Representatives from the four Synods of the ELCA (Virginia, North Carolina, Central States, and North West Lower Michigan) gathered in Cairns Australia and then proceeded to Port Moresby, PNG Capital City and finally on to the City of Lae where the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea headquarters is located. We all participated in a 3-day conference with representatives from our respective Companion Districts of the ELC-PNG. This time together was informative and productive as we learned about the ELC-PNG, how projects are managed and set goals with our companions.
On 3 September, the Virginia contingency (Rev. Kelly Bayer Derrick, Rev. Michael Church, Matt Wertman, and I, Diane Giessler) traveled to the Bialla Circuit in W. New Britain the first of 4 circuits within the New Guinea Islands District they would visit. The road, rainy conditions, plus fast approaching darkness delayed plans for that day. The first thing the next morning we went to see the Vilelo Congregation located near the fringe of the disaster area where the volcano recently erupted twice. We also viewed the nearby Barema Care Center for evacuated families that looked like a tent city. The medical supplies we took (protective masks, water purification tablets, and diarrhea medication) were left at a Health Center for distribution to those in need.
When we arrived at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bialla, the future site of the New Guinea Island District Lutheran Center, we were welcomed by a sing sing the traditional celebration for visitors. After opening remarks in the church by our host and then our responses with mingled attempts using some Pidgin English phrases, we divided into groups: Sunday school, youth, women, and men. In these groups, we told them about ourselves and answered their questions. The women were very curious to learn about Pastor Kelly because women are not currently ordained or serving as pastors in PNG. The youth wanted to share their music and learn some American songs sung at youth gatherings. The Sunday school kids also shared some of their songs too and the four corners of the church became very lively with conversation, music, and exchange of information. Ellen, a Good Shepherd Sunday School Teacher, was given a string of hearts crafted at his congregation Our Saviour, Warrenton from Rev. Michael Church. The congregation has a long-standing history with Good Shepherd. Similar encounters like this happened outdoors on church grounds at every congregation visited in all circuits.
There were many distinct experiences in the Kimbe Circuit where six congregations were visited, however, two stand out in my memory. At the Mt. Zion Congregation their sing sing included eight children in their traditional tribal dress. Two children held our hands and escorted us to a grandstand. Then students from the nearby Sarakolok Schools marched in formation with PNG and W. New Britain Flags and treated us to the Pledge to the PNG Flag, their National Anthem and the W. New Britain Anthem. It was quite impressive. The other congregation was Mingae, a mission community that started around 14 years ago. It is located far from Kimbe Town and a challenging journey up the mountain even in a 4 wheel drive vehicle. The view we encountered when we arrived and looked out and down over the rain forest was breathtaking. To develop the mission they had been gifted with a portable sawmill. The men cut selected trees and milled them. Then they carried the lumber to the building sites for the church, health clinic, school and a parsonage currently being constructed. Matt, an architect himself was immensely impressed with the craftsmanship. We felt like witnesses to a miracle because in the middle of nowhere hundreds of people were being served with God’s Word.
Hopping on another short plane ride our next stop was at Kokopo Lutheran Church in the East New Britain Circuit. Sunday worship was held at the Rabaul Lutheran Church, the only structure in Rabaul that survived the 1994 Volcanic Eruption. Pastor Kelly read the Gospel in Pidgin and preached. Probably the first time a congregation in the NGI District has heard a woman preach.
Two parishes, Kerevat and Warangoi, never visited in the Virginia Synod’s history of traveling to our partner district greeted us with great enthusiasm. Arriving at Kerevat, the pastor’s son, Diemer named after a former missionary Max Diemer rushed up to me to thank me for the assistance the Virginia Synod provided that has made it possible for him to attend school. He told me he took his studies seriously and was a good student. We met Erike Sifuma who attends church at Warrangoi and is the Dean at the nearby University of Natural Resources and Environment. He shared his story about being a camp counselor in Michigan through the ELCA’s International Camp Counselor Program years ago and how it influenced him to become an educator. Before heading to the airport to travel on to Kavieng, the 4th Circuit located in the New Ireland Province, we visited a beautiful memorial cemetery that honored the fallen Australian soldiers from World War II who fought to protect PNG.
The Kavieng Lutheran Congregation greeted us much like others however in their own distinct way. Early the next morning we returned to the church to find their school students lined up for classes and to greet us. We were invited to visit classrooms, answer the children’s questions and give instruction if we felt so inclined. Of course, we did and that was really fun. The class Pastor Kelly and I were a part of worked on identifying English words for opposites such as high and low. Later our group enjoyed a boat excursion around the small islands off the coast of Kavieng that included landing on the Idyllic Mosa Island for a relaxing swim and lunch. What a perfect ending to our eight days in the NGI District.
PNG culture is diverse, one in which simply holding on to your historical language and navigating the changes brought on by the 21 century is challenging. It is a place rich with natural resources and in need of investment but also with the nagging question about at what cost to the environment and reciprocation is appropriate. Perhaps the most obvious change I saw beside the use of mobile phones since visiting the NGI District 11 years ago was the retail growth in towns that also included cleaner public areas. Also the influx of Chinese businesses and their and Japanese bridge construction along the W. New Britain highway that connects all the way through to E. New Britain. We were told that under good conditions taking that route should take about 5 hours. Perhaps the next visiting group will choose to travel by road instead of flying between these two circuits. Hopefully, it won’t take another 11 years to return. Regular visits are important to maintain but also to grow this wonderful companionship. There is much we can learn from our PNG Christian siblings about how to be God’s Seed in our respective parts of the world.