It’s advent, and as we belt out that wonderful hymn, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us of the importance of sharing our stories of what God has done amongst us.
At UnitingWorld, we gather stories everywhere we go. Wonderful, inspiring, heart-wrenching stories – but always stories that point to the infinite grace and outrageous generosity of God. And of course, these are not our stories to keep. Just as when we go out to our partners and supporters, we go on your behalf, the stories we bring back are to share with you.
We need these stories. They nourish us and connect us with the body of Christ across the world. When we are feeling tired and lost, that we haven’t seen God at work recently, when the service we offer God feels like it makes no difference, we need to hear and tell these stories. They remind us of the power and faithfulness of God. Throughout the year, I’ve listened to countless stories of God at work in the world – both here in Australia and among our partners. And I’ve come to realise how much we need them.
When we get too caught up in our own picture of God, when we try and box God up into something we understand – we need to hear these stories. Stories that blow our minds with the unfathomable grace and radical generosity of God.
When we are close to despair, when suffering and pain has worn down our faith – then we need these stories. Stories that show how God is with us, remind us of hope and point to the dawn to come. Stories that teach us new ways to think, new ways to imagine, new ways to connect.
These stories bring us good news from far away places, so we can celebrate and give thanks. These stories bring us news of pain or need in other places, so we can share what we have. These stories bring us new ways of knowing God and each other, so we can grow stronger in faith.
Thank you for listening to the voices of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan, Vanuatu, India, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and many other places this year. I am grateful beyond words for your prayers, gifts and loving action.
On behalf of all the UnitingWorld team, we wish love and joy to you and your families and hope you have a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year.
Dr Sureka Goringe
Read our Annual Report FY 2018-2019
We are thrilled to report that through our programs, our partners reached 202,305 men, women and children last year with tangible benefits. Educating women and girls, lifting families out of poverty through small business, access to nutrition, healthcare and education, preventing trafficking all are part of the real impact of our work. Thank you for the critical part you played.
The Annual Report is a great way to see the impact of our shared partnership in mission and your role in making it happen. It features a ‘year at a glance,’ updates from our Board Chair and National Director; stories of impact across each of the thematic areas of our programs; news and financials, and much more!
Up close, you can see the brush marks in the walls of Attika’s house. The rendered concrete has been painted by hand – pink inside, bright blue outside.
All over Ambon, Indonesia, the houses are a defiant dazzle in a place where you might easily expect pain to have completely stripped the colour from life. It hasn’t.
Conflict between Muslims and Christians here in 1999 killed 5,000 in hand-to-hand fighting and left 70,000 people homeless. Attika, who fled her village during the conflict and lived for years in a refugee camp, could scarcely imagine ever speaking with a Christian again, let alone working beside women who have since become her closest friends. The transformation is the work of the Protestant Church of Maluku, who’ve been running projects in Ambon that bring Muslims and Christians together to beat poverty and build peace. Their story is one for the ages.
Attika’s smile is radiant as she shows us the home she built with $5.00 a week saved from a business built as part of a group of Christian and Muslim women run by UnitingWorld’s partner in Ambon, the Protestant Church of Maluku. Expressed differently but closely held, the women’s faith in God bound them together as they rebuilt homes, lives, each other’s churches and mosques.
Rev. Jeny Elna Malupane, who coordinates the project in Ambon, says that the work of peacebuilding is central to our identity as God’s children.
“I see the way life is changing for people in the community,” she says. “This is how I see God at work in humanity. It is incredible, actually. It is like nothing else, this grace of God bringing people together.”
A month after we return from Ambon, a series of devastating photographs arrive here in our office. They show Attika’s home completely destroyed by three earthquakes that hit the island in September; in one photo, Attika sits among blue and pink rubble, still selling her home-cooked snacks.
We gaze in silence at the two sets of images of Attika’s home, side by side, and I struggle with the idea that in both, God is present – in and through the relationships that have been built. Jeny’s team, through the Church’s Sagu Salempeng Foundation (SSF), is already on hand providing supplies to people living under tarps in the forest, too frightened to return to their homes. Jeny’s own family are among them.
“People are resilient,” Jeny says. “They dig deep. And they see God providing for them, even in this tragedy. The women’s groups have already been there for one another, sharing their food and resources: Christians, Muslims. They have become like family.”
And again, I’m reminded that in a world of pain and suffering, God’s intimate and powerful act was to come close as a child named Emmanuel: “God with us.” Born into the reality of our lives, sharing our existence, experiencing our hunger, sorrow and even our death. This is the God who is ever-present. This is the God who also, ultimately, overcomes.
