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Pacific Tag

Mary’s father told her not to do it.

Her husband told her not to do it. Everyone in her community told her not to do it.

She did it anyway…

Mary went to college to begin training to become the first woman pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.

It may seem like a small thing, but in a place where the dominant culture says that men  are the leaders and women follow, you simply cannot imagine what a triumph this was, or how delighted I was to meet Mary recently and hear her story.

“I am one of seven children and all my life I wanted to serve God,” Mary proudly told me, as chickens scratched nearby. “In grade six, I passed all my exams – the only girl in my whole village. I went on to high school in Port Vila. I wanted to be a minister in the church.”

Top of her year right through to grade ten, Mary’s dream had been to go on to university and theological college. But she was set for heartbreak when her family chose her brother instead of Mary to be given the chance for higher education.

“I trained to be a schoolteacher, but I didn’t give up my hope of pastoral training,” Mary said. “And after a few years I went back to do a course through the theological college. My father told me not to continue. He said “People do not want this! They don’t want the women preaching and leading. It’s not our culture.” I told him ‘No Dad, this is my Christian faith. I need to do this. And if the young men can do it, why can’t I?”

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

Mary’s challenges will be familiar to you if you’ve read about our work in the Pacific before. It’s not just patriarchy that has held women back from opportunities and enabled high rates of domestic violence. Traditional readings of the Bible have also justified unequal power between men and women.

That’s why Mary’s determination to challenge the status quo, following her call into ministry despite the difficulties, is so significant.

“I finished my training and was sent to teach religious instruction at one of the high schools and also helped with theological instruction in a training centre, but I became very sick and had to return home,” Mary continued. “That’s when one of the local families suggested I marry, and introduced me to the man who would become my husband – they explained that I would have good support for my ministry and I was excited! We married and soon our first son was born.”

But the next few years continued to hold many challenges for the young family. Placements were hard to come by, and Mary was only offered remote areas in which to serve. Both men and women were uncomfortable with her leadership and it was considered taboo for her to speak in public or to be involved in decision making.

“As I studied more and more from the Bible, I began to ask questions of the village chiefs. ‘Why are women always treated so badly? Why should they suffer so much?’” Mary recalls.

“And as I took more leadership, my own husband began to spend more and more time away from home. Eventually he told me: ‘I have fallen in love with someone else. I have taken another wife.’ My heart was broken.”

Now on her own with three sons, there were few places Mary could turn to for support.

I’ve seen firsthand how difficult life can be for women and girls like Mary in the Pacific. Poverty and violence tighten like a noose on those without family networks because most women don’t work – they’re full-time mothers and wives. Vulnerable and often silenced, there simply haven’t been places for women to speak out or find support for their plight.

Until now.

Stirred by their belief that equality between men and women is at the very heart of God, our church partners across the Pacific are taking action. In a culture where 90% of people identify as Christian, they recognise their influence to help end violence and create a future of dignity and equality for women and men.

You can help our church partners change lives and end family violence Donate today.

The breakthrough – and with it, relief for women like Mary – really began with a meeting of leaders just a few years ago. Ministers, government leaders and lay people came together from across the Pacific.

Solomon Islander Reverend Dr Cliff Bird, alongside his wife Siera and using resources developed with the assistance of UnitingWorld, opened the Bible for the first time to this influential group to teach the richness of life available when we recognise the equality of both men and women.

Rev Dr Cliff and Siera Bird

The Birds taught partnership. They taught trust and cooperation.

They taught the truth found in Genesis that both man and woman are created in the image of the same God, with equal value and potential.

They taught the gospel story of the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus non-violently challenged the Pharisees and Scribes to prevent violence against the woman; “Where was the man who committed adultery?” they asked.

They taught Paul’s description to the Galatians about their unity and equal value in the eyes of God: “…there is no longer male and female; all are one in Christ Jesus.”

And they taught the freedom that can be found when men and women work together in partnership, unravelling how centuries of unquestioned male dominance was ruining the harmony God intended for us all.

Change is happening. For many, the teaching was a complete revelation. They’d simply never heard anything like it. Men openly wept. They recognised the way superiority feeds arrogance and seeds violence. And they asked for forgiveness. They were hungry for a new way to relate to one another and their community.

The men went back to their churches and communities. They began the slow and painstaking work of committing to address the systemic inequalities that characterised their lives, homes and institutions; making plans to live, teach and workshop their new knowledge.

In their own lives, they began to make small changes – listening to their wives, acknowledging their daughters, cleaning the house and taking a bigger role in their children’s lives. And they began to recognise acts of “family discipline” for what they were – often violent and abusive – within their communities and homes.

