Home > Queensland Synod News > When neighbours become good friends

When neighbours become good friends

Rev Wilfred Kurepitu, Bishop Bernard Siai, Maramas Wendy Siai and Roselyn Kurepitu, and General Secretary of the Queensland Synod Dr Shirley Coulson. Photo by Osker Lau

THE ties that bind the Uniting Church in Australia to our Pacific neighbours run deep.

The Australian Methodist Church began missionary work in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the nineteenth century and in the Solomon Islands in 1902.

And through the decades which followed and the challenges posed by conflicts, political change and natural disasters, strong links have been forged between the three national churches.

The importance of the relationship was underscored during the July visit of Pacific Church leaders Bishop Bernard Siai (Moderator-Elect of the United Church in PNG) and Rev Wilfred Kurepitu (newly appointed Moderator of the United Church in the Solomon Islands) and their wives as part of a leadership development program sponsored by UnitingWorld.

While in Brisbane, the group met with Journey staff and shared some of their hopes and concerns for the future.

Both new church leaders have personal experience of the devastating conflicts which almost tore apart their countries, and of endemic tribal strife.

It is no surprise to find that one of the key roles for the church in both nations is in reconciliation and mediation.

"Ninety-five per cent of Solomon Islanders are Christian," said Mr Kurepitu, whose denomination counts 60 000 people in more than 200 congregations.

"The church is still a core part of society and has an important role in peace building," he said.

Mr Kurepitu was the superintendent minister of the Honiara circuit in Guadalcanal when ethnic tension first broke out in 2002, and took part in negotiations with rebel forces.

In neighbouring PNG, with around 600 000 members spread across 11 diverse regions, the church has been instrumental in bringing together warring factions, especially in Bougainville between secessionists and the government.

The Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP) program has been conducting peace-building workshops in the Bougainville area for more than six years.

In 2008, 32 warring tribes came together in the Southern Highlands to sign permanent peace treaties, following lengthy negotiations facilitated by YAP in Tari.

In both the Solomon Islands and PNG, the importance of the church as the provider of basic services cannot be overestimated.

In communities where most people have limited access to health, education and transport, the church plays a pivotal role in delivering services and facilitating local training – much of it in partnership with agencies such as UnitingWorld.

Building capacity within communities and within the church is fundamental.

"Our biggest problem in PNG is the management of resources and finances," said Mr Siai.

"We have a vision now, to make sure the church becomes a good steward. Training is a key issue."

Both churches have achieved striking results under challenging circumstances, working quietly but effectively with local, national and international partners to build capacity at every level.

The Solomon Islands, for example, is on track to meet two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG4: reduce child mortality and MDG5: improve maternal health), thanks to mobile clinics, education and basics such as clean water.

In PNG, amid the political turmoil, the United Church's grassroots experience has given it access to key government initiatives, such as the newly formulated 40-year plan for development.

The cautious, consensual approach hasn't stopped these Christians from speaking out, but when they do speak, they do it with the power of combined churches such as the National Council of Churches.

"Together, we can speak prophetically to the governmen as a voice for the church," said Mr Kurepitu.

Photo : Rev Wilfred Kurepitu, Bishop Bernard Siai, Maramas Wendy Siai and Roselyn Kurepitu, and General Secretary of the Queensland Synod Dr Shirley Coulson. Photo by Osker Lau