God does not do this work alone. ‘God with us’ calls us alongside in partnership as we work toward the love that conquers death. For Attika, for Jeny, for every person digging deep to rebuild a life of dignity: please join us in giving the hope that holds us together this Christmas.
Everything in Common gifts change lives by ending poverty and bringing hope
They’re available at www.everythingincommon.com.au and you can send digital gift cards to loved ones right up until Christmas. Call us on 1800 998 122 to order gifts or donate this Christmas season.
In the summer between Year 11 and 12 of high school, I spent three months in Africa. My aunt and uncle were missionaries in Tanzania and I stayed with them in their home in Dodoma. Over Christmas, they took a break and we all shared a room in a missionary guesthouse in Kenya. We ate mangoes from the trees and saw lions at a nearby game park. We saw Handel’s Messiah performed by an all-African choir in a sandstone church. I was nearly 17, clueless and naive in the way of young people of the 80’s and pre-internet. An idealist and a romantic with a good dose of Pentecostal fervour.
Back then the airlines allowed smoking in-flight and I turned up in transit in what was still called ‘Rhodesia’ on my plane ticket, full of allergies and knocked around from jet lag. I had only flown once before, Sydney to Melbourne, and could hardly stand up straight or string a sentence together. On the flight to Dodoma, I played ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ on repeat on my cassette Walkman, feeling very Live Aid about being in Africa. I’m not kidding.
I remember rationing toothpaste and driving for half an hour for water every few days. There were police with huge guns at the bank in town; I had never seen a gun before. Regular visits to the local market forced me to consider, for the first time, that fresh produce came from the gardens of people who grew it. I had always been able to just get a banana from my well-stocked fruit bowl.
As a nurse, there were people lining up for my aunt’s attention each morning; she cared for three babies in the next room to mine the whole time I was there. I woke one morning to learn one of them had died.
They had a humble home but a lush garden full of colourful flowers, and when the electricity was working my aunt baked cakes in her much-loved enormous microwave. Processed food wasn’t available and we ate what was grown or able to be bought on any given day. It was good; fresh bread, fresh fruit and veg. I didn’t miss the junk.
One afternoon I wandered off to the nearby football field and, despite there not being a body of water in sight, stripped down to my swimmers, poured reef oil all over my body and lay on the bench seats to bake. Before too long I found myself surrounded by a group of wide-eyed young men trying to proposition me in Swahili. My little cousin soon found me and went running to bring my aunt whose face I still remember. She shooed them away then spent some time trying to figure out how to explain to me why what I had just done was all kinds of culturally inappropriate, and how the boys had thought I was a sex worker.
My time there was formative to say the least.
From the 1980’s onwards I have done stupid things with the most innocent and well-meaning of intentions. More than this, I felt called and compelled with the urgency of Christian service.
I was always the one bringing home the misfits, serving coffee to trans ladies of the night in Kings Cross and generally feeling very earnest about ways I could serve. My time in Africa had pulled me in to the dream of missionary work as a vocation and I bought into the exotic ‘otherness’ with all my heart.
At church I sang songs about being ‘sent,’ one in particular that belted out a promise from God: “ask of Me and I will give the nations as an inheritance for you.” The sense of responsibility—colonial leanings notwithstanding—was powerful. I finished school and went to Bible College.
Bless my young, sweet self … I was going to save the world.
When my kids came along in my twenties, I wanted them to learn to be generous, I wanted them to grow in an understanding of their privilege, to appreciate all they had. We sponsored children and memorised verses like “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves and for the rights of the oppressed and needy.” We packed those shoeboxes filled with plastic toys and toothbrushes to send to poor children in overseas communities. My daughter and I cried at footage of Oprah gifting Christmas presents to hundreds of South African children that time. You know the episode, you saw how their faces lit up.
I hoped when my kids were teenagers, they would choose to go on short-term mission trips, perhaps to teach English or help build a school. It didn’t occur to me that they weren’t qualified to do this.
In the days before Instagram, I dreamt of Nat Geo-style photos in remote villages, placing myself in the centre of grateful people, the lighting just so. Perhaps in a t-shirt with an inspirational quote.
And what could be wrong with any of this? It sounds like plenty of people you know, I bet. Maybe you recognise yourself in it.
We are wired for relationship and community. It’s in our DNA to want to help others, and those of us who rate highly on the empathy scale are grieved by the pain of the world and often find our way to decades of service.
Those of us with a justice bent work to address systemic wrongs and advocate for those who find themselves crushed under the weight of these.
And we should. The world is a harsh and unjust place. If we have power we should use it. At UnitingWorld, our team works to support those who are making things better in their context. I will do this till I am old and grey.