As we supported our partners to lead more workshops in their churches, we began to hear more of these stories, over months and years from across the Pacific. We realised that this was a way to address inequality and violence that cuts through at all levels.

A Gender Equality Theology workshop in Kiribati, 2019

Incredibly, the work was recognised by the Australian Government. They saw that in many Pacific societies, one of the most effective ways to make change was by supporting churches to re-examine their theology, create advocates and communicate messages of equality through religious networks. They recognised the enormous potential that churches hold as agents of change in communities right across the Pacific. They’ve been a supporter of this work ever since, learning from our partners’ resources and experts.

We know this approach can make a difference to the lives of women and men in the Pacific; restoring equality, reducing violence and helping girls thrive. But we need your support. For centuries, the implicit and explicit teaching of church and culture has been that women are subordinate to men, with all the assumptions that go with it. Unravelling this mindset is long-term, difficult work. Click here to donate now.

In Vanuatu where Mary has struggled all these years, Pastor Nipi was one of many people to attend gender theology workshops for men and women we’ve facilitated with our partners over the past three years.

“I never knew what gender balance was or what it meant in relation to the Bible,” he told me. “At first I thought – what is this ‘gender balance’ they are talking about? We never believed men and women could be equal. But as I made my studies and we talked, I realised there is something there for me to learn! It has infected me! I like it!”

Once a sceptic, Pastor Nipi is now a colleague of Mary and one of many enthusiasts spreading the word about gender equality across the Pacific. He has now been tasked with preparing theological and practical resources for the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu to lead the work with communities in remote and rural regions throughout the entire country. From unquestioningly assuming that only men had the power and skills to lead, he now believes that women have a vital and equal role to play.

“Working together, women and men can improve life for people in Vanuatu and the whole of the Pacific Islands,” Pastor Nipi says.

“We are using the radio, television and newspaper to talk about gender balance and what the Bible says and it has created such interest! Many people don’t believe until they study the Bible notes we make and then they say, ‘Oh! There is something here for us!’ And they are accepting women as equals. I cannot tell you what a change this is for us.”

Pastor Nipi says he’s had feedback from rural Vanuatu, high in the mountains and remote areas, that the material being produced is being read with astonishment. In plain language at the level people can understand, this teaching is a revolution in people’s lives.

Pastor Nipi, Vanuatu

Pastor Nipi, Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, we supported our partners to produce television commercials that call out violence against women as robbing men and women of the fullness of life that God offers. We’ll support more of our partners to do the same in their different contexts across the Pacific.

In Papua New Guinea, theological college students, both male and female, are excited to be attending our first workshops to learn exactly where and how Jesus valued the lives of women.

In Kiribati, we’re preparing plans to combat family breakdown and violence by teaching parenting skills that emphasise the equality and dignity of all people, as well as the rights and responsibilities of boys and girls.

In the Solomon Islands, our partners recently hosted their first gender equality theology workshops led by Solomon Islander theologians. As a result, church leaders took it to their national assembly and resolved that gender equality is a biblical imperative. We are now supporting them as they create contextually appropriate resources on gender equality and child protection and roll it out across their churches.

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

“Here is what I want women and girls to know,” Mary told me from the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting, where she was an eager participant.

“We can do this together. We can make this change. In the community, in our churches and in the government – we have an important role to play. And men? Do not criticise us. We can do this together. We can share the responsibility of leadership together.”

Mary continues to serve the church in Vanuatu, no longer on the edges but as a far more respected and integrated member of the community. Her challenges are far from over, but she has come further than she could ever have imagined. The Gender Equality Theology project has helped turn the tide and now many are following in Mary’s footsteps. Since the first workshops were held, a woman has been appointed as the first Presbytery Clerk (Lead Minister) and six more women have become pastors in the PCV.

Mary’s success shows that together we can turn tragedy into triumph.

Your gift today can provide our partners in the Pacific with the ability to facilitate workshops, train workshop leaders, produce training resources and create advocates for gender equality and anti-violence. We know it works. We just need the resources to make it happen.

In a world with far too much bad news, I pray you’ll join me in celebrating Mary’s achievements and supporting more women like her in the Pacific who are ready to overcome inequality and violence.

Mary’s triumph cost her dearly. But in a world full of tragedy, she’s absolutely determined to see more triumphs.

Aren’t you?

You can help our church partners change lives and end family violence with the biblical message of equality between women and men.

Click here to donate now.

With climate change intensifying the ferocity and frequency of natural disasters—typically in regions where the poor are disproportionately affected—how do we as the Church respond?

That was the question posed at UnitingWorld’s annual conference of Southeast Asia Partners, held in Bali from 29 July to 2 August 2019.

