Vanuatu comes to Bethlehem

An influx of Ni Van workers under the Government’s seasonal employment scheme has seen a new mission field appear on Bethlehem Community Church’s doorstep. Congregation member Paul King reports.

Our church’s relationship with the archipelago started quietly. On holiday in Vanuatu, church member John Taylor visited the island of Nguna and saw the need for roofing iron on a local community building. We raised funds and shipped the iron to complete the job.

Shortly afterwards back in New Zealand, Junior Nikiatu, a chief and, attended one of our morning services with two other men. He is the great-grandson of Yarvis, a cannibal warrior chief converted by Scottist missionary John Paton, whose conversion stopped the killing of missionaries and was the catalyst for change right across the country.

Junior was looking for a church home; for himself and for the other kiwifruit workers based at nearby Te Puna. And then there were 30.

Today, many men and women from Vanuatu are contracted to work on New Zealand orchards. They are reliable workers, needed to tend and harvest the crops so vital to our economy. Coming to New Zealand can mean affording an education for their children, providing electricity for their communities or building a home for their families.

However, integrating into our culture hasn’t been without its problems. Often lonely and homesick, the Ni Vans struggle with language, climate, health problems and handling their own finances.

After the congregation at BCC had met their immediate needs for warm clothing and footwear, we began looking for ways to integrate them prayerfully and thoughtfully into our community and church culture, without stripping away the essence of what makes them Melanesian. While they were aware of the world outside Vanuatu, their challenge was in dealing with the vast cultural differences. Ours was helping them to adapt – without creating an extension of our social services.

This necessitated a shift in thinking. It’s easy to be tempted to throw our money at their problems; while from the Ni Van point of view, the perceived wealth of New Zealand can give us a richest-people-on-earth appeal. This is a difficult perception to overcome when some of the islanders worship at the red cross of the cargo cult Jon Frum, which teaches that the misplaced wealth of the West will someday be theirs, if they repudiate all aspects of European society and embrace traditional customs.

As we juggle our time between jobs, family and daily life, making time for the Ni Van can be a stretch that challenges our priorities and exposes our intentions. God’s plan is that we all benefit when we reach out to others; in the case of Bethlehem Community Church, the mission field had come to us. This was overseas ministry from the safety of our own pews!

Starting simply is the first step to effective cross-cultural ministry. Having a go at the Ni Van pidgin language Bislama, with its pervasive “blongs” and “longs”, is not only enjoyable, but opens other lines of communication. We continue to reach out by inviting our visitors to movie nights, men’s breakfasts, and sharing at their Sunday evening devotional meetings. To date, at least five men and women have given their lives to Christ.

Like us, their desire is for fellowship, and through it we have all been blessed. Although not all Ni Vanuatu are Christians, and Jon Frum is still deeply entrenched in some areas, the legacy of John Paton is alive in Vanuatu. Junior understands his position and authority as chief, and his people’s need for the Gospel. His desire is to reach the unsaved amongst them, and we know that we are sharing in his efforts.

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