But what I have learnt, gradually, awkwardly and with a good deal of humility is that I am not and should never have been at the centre of this.
I thought I had to take God to unreached people groups and serve them in their poverty. I have since learnt that God is already there, and in many cases people already have all they need. Where they don’t, local groups are best placed to serve their own people.
I thought the Western consumer model of ‘the more you have – the more blessed you are’ needed to make its way to the slums. I have learnt we in the West are poorer than many who have very little.
In saying this I don’t want to romanticise poverty, it can be crippling and brutal. In my work I support local partners who are working to connect people with their human right to a dignified life. But what I see is people who don’t believe they are entitled in the way we in the West do, who measure richness by relationships, hairstyles and henna and celebrating seasonal rituals, growing their own food and bearing healthy children.
In our attitudes and the posture we take when working overseas, especially (especially!) when faith and a sense of calling is involved, I have learnt we need to be students. We will never arrive at having it all figured out; how could we? It’s not our context. We are there as guests and allies, not decision makers.
Never is this more true than after an emergency. Emotions run high and compassion and grief move us to respond. Local partners in the Pacific told me after one disaster they didn’t have the funds to receive a container from the port and were forced to spend money allocated to a post-cyclone rebuilding project to receive the unwanted-and-unasked-for goods, which they then burnt as they had no use for them. On another occasion, a team of blokes wondered what they would do with boxes of second-hand bras. Perhaps this sounds ungrateful on their part. But have you ever wondered, after a trauma, what to do with a large, expensive-to-send but not really valuable gift you have no use for and didn’t want?
Often these containers just turn up. When overseas groups do ask, I wonder if they consider the power imbalance and the cultural implications of people being able to refuse? Even in the asking; “how can we help, what do you need, how can we support you,” is better than – “I have a crate load of bikes, would you like me to send them over?” And sending second-hand clothes? The ugly pieces that are stained or have a tear. My friend in Fiji was offended after losing everything in cyclone Winston. “We still have our dignity”, she said.
We give in ways that feel right to us and make us feel good. I know I do. We want to connect emotionally and often want to do more than give cash. The urge to get on a plane and go after an emergency is strong, I’ve done it twice, but 99% of the time, cash is best.
Recently I was with a group of partners from across South East Asia. I heard a story of dolls sent to a Muslim community for children who had been displaced after the 2018 Sulawesi tsunami. The local partners sighed at the thought of the work involved in processing, unpacking and delivering the dolls, especially as they were trying to work out the logistics of food, shelter and medicine. Once the dolls had made their way into the community, it was discovered that when you pressed their bellies, they recited the Lord’s Prayer! The local partners were then accused by government and Muslim leaders of proselytising which is illegal, and almost lost their right to operate in the region.
Because overseas aid can at times do more harm than good and because the international response to the big 2004 tsunami in Indonesia was quite honestly a disaster of its own, the Indonesian Government has rightly banned outside organisations from working there after emergencies without explicit vetting.
Try and imagine every NGO and their branded tents setting up shop after a cyclone. I’ve seen it, it’s a nightmare that often displaces the work of local agencies and mostly serves the priorities of donors and the organisations implementing their funds.
Other partners have told me the Christmas shoe boxes filled with stuff that get sent over to some of their communities often end up in the river or in landfill. They short change the local economy (you can get toothbrushes anywhere in the world) and are confusing for people who don’t celebrate Christmas or who do so without gifts but with ceremony and palm leaves wrapped around poles, and meals made especially for the occasion.
Why do we assume that children are poor because they don’t receive gifts at Christmas?
We need to ask better questions. I’ve needed to ask better questions. Like, how do we support changing the systems that mean that people can’t purchase what they need for their children?
This can be a rough question because it would mean we are no longer in the position of power. People become our equals. We are naturally drawn to this power underlying altruism, as unconscious as it may be. Sit with this for a moment to see if it’s true.
Why not send the funds involved in producing, packing and sending the Christmas boxes, to local organisations working to serve people in their countries? Mostly I think it’s because we want to personally connect and to involve our kids in the tactile act of giving. I get it. I’ve done it. How can we do it differently?
Share the Dignity is asking for toiletries and handbags for homeless Australian women for Christmas, you can drop them into your local Bunnings. Two Good is a company that provides a jar of soup to a person in need for every jar of soup you buy. There are so many other ways our kids can see us act generously and participate locally.
