As the plane from Moresby landed through cloud at Popondetta Airport, I glimpsed views of both Mt Lamington, scene of the deadly volcanic eruption of 60 years ago, and beautiful Oro Bay. This trip to a region which is said to have the largest concentration of Anglicans in Papua New Guinea was to be the first of several trips where I would get to know more about the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea (ACPNG), to meet with bishops, diocesan secretaries, and others working for the spiritual and material development of their country men and women, and to discuss ABM's evolving relationship with the church.
ABM's AusAID-funded Church Partnership Program had recently funded and facilitated ACPNG to produce a strategic plan, and so this year seemed a good opportunity for me to have conversations about plans and visions, and to see where ABM might fit in with it all. And my first bishop was to be ACPNG's newest bishop, +Lindsley Ihove.
Bishop Lindsley is an energetic man. His vision for the church is to strengthen faith communities by training more evangelists to be located in a greater number of communities than priests are currently able to serve. With priests in short supply, Bishop Lindsley believes it is much more effective to provide selected people (currently these are largely men, although two women have been trained) with several month's evangelism training so that communities who are visited once a month by a priest, also have a live-in evangelist who can strengthen the community by providing pastoral services. These evangelists are trained at the Christian Training Centre in Popondetta.
Diocesan Secretary, McLaren Handere, told me his vision for the church is for it to be financially secure and able to provide its ministries itself, rather than relying on external donors. The diocese has several plans that they would like to discuss with potential funders or investors.
The highlight of my trip, however, was my meeting with two women. One is a young woman of 24. Her name is Prudence Paine, and she is the Gender Coordinator for ACPNG’s Church Partnership Program. This motivated young woman has managed, initially under the direction of Mother Vongai, wife of the previous principal of Newton College, and now under her own steam, to set up and provide initial training for a group of 14 community leaders comprising both sexes and a range of ages, who aim to change local people's thinking about gender. This is the Gender Awareness Group.
Under Prudence's direction, this group is addressing a number of key gender issues ranging from the benefits of men and women sharing household chores, to the importance of encouraging women's voice and participation in family and community decision making, to the need to stamp out violence against women, and the need to rethink the current logic behind bride price. When I spoke to the group, they told me of their various motivations to work to challenge and change long-held assumptions about women's roles, and to seek to make a positive difference to both families and communities in the diocese of Popondota.
Iruna, a young female pre-school teacher at Newton College, and one of the members of the group, said that she joined the group because she wanted men and women to share responsibilities together: “We can teach the men, tell them to share the work with their wives”.
Ross said, “We want to change the mindset about bride price from owning a wife to caring for each other. So we need to present a different way of thinking. We need to help them know the importance and value of women. About 99% don’t understand the value of women.”
Thecla, a young woman member, said “I was interested in being part of the group because it is a new program. I want to encourage youths to know and to share in their future, when they get married, to share between each other.”
Peter, a church evangelist, related how he used stories from scripture to illustrate important messages about gender equality, including this one about Adam and Eve: "Eve was not made from the bone of Adam's head, and so was not to be subordinate to him in thinking, nor was she made from Adam's foot, and thus was not to be downtrodden by him. Rather, Eve was made from Adam's rib, thus indicating that she was to be his equal partner, walking side by side with him."
As well as mobilizing and coordinating the Gender Awareness Group, Prudence is also contributing Gender Awareness to the curriculum of studies undertaken by the women learners at Newton Theological College and going out into rural communities to conduct Gender Awareness there. Part of the program involves returning to communities to monitor the ongoing impacts of awareness-raising. With the incidence of violence against women in PNG among the highest in the world, let us hope that this little group of Anglicans in Popondota has a significant impact in their part of the country.
After returning from the conference, Rita has re-focussed her ministry on environment and conservation, with elements of human rights and indigenous land rights awareness, literacy, practical support for widows in helping them grow coco as a cash crop to support themselves, as well as spirituality. Well known for her bible study ministries, Rita is now using bible studies to show people the scriptural basis for much of what she is teaching about the environment and God's creation. She is also working in with Mothers’ Union to galvanize and train literacy teaching volunteers such as Rachel, a trained elementary school teacher, to work with her in the Kokoda area where she is a well-known face. Her colleague, Harold, is doing a similar ministry along the coastal regions, largely accessible only by boat. As I got up to leave, Rita apologized for the sparseness of her office: “My real office”, she said, “is with the people, wherever they are.”
The Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea has many capable and willing workers in the Popondota diocese, and I was privileged to meet with just some of them this month.