Delegates from Bali, Java, Maluku, West Timor, Timor-Leste, Papua and West Papua and North Luzon in the Philippines gathered to hear from experts and share their own experiences of climate change and disasters.

Indonesian disaster specialist Henry Pirade led sessions with project managers on how to conduct risk assessments, prepare local communities to be disaster ready and how to carry out effective disaster response.

Delegates enthusiastically shared their experiences of disasters and gathered ideas from one another to take back to their churches and disaster preparation projects.

“As the Church, it is our calling and responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our communities,” said Rev Sudiana, director of UnitingWorld partner Maha Bhoga Marga (MBM), an agency of the Christian Protestant Church of Bali.

“But there is often apathy in local communities when it comes to disaster preparation. If it’s not a priority for local government, it needs to be pressed by local churches. We are good at helping after disasters, but we can save many more lives in advance if we prioritise disaster planning.” 

Delegates discussed how disaster preparedness needs widespread and diverse community buy-in to prevent vulnerable groups like the elderly and people with disabilities from being left behind during a disaster.

Many delegates spoke about the critical roles of education and leadership in keeping people safe during disasters and preparing for climate change.

“The key to mobilising our communities for climate action and disaster preparation is education. People won’t move if they don’t understand the situation and their role in it,” said Julius Cezar, a youth leader from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

 “We must empower our [project] beneficiaries to become leaders of disaster preparedness in their communities. Education is often the only difference between beneficiary and a leader,” said program manager Victor Nahusona from the Protestant Church of Maluku.

The conference highlighted how supporting people during disasters isn’t only practically difficult but can also be psychologically and spiritually complex. 

“For weeks after the recent flood in Sentani (Papua), people who had fled their flooded islands were scared to go home or fish in the lake because they had seen dead bodies in the water around their houses,” said program manager Meilanny Alfons from Papua.

Physically removing and burying the bodies is one thing, addressing the trauma and fear of spirits is another. Delegates agreed the Church has a strong role to play in trauma counselling.

“Christian hope is a call to action.”

Keynote speaker Rev James Bhagwan spoke about the pastoral role of churches and shared his experiences of faith-based climate action and disaster response in Fiji.

Rev Bhagwan didn’t avoid difficult theological questions: Where is God in a crisis? Who is to blame? How do our communities respond faithfully and effectively?

Drawing on an emerging Pasifika theology of climate justice, Rev Bhagwan pointed to God’s love as the starting point for climate action.

“Biblical justifications for climate action need look no further than the Bible’s most known and quoted verse, John 3:16.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“When the Spirit became flesh and dwelt among us, it signaled that God is with us, and showed what love for the world truly looks like. This is the starting point for a theology of climate justice,” said Rev Bhagwan.

“As we lose our relationship with creation and deny the sacredness of all life it becomes easier to exploit it.”

Rev Bhagwan explained the theological justifications holding back climate action in the Pacific, and many of the Southeast Asia delegates noted the same debates going on in their churches.

“In the Pacific, people often see disaster preparation and climate action as showing lack of faith (‘God looks after us’). But preparedness is practicing faith. It is a visible proclamation of hope for a renewed tomorrow.”

“Christian hope is a call to action.”

The Protestant Christian Church in Bali, the local hosts of the UnitingWorld Partner Conference, made space on their land for each delegate to plant a tree for their own church or church agency. The trees represented a commitment to work in partnership for climate justice.

As part of our commitment to standing with those most vulnerable to climate change, the Uniting Church in Australia is encouraging members to support the Global Climate strike on September 20.

Click here to support the Global Climate Strike and join us on 20 September!

The conference was kindly hosted by Maha Bhoga Marga (MBM), the development agency of our partners the Protestant Christian Church in Bali.

Colleagues and friends of Rev Dr Seforosa (Sef) Carroll gathered at St Stephens Uniting Church in Sydney on Tuesday to say farewell and celebrate Sef’s work and ministry.

Since joining UnitingWorld in 2014, Sef has been a been a powerhouse of theology, church partnership-building, teaching on gender equality and climate change, and advocacy that has stretched from the streets of Sydney (helping lead the 2015 Climate March) to the halls of Federal Parliament.

As Manager of Church Partnerships in the Pacific, Sef brought a personal drive to UnitingWorld’s gender equality and climate justice work in the Pacific. UnitingWorld’s entire approach to climate change through the lens of faith and identity was born of a pilot project that Sef established in Tuvalu.

At the farewell service at St Stephens, Sef reflected on her first visit to Tuvalu and the impression it left on her.