Internationally, get to know and connect with organisations doing good work, teach your kids about them, tell other people, own the story, then support them with cash. (UnitingWorld has just launched an appeal where you can buy gifts-in-kind for Christmas!). Or volunteer with them. If the drive is strong, join the sector. Or test your motivation and ask yourself if perhaps what you want to do is travel and meet people whose lives are different to yours. That was undoubtedly a big part of it for me.
If you go, support local economies and go on a trip that is about solidarity and experience or cultural exchange. Go to see what you can learn. Go where there is an invitation, see where you can come alongside people. Be honest about what you are there for and where its limits begin and end.
“Am I qualified?” is another really great question. You may have seen in the news recently a story about a young American woman who went to Uganda and felt called by God to set up a medical clinic, despite having no medical qualifications. More than 100 children died as a result. Can you imagine doing the same thing in your community?
Because we like to “go,” we unknowingly and with good hearts end up building dependence on our skills without building local capacity or the intention to do ourselves out of a job.
Year after year, I watch professionals get grants and raise funds to take groups to communities for much-needed medical and other services over a week or so. They keep going back. What is really wonderful is when these groups train locals to do the same work and invest in training and education over time, reducing the need for outside services. Not only does this build people’s skills and capacity and strengthen their country, it starts to even out the us-and-them dynamic.
If you’re still with me, have a read of this blog by a young Nepalese man who writes strongly about one-week trips to “serve” in Nepal as a way of easing foreigners’ wealth guilt. It’s not an easy read.
He says, “Aid has the potential to overpower and devastate. It can create an imbalance and weaken spirits” And this line made me sit up straight: “If you constantly make people believe that they need help they will make it their ethos in life. In the quest to empower them, you disempower them.”
At a sector conference I attended recently, a powerful young Papua New Guinean woman posed the question from the stage, “who would we be to you if we no longer needed your aid?” Also a really great question. We get used to a certain way of defining ourselves. “First and third world”, “civilised and sh*thole” countries, rich and poor, black and white. Language matters. Dignity matters.
I know of an organisation that created a poverty simulation experience for Western people to go to on a Saturday afternoon in their city.
I would like to suggest a poverty simulator in Sydney of packed-to-the-brim station wagons. The ones white Australian women are living in with their small children to escape domestic violence. People could pay to see the piles of dirty nappies on the ground outside the cars and donated food leftovers rotting alongside. Actors could role play the ways these women have to use toilet paper from public toilets when they are menstruating and children could act out being hungry at school in dirty uniforms. Or perhaps family groups could take evening bus tours of the poorest neighbourhoods in Australia during their annual holidays. They could drive around the streets where homeless people sleep and take photos to show their friends to encourage them to donate.
I hope that sounds deeply offensive to you. People’s poverty is not ours to experience. In simulation or real life. It is never the full story.
My sharpest learning curve has been around my own power. I’m embarrassed to admit that when the topic of racism would come up when my (caramel-skin-coloured) kids were little, I used to say ‘oh I don’t see colour.’ And in my naive way it was true, they were no different or less deserving of anything because of the colour of their skin, which is what I meant. But it’s sort of like when people say, “I can’t be racist because my best friend is black.”
I learnt to stop saying that of my kids, and I understand now that what I was saying is received by people of colour as not seeing them. I didn’t understand the world from their perspective. I thought I did, I had great compassion for suffering, but I had still positioned myself as the one who was coming to fix it. I didn’t acknowledge the world as they experience it. How could I if I wasn’t looking, quite comfortable in my role as saviour? I saw them only as in suffering or poverty. A 12 year-old recently said to me, knowing I was about to travel to Africa, “I hope you don’t get any diseases.” He has absorbed this message too. We must do better.
In this same vein, telling our kids to eat their veg because there are children starving in third world countries is profoundly unhelpful and reinforces the above. Our kids can’t grasp that conceptually, aren’t motivated by guilt and shame and the sassy ones will tell us to pack it up and send it over! We are learning now also that young people are often overwhelmed by poverty and feel something akin to survivor’s guilt. It’s too much and can be traumatic. There are better ways than making them feel bad, to teach them of their privilege and inspire them to become allies.
We play a game with overseas partners where a few people stand on a stage and face two lines formed by the group. The people on stage throw balls deliberately only to the front row. As they are thrown they might call out, “here, have a leadership ball, an education ball, some decision making power balls, wealth balls, some access to health care.”
The people in the back row start to get upset, saying, “hey throw us some balls too,” but the ones in the front are very happy receiving them and quite unaware that there are people behind them not catching anything. We talk about how each row felt and how, for society to become more equitable, the front row needs to give up some of the balls they caught and make space in their line for the people at the back to catch them too.
We like to hold on to our privilege in the front row. How do we start to make space?
