The prince) was a member of parliament and quite politically involved. She has been more of a social campaigner and involved in church work, but she has a willingness to do both.”

A memorial service for the royal couple will be held in the Bay Area, and the bodies will be flown back to Tonga for a state funeral.

In a statement to church members, Bishop Shamana said: “I know that you join me in praying for King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, the queen, and the parents and family of the prince and princess and their driver, as the grace of God surrounds them in this time of deep grief and loss.” 

*Jones is director of communications for the United Methodist Church’s California-Nevada Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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