“Of all the things that had an impact while at UnitingWorld, visiting Tuvalu impacted me most. Speaking to the people and experiencing their situation radically changed my idea of ‘home,’” said Sef.

This influenced the direction of her academic studies, and in 2017 Sef was selected by the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University as a resident member of the 2017-2018 Research Team on the Inquiry on Religion and Migration. Sef’s research paper was called ‘Reimagining Home: migration, identity and law in a changing climate.’

While at UnitingWorld, Sef helped create and teach resources on Gender Equality Theology and contributed to other publications on Pacific theology, climate change, and feminism and Christianity in the Global South.

At the farewell service, Sef thanked UnitingWorld colleagues and honored the Pacific women she’s worked with.

I’ve been blessed to walk alongside so many women from across the Pacific on gender equality and theology. People like me come and and go, but the women have to stay and push the work forward.”

UnitingWorld National Director Dr Sureka Goringe commended the legacy of Sef’s work.

“In the past five years, I have seen Sef walk into rooms that did not easily make space for her and teach with God’s anointing; I have seen her untangle complicated relationships with wisdom and sensitivity; I’ve seen how people don’t just respect her wisdom, but love her for her passion and integrity,” said Dr Goringe.

“Her work has catalysed a change in theology and connection that will last beyond all our jobs here. UnitingWorld is not an academic institution, but the teaching and research, the mentoring and counselling that Sef has done with us has had a reach and impact that I think would be the envy of any academic.”

Uniting Church in Australia President Dr Deidre Palmer preached a sermon on Micah 6:6-8 and John 4:3-30, challenging people to consider how Jesus leads us beyond social, political and religious barriers.

“Jesus intentionally entered (hostile) Samaritan territory and engaged in a theological conversation with a woman. In working for gender justice, we are following in this way of Jesus; calling women into life-giving encounters with the one who is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world,” said Dr Palmer.

“Where are we locating ourselves? Are we intentional about placing ourselves in situations of solidarity with those who are exploited, diminished, or silenced? [These are] places where Jesus leads us.”

Dr Palmer also celebrated Sef’s ministry and approach to mission.

“As you have reminded us in your teaching and actions, ‘doing justice and walking humbly with God’ draws us into communion with the whole Creation.”

“In all of your ministry and into the future we pray you will be blessed with hope and joy through being part of this collaborative community of Christ, woven together by the love and grace of the Holy Spirit.”

We wish Rev Dr Carroll every blessing in her exciting new global role and we can’t wait to see what God has in store for her.

(We can’t give details of her new position yet but will update you when we can!

Support the Global Climate Strike on 20 September 2019!
Click here to sign our petition

Click here to read Dr Deidre Palmer’s full sermon

A statement from the President’s Conference, Fiji 2019

“For God so loved the cosmos” (John 3:16)

The good news of Christ is for the whole of creation 
and we are one with all creation in Christ. (Col 1: 23)

We, the participants of the 2019 President’s Conference, gathering in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Fiji have drawn together to bear witness and to draw courage from each other – here where climate change is most clearly seen, most clearly felt, by the people least responsible for its progress.

We acknowledge:

Our connection to Moana, Waitui, Wansolwara people, whose lands and hearts are bound by deep, blue Pacific waters.

We are part of the Pacific, a liquid continent where islands are connected and sustained by the ocean currents.

The need to listen again to the voices of our sisters and brothers, our friends, fellow members of the Body of Christ, the most vulnerable and most impacted, who also demonstrate great resilience, determination, hopefulness and commitment to work for change.

This has inspired us and challenged us to hear God’s call to costly discipleship and we lament the effects of the human sin of greed and particularly its effects on this planet, our home.

Together we affirm:

The Uniting Church’s commitment to the wellbeing of the environment arises out of our belief that God is the Creator of the world in which we live and move and have our being.

This ‘groaning creation’ is God’s ‘good’ creation.

Through our discerning of Scripture, we acknowledge the gospel of creation: all things were made in, through and for Christ and are being reconciled in Christ.

The Uniting Church believes that God calls us into a particular relationship with the rest of creation, a relationship of mutuality and interdependence which seeks the reconciliation of all creation with God.

The Basis of Union expresses this hope and situates it at the very heart of the church’s mission:

“God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end.”

Together we recognise:

The ongoing concern of the Uniting Church in Australia since its formation in 1977 for the wellbeing of our planet that has been expressed in numerous statements.

The unique place and wisdom of First Peoples of Australia in relation to the land. The Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church recognises that:

The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

The Churches of the Pacific, with whom we are a part of the Body of Christ, and the Pacific Conference of Churches, to which we belong, are leading the response to climate change. We hear their call and witness to us; and recognise their prophetic, practical and pastoral actions among their people.

