Perseverance in Papua New Guinea
Posted on: 31st December 2018
CMS missionary Keith Birchley (serving with Marion in Papua New Guinea) speak here of their experience in a country where 97 per cent of the population claim to be Christian. To be ‘all things to all people’ will sometime mean resisting what others do naturally.
We’ve been (mostly) enjoying the ride of ministry in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Almost three and a half years now. And what a ride it continues to be! Never a dull moment! How do Christians hold out the word of life in a country that thinks itself Christian (97 per cent in the last census) and yet is world-famous for its nepotism and corruption? Where the extended family networks (wantok) provide the solace of social security, but also a tourniquet on independence of thought and movement? The short answer to the question is: with long-suffering and sacrifice. Not particularly glamorous. Definitely not triumphalistic. But powerfully present in poignant and usually hidden works of service.
When not to change
Our dear friend Lesley* refused to sign a cheque in the government department for which she worked. Something was obviously wrong with the money involved. After imposing significant pressure on her, the two older (male) signatories engineered her sacking. She was out of work for five months, during which her family really struggled for money. While still unemployed, Lesley valiantly took on the care and later adoption from her husband’s family of an out-of-wedlock child. (It is a lovely feature of life in PNG that families usually shoulder the responsibility for the mistakes and failings of their members.) Praise God that after taking on their new little daughter, Lesley’s work office renewed her contact. They realised that they needed people of integrity and honesty on whom they could rely. Lesley was reinstated (though of course not remunerated for those missing five months). These sorts of stories abound for sincere believers in PNG. Christ is attested in such situations not by changing behaviour, but by refusing to change and so living in long-suffering and sacrifice. Being ‘all things to all people’ can never mean departing from Christ-like integrity and truthfulness.
Sacrifice for the gospel
Chris* is a young man of the future. Very able, tertiary educated, perceptive and articulate. He is already a significant leader amongst his Christian peers. The problem for Chris is that he is the focal point of all those wantoks who see him as their ticket to prosperity and security. Mum is from a patrilineal tribe: Dad (now deceased) was from a matrilineal tribe. “It is complex!” he tells me. The competing ambitions of the various relatives are being fought out over the future of this young man. His life is far from being his own. One set of uncles wants him to go into business with them. The opposing set wants him in politics, which (as everyone in PNG knows) means money and lots of it. What will Chris do? He has already ruled out a third option of accepting a very generous package from an aid NGO. The problem there is that, because of its United Nations connections, he would not be able to speak freely about ethical issues which, as a Christian, he feels he must speak on. To remain true to Christ will probably mean (as it does for many pastors) remaining poor. And very unpopular with his wantoks. It is no wonder that many of Chris’s colleagues put off going back home to their family areas for as long as possible. Again, Christ is being attested by long-suffering and sacrifice.
Dealing faithfully with discouragement
Rob’s* situation is different from Chris’s, while at the same time strangely familiar. Wantok is the issue for him as well. But this time it is the wantoks of other people, not his own. We found him wandering disconsolately around the waterfront area of Port Moresby a few weeks back, deeply discouraged at his inability to gain even a first interview for a job. (80–90 per cent of last year’s graduates remain unemployed.) What’s the problem? People are employing on connection rather than merit. This is why some grads have four or five options for their futures and others have none. A Melanesian version of the old adage about it not being what you know but who you know. Some are from tribes and families that are powerful and well connected. Others aren’t. And that difference will follow them all the days of their lives.
In a country such as this, the call is not necessarily for Christians to speak the gospel differently. Rather, it is to construct a biblical theology from Scripture in which commitment to Christ can be located and thus understood. To live out that commitment in ways which cut across traditional behaviours, and to do so for the sake of Christ, is what will show Christ with clarity.
It is simply awe-inspiring to watch our young brothers and sisters face challenges that most of us in the developed world could barely grasp. To get ahead in the world, or to take a stand for Christ? This is the temptation to which so many of their situations ultimately boil down. Will I go for what this world offers, aggressively, ruthlessly, cleverly, using all the resources at my disposal, whether they be wantoks, education, dishonesty or just plain human opportunism? Or will I take a stand for Christ? A zealous and consistent Christian life inevitably means being far less prosperous in the developing world rat-race. Often it is a guarantee of relative poverty. May they resist the temptation to lay up treasure for themselves and not be rich toward God (Luke 12:21).
*Names have been changed for security reasons.
Pray that God would grant perseverance in faithfulness and Christ-likeness to the Birchleys and the people mentioned in this article. Ask that God will change the hearts of Papua New Guineans to keep living the faith they profess.