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They appear literally out of the blue.

The islands of Tuvalu are a chain of pearls dropped into the ocean – a romantic image that dissolves on landing when we’re told that a siren screams each day as the plane approaches, forcing kids to scatter from the runway. All along the tarmac they’ve been passing a footy in the wet heat, dodging the puddles that seep up from deep underground, slowly reclaiming the land.

They say this island is sinking, along with nearby Kiribati.

The government there has already bought land in Fiji, a place to escape when they can no longer escape reality itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When we land, there’s no real sign of the apocalypse. As we cruise the length of Tuvalu’s main island by scooter at 55k an hour, people appear… relaxed.

They fish. They rest in the shade of their homes, tending built-up gardens, walking slowly to the single supermarket. Inside, imported food is plastic-wrapped to within an inch of its life and lies in vast freezers – frankfurters, some steak, cheese slices. There are carrots and greens. People grow their own vegetables, but salty soil kills a lot of it. The island’s narrow crust is inhospitable to plants and people, and it’s growing less benevolent by the day. This bewilders Tuvaluans, who have lived here forever and love their land.

“The reality is we can't grow enough food to live here indefinitely, and we don't have enough fresh water either.”

Sulufaiga Uota
– Tuvalu Government Energy employee and mother of two

People on remote Pacific islands live in paradise beneath swaying palms, frangipanis tucked behind each ear. The sunsets are spectacular; fresh fish and coconuts are plentiful. Safe from the corrupting influence of technology (internet is patchy at best), young people don’t twitch at Snapchat – they go to school, listen to their elders and spend long hours in the ocean. Fridays are half days and everyone wears a tropical shirt to work. No one works weekends – that’s for the Church, which claims membership at upwards of 90%.

Reality is a bit more nuanced. Wander by the water here and you’ll find a sea of rubbish – parts of the island are a massive open dump. There’s nowhere to bury plastic: the rate at which the islanders can remove their garbage can’t keep up with the rate they produce it. Like everywhere else on the planet, rubbish is a big problem here- squeezed into a much smaller space. Funafuti measures only 18km end to end, and at one point it’s just 20 metres wide.

But there’s more

It’s not just rubbish that stains the edges of this picture-perfect postcard. Coastal erosion is literally eating the land – king tides lap at homes and claim more and more usable space. In recent storms, people clung to rooftops and perched in the crowns of banana trees. Fish are moving further out to sea as temperatures rise and coral reefs are destroyed. There are fewer frangipangis, with less reason to wear them. People worry.

Family life, too, is nowhere near as peaceful as it once was. Isolated this place might be, but no one is immune to conflict, and neither are the islands safe from the ‘corrupting’ influence of globalisation and technology.

“Children are as stubborn as they’ve always been, but our ways of resolving conflict aren’t keeping pace with what society needs or accepts,” Sulu explains. “Children are more aware of their rights but aren’t taught or equipped to exercise their responsibilities, and parents are really struggling.”

Unpack that a bit more and here’s what you might find: well-meaning advisors from other parts of the globe pop in to let Tuvaluans know they need to pick up their act on issues of child protection. They have little idea about the extent to which both parents and children have relied on cultural and Biblical ideas like “children, obey your parents” and “spare the rod, spoil the child”.

Children already on the cusp of rebellion hear this new information from outsiders and believe they’ve been vindicated. And parents feel they’ve been told they no longer have the right to control their children.

“They know they need assistance with parenting, but they also feel that people from outside don’t understand our family and cultural values. There’s suspicion and frustration.” Sulu says.

Ditto ideas about ‘liberation for women’. By now, practically everyone has heard about the lowly status and correspondingly high rates of violence against women throughout the Pacific.

And so behold:

The women of Tuvalu sit in silence as their menfolk discuss matters of importance in the meeting place – open walls, thatched roof. Earlier, men eat first and (naturally) take the best fish, which the women have toiled for hours preparing. Now, during the discussion, even if the women have an opinion they won’t speak up. And among the families that are notably absent from this Christian gathering, the men will be off somewhere drinking together while the women fume silently. Later there might be raised voices and fists – all watched wide-eyed by young boys who’ll swagger the streets tomorrow and treat their female classmates with equal contempt.

The statistic across the Pacific is that two in three women will experience violence – assault, rape – mostly at the hands of their own menfolk.

“It’s not that simple,” Sulu clarifies. “Most of our men respect the women in Tuvalu – within the cultural framework, in the old way of living. There are issues with masculinity and ego, as there are in most cultures, and this can lead to conflict. It’s true that women won’t speak up in decision making. But again, when people come in from outside and talk about feminism and women’s rights, it often sounds as though it’s all just about women taking over power. That’s not really helpful.”

“What we need to hear about is balance and equality, so that we have healthy and happy families- for men, women and children. Men need to know how to respect their whole families, at all times, not just when it suits. And when a man has drunk too much, or when arguments arise, both parents need the wisdom to manage the situation, not to inflame it. But this needs to be taught from a place that respects where we come from.”

In short, Tuvalu – like all its Pacific neighbours – has problems. From predictions that it won’t exist within twenty years due to climate change, to underground alcoholism, the exodus of its young people in search of a better future and the quiet despair of parents who believe their children to be out of control, this is an island in need of hope from within.

The day we visit, though, it’s Mother’s Day. The men have worked for days to prepare food and festivities, and the Church is packed. Women are honoured, given the opportunity to speak, sing and celebrate. And they’re relishing it – shoulders back and voices raised both in song and with pointed messages from the Scriptures. At the back of the church, their menfolk shuffle their feet and appear to be wondering about how soon they might escape for lunch. More than one seems a little dusty. But they are here, and this is the first step.

It’s here, in this church, that some measure of salvation for Tuvalu might perhaps be found. Not so much in the whisking away of souls to heaven, but in the fact that good theology genuinely makes a difference to the issues people are facing, here and now. It’d be easy for an outsider to dismiss this as old fashioned, oppressive religious clap trap. It’s not.

“Christianity is part of our culture, it’s embedded in our values as much as family loyalty, as much as love of land and the sea.”

– Sulu

“The things that matter to our people – I mean, really matter – are being able to survive on the land, being able to live as family in a happy, healthy way. And right now in both those areas we are facing serious challenges. The fact that we are being offered resources to help us respond to changing climate and to relationships between men and women, from the Bible we love and treasure – this means more to our people than any other form of support or teaching. It comes from the place of our values, not from outside. And it’s transforming.”

This is what’s unique about the development approach offered by UnitingWorld in partnership with Pacific churches. It speaks to the most pressing, real world issues of Pacific people from their most influential, life giving resource – the Bible. Through workshops developed in consultation with theolgians and ordinary people from the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, it’s laying bare what Jesus taught about relationships between men and women; what wisdom can be found about caring for the land and how to develop resillience in suffering and disaster.

“The Scriptures are a resource for our health, by which I mean all kinds of health – mental, physical, economic health,” Sulu says. “I know the Bible workshops have made a big difference in other places in the Pacific. I want to see them happening here because I know there are so many issues we could improve in Tuvalu.”

The language of faith still speaks powerfully to more than two thirds of the world’s population – many of them concentrated among our neighbours in the Pacific. It makes sense to invest in speaking that language with as much heart, brilliance and clarity as we can on the issues that matter most.

To find out more about UnitingWorld’s development of accessible theological resources on relationships, equality, disaster resilience and child safety to help people across the Pacific grapple with the challenges they face, or if you would like to help fund this work please get in touch on info@unitingworld.org.au

– Cath Taylor