Dominant forms of the Christian tradition have been complicit in the abuse of creation, often accompanied by the belief that the world is given to use as we please, and the perspective that “more is better.”

The island nations in the Pacific are being disproportionately harmed by climate change, and are among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels and climate change induced natural disasters.

Climate change induced displacement is already a significant challenge, and grief both to Pacific countries and across the world; disconnecting people from their homes, their culture and their identity.

Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and across the world, and to all of creation including plant and animal life.

The intersectionality of issues – how climate change disproportionately impacts the poorest communities and on women and children, people living with disabilities, people with different gender identities – calls for relational and inclusive justice.

As participants of this conference, we are called to be God’s co-workers, participants in the work of reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation. We believe that we have a moral responsibility to act, and that God is calling us to be bearers of hope.

Because of this, we commit to:

Working with First Peoples in Australia particularly through the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, sisters and brothers in the Pacific and other communities of faith to understand the impacts of climate change on traditional and contemporary ways of life and pay attention to the Indigenous Peoples’ wisdom of living in right relationship with land, sea and sky.

Being compassionate, active listeners to the environment and people living with the reality of climate change.

Being thankful for all we have, recognising we have enough, enjoying the beauty and bounty of God’s creation, resisting the pressures of consumerism and idolatry of material possessions.

Being responsible for our own actions and our impact on the environment, and calling for a renewed repentance, turning away from seeking more, towards a just sharing and harmony of all life.

Being a green Church by finding creative ways to engage our own communities in climate action, raising aspects of the environment in our worship, replacing disposable with sustainable products, reducing energy use and moving to renewable forms of energy.

Boldly raising our voices to advocate to governments to act on climate change and its effects in Australia, in the Pacific and the global community.

This statement was originally published on the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly website.

Read more about UnitingWorld’s work with Pacific partners on climate change and disaster risk reduction.

“90% of people in the Solomon Islands believe in God. When a message about women comes from the Bible, their eyes are open, they feel it has more weight. And that’s why we will see a reduction in gender-based violence and increased respect for women in our society.”

If anyone has the insight to comment on what might make a difference to violence against women in the Pacific, it’s Pastor Lima Tura. 

The sole female lecturer at Seghe Theological College in the Solomon Islands, Lima has a Bachelor of Theology from Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne, she is a single parent and now teaches theology and biblical studies in her home country. It’s not been an easy journey.

Feeling the call to pastor several years ago, Lima was offered a scholarship in partnership with UnitingWorld and the United Church of the Solomon Islands to study at Seghe. A trailblazer, she literally burnt the midnight oil or read under lamps powered by generators, studying third-hand textbooks from Australia as she worked her way through her Certificate. She completed a Bachelor of Theology in Melbourne and has now returned to her college determined to overcome its many challenges.

“We are lucky right now – we have power connected and two light bulbs in most of the homes,” says Lima.

“Our library is small, and we have no Wi-Fi for internet research – we can sometimes use data on our phones but it is very expensive.”

Despite scarce resources, Lima describes her lecturing position as wonderfully inspiring.

“There are fourteen gentlemen and one woman in my classes,” she laughs.

“The men are really great, very open to equality. I mean, sometimes it is probably hard for them. I’m not sure if they have been taught by a woman before except in school when they were younger.”

The first woman to lecture at the college, Lima is bringing new perspectives to students and existing clergy both by example and through her teaching, which draws on gender equality theology work developed by UnitingWorld as part of the Partnering Women for Change program.

Pastor Lima with Solomon Islander Theologian Rev Dr Cliff Bird

“For both the men and the women here, this message of equality and dignity is so liberating,” Lima says. “We held a workshop to teach from the Bible about respect for women and to share what the scriptures have to say about women and men’s roles. People are very excited. When they hear messages from secular women’s rights organisations they can be suspicious and confused. But when it comes from the pulpit, from the church who they trust, it has much more power and influence.”

In July, a group will meet in Fiji to discuss how Bible study material can be brought alive for students in colleges and within church circles. Lima will be among the attendees.

After years of groundwork, our theological workshops with church partners in the Pacific have attracted funding from the Australian Government.

“The Australian Government recognises that overcoming poverty and ending violence against women in the Pacific is about working to see women’s rights and gifts recognised,” says UnitingWorld Associate Director Bronwyn Spencer. “They’ve also realised that in cultures where Christianity is central, churches hold the most influence and authority to create change. As a result, they’ve been funding our work with partners to explore biblical gender equality, so that local leaders are equipped to preach and teach it and help to open opportunities for women in church leadership. That’s actually pretty radical.”

