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Papua New Guinea challenging, encouraging, humbling and disturbing

Rev Bruce Cornish with his Haro family hosts in Iokea Village, West Gulf Region, PNG
North Queensland Presbytery Minister Rev Bruce Cornish recently attended the 20th Assembly of the United Church in Papua New Guinea at Lokea Village, West Gulf Region and found the experience of his first trip to Papua New Guinea challenging, encouraging, humbling and disturbing. This is an extract from his report to the Presbytery of North Queensland.

I was there for 12 days that were filled a great deal that was new and different, in which I experienced:- the incredible hospitality of the people in the villages especially my host family, Joe and Freda Haro and their children Juliet, Yvonne and Adam. the deep faith of the members of the Assembly and the people in the villages the acute poverty of many of the people especially when compared to life in Australia.

I was present at the United Church Assembly meeting as the official representative of the Uniting Church in Australia. As such I shared the greeting of the church and especially the President Gregor Henderson with the Assembly.

I was also present in my capacity as Chairperson of the North Queensland Presbytery as we are in partnership with the United Church, particularly the West Gulf Region, in providing ministry on Thursday Island.

We arrived at Lokea village from Port Moresby on Friday 27th October after a five hour trip in six coaster buses over in places some very rough roads.

The welcome both along the way and when we arrived at Iokea was moving and very genuine. The people of PNG certainly know how to make guests feel welcomed and honoured.

The village had been preparing for this Assembly meeting since March and many new buildings had been built as well as extensions to houses to accommodate the over 100 delegates and visitors.

It must be noted that this village of around 2,500 people does not have electricity, sanitation as we know it or running water. Some generators were brought in for the meeting to supplement the one small generator in the village which is situated at the small store.

A great deal of food, cooking utensils, some bedding and other items were also brought in for the meeting.

The logistics of holding such a meeting in a village so far from any major centre are incredible but the impact of that on the village and the West Gulf region is, I believe, significant.

The 20th Assembly was officially opened by the Governor General of Papua New Guinea, His Excellency, Grand Chief, Sir Paulius Matane on Sunday morning. This was in itself a very important event. Sir Paulius flew in by helicopter and was welcomed in typical PNG style.

Following the formalities a feast was shared. Entertainment by way of dancing and singing was an integral part of that time.

The theme for the 20th Assembly meeting and for the following time is “Investing in Children and Youth” with the sub-theme of “Building and Empowering Leaders to make a Difference”.

The meeting processes followed a fairly traditional western model of meetings with reports, questions, resolutions and debate etc. Included as part of the process were discussions in 5 committees that occurred later in the first week.

These committees caught up the issues and recommendations from the reports of the Moderator, the Bishops from each of the ten regions and the reports from the Assembly Institutions which were presented on the first three days. These committees were then to bring recommendations to the floor of the Assembly for decision. This would have occurred after I.

One aspect of the conduct of the Assembly meeting that was very notable was the worshipful and prayerful conduct of the whole time that so obviously reflect the deep faith in God and God’s provision and oversight of all aspects of life of the delegates and indeed the whole community in which we loved.

A highlight for me was the Bible Study lead by Rev. Dr. William Longgar, the first and at this time only person to have achieved a doctorate in the United Church of PNG.

As a part of the programme the overseas partner church guests (from Australia, Samoa and Tuvalu) were requested to share with the Assembly and to take part in the normal business of the Assembly. At other times villages relatively close by requested that we visit.

Those visits were significant times of learning as well as blessing as we once again experienced the incredible hospitality of the people of Papua New Guinea which as my friends from Samoa and Tuvalu reminded me, is also reflected in other Polynesian and Melanesian cultures.

In his bible study Dr William Longgar reminded us all of this when he said, very correctly and with an apology to me, “Australian people SAY thank-you, we DO thank-you”. In the context of what he said in his Bible study and what I experienced that is a very true statement.

I want to spend a little time on what I have termed “the acute poverty of many of the people especially when compared to life in Australia.”

As I mentioned my host family was a young family in the village who have a deep faith (they happen to be SDA) but who are very poor with regard to material possessions even at a basic level.

For example, they do not have any lighting apart from a home made very small kero light made with a coffee bottle. Their staple diet is sago, bananas and coconuts.

Their usual food was supplemented by flour, rice and other items supplied by the organising committee from funds given by the government and church to the village in order to host the Assembly meeting.

Their homes are made of coconut beams, bush timber, woven sago walls and coconut leaves or iron as roofing material. There is no social security system in the country so all families need to earn money to purchase food or produce or grow their own.

Without running water and with many gardens some distance from the village the food supply is very dependent on the seasons. Both extreme dry and long wet seasons with flooding cause hardship in the communities and a shortage of food and safe drinking water.

The next couple of months will see the dry season seriously affect life in Iokea village. Even when we were there, especially with the extra people present, water levels in the wells were falling rapidly.

As I mentioned at the start of my report, my experiences in Lokea and in PNG were challenging, encouraging, humbling and disturbing.

I was challenged by the needs that I saw in the village and heard about in the reports on the work of the United Church across PNG. The government is relying on the church to play a very large role in meeting the basic medical and educational needs of people in many areas of PNG and there are limited resources to do that.

There is also a very important community development and peacemaking role being played by the United Church in PNG. The Uniting Church in Australia and other churches are assisting this process.

The church in PNG is well respected at all levels of society. This is partly evidenced but the significant financial contribution made by the government to help host the Assembly meeting in Iokea.

I was greatly encouraged by the Christian faith of the people, their enthusiasm for their faith which was evident through their singing, dancing as well as their worship, devotional and prayer life.

Their thankfulness to God for His provision for them was very moving, especially as what they had, compared to what we have in Australia, is very different.

I was humbled by the welcome and hospitality of the people wherever we went. I was especially humbled as I shared with and was cared for by my host family Joe and Freda Haro.

They not only fed and looked after me but gave up their room for me to sleep in and would walk me to and from the venue for the meetings each day.

I was also disturbed in my spirit. I was not disturbed by the people in Iokea but disturbed as I spoke with them and listened to their stories, the challenges of perceived corruption in government, the inequity between life in the villages and in some other parts of the country.

I was also struck by the massive inequity between life and opportunities in Lokea compared to Australia. As I sat with them each night and experienced their need I was significantly moved. Australia is a wealthy country.

Photo : Rev Bruce Cornish with his Haro family hosts in Iokea Village, West Gulf Region, PNG