Leaders of women’s fellowship groups at a Gender Equality Theology workshop in Fiji

For Lima, the support of people here in Australia through UnitingWorld is incredibly precious.

“I can’t thank you enough for the scholarship to study and for the prayers you have offered for me,” she says. “Without you, I could not have answered this call. My dream for the students is that they go back to their communities with the wisdom to address through a theological lens all the challenges they face – social, economic and spiritual. We experience so much good here, but so many difficulties as well.”

THANK YOU for supporting our church partners to lead this transformative dialogue among their communities. Pastor Lima’s story is one thread in a fabric we see being woven from country to country, where God’s powerful message of freedom and dignity for all is shaking and sheltering lives.

UnitingWorld hosted its annual five-day workshop on Gender Equality Theology in early November.

Led by Pacific theologians Rev Dr Cliff Bird and Siera Bird, ministers from partner churches across the Pacific met in Nadi, Fiji, to wrestle with biblical themes of equality and anti-violence. They discussed how principles from the Bible can be powerful forces for positive change in their communities, where violence against women continues to be a significant problem.

Participants expressed their appreciation for what they learned throughout the week and committed to taking the knowledge back to their home churches.

“The teaching tools have given me more clarification for deeper biblical analysis and identifying the root-causes of social issues,”  said Rev Tomasi Tarabe, New Testament lecturer at the Davuilevu Theological College in Suva.

“I hope UnitingWorld continues to work with Pacific theologians on developing a methodology of reading and interpreting the Bible through our cultural lens.”

Participant Victoria Kavafolau, a theology student and newly appointed head of the Women’s Desk for the Tonga National Council of Churches, spoke about how her expectations for the event were turned around.

“Before I participated in the Gender Equality Theology workshop, I thought ‘oh, this is just another program advocating women’s rights.’ To be proven wrong was an understatement… Not only did it raise awareness about violence against women and children, but the workshop provided tools and resources for theologically interpreting and identifying gender equality within Scripture and how we can apply that to our relevant contexts,” said Victoria.

“This is an important area within our respective Oceania communities to be addressed and enriched. We are in a different era now with different worldviews and contexts. Our cultural values and customs often deter us from developing further perspectives on gender equality.

This program has impacted me at a personal level and has encouraged me to address this growing issue within my Tongan community. With the aid of UnitingWorld and the tools and resources they have provided me, hopefully change can be implemented according to the will of God. Praise be to God.”

 

The Partnering Women for Change project is supported by the Australian Government through the Pacific Women Program. 

 

Photo: Victoria Kavafolau (right) with UnitingWorld Program Manager Megan Calcaterra and Rev Lima Tura, a previous UnitingWorld scholarship recipient who is now a lecturer at Seghe Theological Seminary in the Solomon Islands. Photo credit: Megan Calcaterra.

Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson
National Disaster Recovery Officer
Uniting Church in Australia Assembly

As the plane lifted off from the Kingdom of Tonga, I had a familiar twinge of the heart as the island left my line of sight. While I was returning to the comfort of my own home with reliable power, phone and internet, and clean water, there are so many people in Tonga that won’t have access to these things for some time.

On Monday 12 February, Tropical Cyclone Gita devastated the islands of Tonga, with winds of 230km/h whipping the Southern Coast of the main island of Tongatapu. Locals had taken warnings seriously and prepared as well as they could, but lightly built houses were no match for the monster storm. The fact that it struck at night probably saved scores of lives, as people were bunkered indoors and avoided injury from flying roofing iron and falling trees. The negative is in the lasting memory of families who huddled together through the terror of a sleepless night of pitch darkness and screaming wind, hoping and praying their place of shelter would hold together.

With the dawn’s light, people ventured out to assess the damage and found this particularly confronting. Many houses lost all or part of their roofing, torn metal and splintered wood, thousands of trees felled and palm fronds scattered. Rain continued to inundate many houses that had escaped the worst of wind damage.

Power poles leaned precariously or snapped off completely, and power lines lay across muddy roads. In the centre of the main city of Nuku’ Alofa, the walls of Parliament House were blown out and the roof crumpled to the ground, a state of emergency was declared which included curfews to keep people from the CBD as many shops were emptied of ruined goods.

There are no cyclone shelters in Tonga so while most people remained in their homes during the storm, the most solid gathering places are in the church buildings that play a prominent role in Tongan community life. The people’s faith in their church communities means there is a place to come together and share their experiences of loss and hope.

Red Cross, Caritas and other groups are doing important work in delivering supplies to the most affected – food, water, and temporary shelter, but it is the churches that are at the forefront of bringing the community-building psycho-social support which will restore hope.

I flew into Tonga two weeks after TC Gita with Rev. Nau Ahosivi. Nau is a Tongan-born minister in placement at Concord Uniting Church. It had been our second trip together; the first – in 2015 – also had Rev. Alimoni Taumoepeau. This first trip was an initiative of UnitingWorld, at the request of our church partner, the Free Wesleyan Church Tonga, to train a network of chaplains to support people in the event of disaster or crisis.  From this first training course, which included a ‘train the trainer’ component, the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (TDRCN) was born.

The training course is an ‘islander’ variation on that used in NSW/ACT and South Australia. It has also been used in supporting the churches in Fiji and Tuvalu. It covers a range of subjects including: the nature of disaster, how it affects communities and people, how people react and are affected by critical incidents and trauma, calming and communication techniques, vicarious traumatisation (how the carer can be affected by the work) and self-care.

After TC Gita hit, the Free Wesleyan church deployed the chaplains we had trained in 2015. Valuable work done by Michael Constable of UnitingWorld had assisted them in pre-disaster preparedness, mapping the areas of need and making assessments. Chaplains were able to respond to people who needed them most, but this was not easy for them as conditions were far from ideal. The weather this time of year is hot and steamy. The cyclonic winds had dropped to dead calm and the heat and humidity from the water brought with it discomfort and the threat of mosquitoes bearing Dengue Fever and the Zika Virus. The chaplains spoke of how shocked they were by the damage to both the natural environment and the villages they visited, of talking to people as they sat under plastic tarpaulins or in the tents in which they now live. The chaplains themselves have stresses in their lives, many having endured the cyclone and having their own homes flooded, before leaving to care for others.

Our first afternoon with the group involved debriefing these chaplains, allowing them to share their experiences and process them together. The next two days were spent on the training which melded their understanding with the context of their experience.

The church had requested identification vests for the chaplains which allowed them to (as with other aid workers) show who they are and what they are doing. I was able to work with a local Sydney manufacturer who put in extra hours and made these from white cotton (allowing for tropical heat) at less than cost price, donating the cost of their labour to support the effort. The chaplains are out again, working in teams, supporting local ministers as they visit and listen to cyclone-affected people.

My work

I have been working in the area of emergency ministry and disaster recovery for some time now.  Ordained in 1993 and becoming a Rural Fire Service Member and chaplain in 1996, I have worked in in the Welfare area of the state response for many years. In 2007 I helped to establish the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network which I continue to oversee (this is a ministry of the UCA NSW/ACT Synod). In my role as National Disaster Recovery Officer, I support the development of disaster recovery preparedness and response from the church and its agencies. I work with the Synods in supporting the development of ecumenical disaster response chaplaincy, peer support (looking after ministers working in communities affected by crisis) and supporting disaster recovery long-supply placements with Presbyteries, assisting community recovery.

Sustained support

I am acutely aware that disasters come and go with the nightly news. A cyclone hits, a fire damages a community, an earthquake causes loss and damage, and then something else happens. We may be mindful for a time – but then a new crisis demands our attention. This is an understandable reality.  The problem is that, for the people involved, recovery may take years and their needs actually intensify over the first six months to a year – as their lack of resources and frustrations become more apparent. This is when they need sustained support. How can we best support the sustained effort?

Prayer is mightily important. I had some conversations with people of the church who spoke to me about how important it was to them that they were remembered and supported in prayer by the brothers and sisters in Christ from nations far away.

Giving is vital.  Often our first reaction is to gather goods, clothing and food to send. I believe this comes from a need to send something tangible to people. Unfortunately, this has its limitations: what is sent is not always needed. There is, at present, no food shortage in Tonga, while some crops were damaged, fishing continues and supplies from New Zealand and elsewhere continue to flow unabated. Donated goods may actually damage the local businesses and economy; for every item sent from Australia, a local Tongan business will lose a sale and locals may lose work. Containers cost money to send and fees at the wharf. They also take time to empty and sort. During my time in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam, they spoke of the wastage of time and effort in transporting and emptying the containers.

The greatest need at the moment is cash that can purchase new building materials through local suppliers, employ local workers and support a damaged economy.

Thank you to everyone who has so generously given to support our friends in Tonga as they recover from Cyclone Gita. Below is a letter we received from the President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Rev. Finau P. ‘Ahi, expressing his heartfelt gratitude.  You can donate here to support the ongoing recovery efforts.

 

6 March 2018

Stuart McMillan
President of the Uniting Church in Australia

Dear Mr McMillan,

Apologies for the late response to your letter of love and prayers, but have only just had computer access due to power failures. Electricity has been on and off almost every day since cyclone Gita visited Tonga.

On behalf of the Methodist Church in Tonga (a.k.a. Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga), I thank you for the expression of your love, prayers and donation of gifts for the rebuilding of the Church and its people life on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia. Your expressions of love, prayers and partnership with us in this time of bringing life to normal mean so much as you remind us that we do not battle alone. We have partners and supporters like you who are holding the ropes for us and thereby having a direct share in our Church ministry. You are graciously willing to share with us in this practical way and we are already feeling the benefit that your love, prayers and gifts are bringing to our life.

Please continue to pray for us in this time. No doubt we will have many battles ahead in trying to restore Church people emotions and faith that have been lost in this devastating cyclone. We believe as you pray for us we will be able to stand strong in the power of His Might to resist the enemy of doubts and worries and to encourage people to enter into the victory that is ours in Christ. “ Fear not, for I am with you, says the Lord”. My Wife Loukinikini and the family join me in thanking you that you still remember us.

With love and prayers,
Rev. Finau P. ‘Ahio
President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

See original letter here

I travelled with my family as part of an Exposure trip through UnitingWorld to Fiji. One of the most meaningful experiences for me was going by speedboat to the island Ovalau, significantly damaged by Cyclone Winston in February of 2016.

Talking to our guide James Baghwan, we came to understand that the majority of the people on the island barely had the means to provide for their family’s basic needs. They don’t have the capability to move somewhere else, even to the main island, where they would be better equipped during times of cyclones. Even if they did, most are living on the land that their ancestors did, and so have significant cultural and historical ties to the land, which provides them with a sense of identity.

Cyclone Winston was expected to completely miss the island, and so the people were unprepared. You can imagine the chaos, panic, and terror they would have experienced in the mad rush to secure what little they had with heavy materials and find a place where they might be safe. The damage was strong enough to beach a ship, lift up and move water tanks as well as destroy houses and buildings.

James told me people would probably have run up the mountain and lay on one of the ringing roads, holding onto whoever or whatever they could. They would have stayed like this for many hours, desperately hoping and praying that they wouldn’t be blown away or hit by debris, all the while listening to the terrifying sounds of everything they knew being ripped violently apart.

We can only begin to imagine the fear, panic and desperation they would feel and how psychologically damaging this would be. Their whole lives dictated by this fear, trapped in this cycle of working to repair what is lost only to see it destroyed the next time and have to begin again.

This fear would only be intensified by the threat that global warming places on them – of bigger, more powerful, more unpredictable cyclones. Add to this the sheer frustration they must feel watching the powers of the world – who could do something to help them or to help prevent global warming – yet who debate that it exists.

After this conversation, I began to wonder: in the midst of all of this, how do people on that island find true peace and happiness, when they are under such threat and have so little? And the people that we met did seem happy and were welcoming.

And it reminded me of a Bible passage from Matthew 6:19-24: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Thanks to sixteen year old Hannah for allowing us to share her reflection with you.

If you’re keen to find out more about what the Pacific church is doing to protect against cyclones and how they’re working to save lives in disaster, read more about the project or make a donation here.

 

The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) has called for the urgent implementation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and for leaders to hear the voices of Pacific Islanders – the most vulnerable people to the impacts of climate change.

The PCC made its statement during a meeting of church leaders in Auckland, New Zealand this week.

The meeting comes as Fiji prepares to chair the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23), the annual climate change conference of 196 countries to be held in Bonn, Germany in November.

The statement calls on governments to increase their pledges to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5℃, and to support local and community-based approaches to risk management and climate change resilience.

The Pacific Church leaders said: “We exercise our prophetic voice as churches and believers of the faith to amplify the cries of our people and Moana (ocean) who are directly or indirectly affected by climate change and encourage the spirit of stewardship among ourselves as custodians of God’s creation.”

“We recognise the existing local knowledge and community strengths as an important factor in building a more sustainable and climate resilient Pacific. We call for full consultation and participation of our communities in national climate adaptation planning processes… and to create a new culture of proactive rather than reactive risk management.”

UnitingWorld this week launched an appeal to support our partner churches in the Pacific as they build critical resilience to disasters and climate change. Our partners have highlighted their urgent need for disaster preparation and how it will save lives in their communities.

The PCC also issued statements on nuclear proliferation in the region and a series of ‘calls to action’ on the self-determination of Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville, the French territory of New Caledonia and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Pacific church leaders also called on churches in Australia and New Zealand to be spaces where Pacific Island diaspora communities are affirmed of their identities.

The PCC is a fellowship of 27 churches and nine member councils of churches in 17 island states across the Pacific. The Uniting Church in Australia is a member.