I come from the dominant power story, I’m white, educated and middle class and I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. As the dynamic of me in the centre started to make me uncomfortable, I had to learn to be quiet. To listen and learn, to be led by people in communities where I found myself working.
My young family moved to Fiji for three years for my then husband’s job. I found my way into a role at the Fiji Red Cross Society that would change everything. I was part of a team delivering health promotion all over the islands and discovered that if you sit on the mat with people long enough, you hear that they already have the answers. I started a Masters in International Health and found that rather than missionary work where I imagined swanning in to save the day, locally-centred and locally-led community development was going to be one of my greatest teachers.
It started to dawn on me that while white and Western colonisation may no longer be happening formally, it continues in the form of outside groups coming in to build structures that are not needed and nobody asked for, by fly-in/fly-out training that places us at the centre and doesn’t build local capacity. By creating attachment issues while visiting children’s homes and taking photos of cute babies for social media, and of those who are vulnerable, without permission or people’s full understanding.
These things would never be allowed in our context, why is it ok in theirs?
I am learning that if I feel uncomfortable about being challenged by those like the Papua New Guinean woman, I am not being oppressed or discriminated against. Reverse racism isn’t a thing. I am just feeling uncomfortable as the dynamics start to shift.
If the way we work for and give to overseas development is above being challenged or held accountable, and was not established at the invitation of local communities (women and men, not just the blokes); it might be unhealthy, dangerous, or worse.
I get to travel a lot, make meaningful connections and meet incredible people. I don’t take the experiences I have had these last 15 years for granted. While NGO travel is the most unglamorous and exhausting thing going, it has been transformative.
But I have learnt the hard way that there are both healthy and toxic ways to engage. As the ones with the power, we must reflect and be prepared to acknowledge that we may have been part of the latter. Certainly, we are part of and benefit from systems that oppress our sisters and brothers around the world.
In truth, I often wonder what my role is in the work I do. I feel so uncomfortable when people tell me it is some combination of virtuous and noble. I know I’m not the amazing one. In my day job, our overseas partners are courageous, resilient change makers; much braver than me, and they’re as far as is possible from the patronising narratives we have allowed ourselves to believe of people living where they do.
Our team finds ways to support what they are doing, offer our friendship, hear their perspectives and ask how we can learn from them in the Australian context.
Our Africa partners break my heart open. They are vibrant, remarkable people who live through trauma and hardship with grace, joy, dancing and community. I am still processing my recent trip to Zimbabwe and Kenya, where we met with our South Sudan partners – and oh my, the thrill of Africa, the powerful Motherland that pulled me in 30 years ago.
Our India and Indonesia partners live in multi-faith, multicultural settings and have learnt to get along together in ways we could really benefit from in Australia.
All of them are facing the accelerated effects of climate change and increasing natural disasters which are undermining good development. They are all just getting on with it, no one is arguing about the science. My job is really to find ways to get them in same room to learn from one another and to know when to pass the mic. To advocate when they ask me to and to help secure funding for their work.
The role of Western people in overseas development is changing, reforming even. Perhaps not fast enough, but it is changing as people find their voices and push back against unhealthy ways of working.
We have a place as allies and partners. May we have the courage to acknowledge our colonialist roots, remove ourselves from the centre and feel a little uncomfortable.
I have a framed quote on my desk by Gangulu woman, Lilla Watson.
She says “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together”
I cried like an idiot the first time I saw this on the wall at another agency, thankful to be on my way home from a meeting. I am acutely aware that my liberation is bound up in that of the people I work alongside. I am better for knowing them and their generous friendship, their gracious tolerance of the times I have messed it up. Their joy in the midst of impossible circumstances and strength that I borrow in facing my own pain.
What I get to do is life changing, but mostly the life being changed is mine.
Jane Kennedy Associate Director UnitingWorld
You can help fight poverty and build hope with your Christmas gift giving!
The singing. It’s one of the real joys of visiting our partners across the Pacific, Asia and Africa. Long flights, lack of sleep, hard pews and lengthy sermons in a language I do not understand – these things mysteriously melt away as the opening chords are struck to some old Methodist hymn I’ve known since childhood. Voices lift. I add my own.
There’s something about the language of music that crosses all the boundaries we put in place between ourselves and others. In the swell of shared melody, a person can be lost or found; leading or led. Even when the language is different, it’s enough to know that I am one among many, playing my own small part. My voice matters; my small offering will join others to form something far more beautiful than anything I could accomplish alone.
Much of the work you can read about in our latest Update Newsletter shares that theme – the part played by Rockhampton Uniting in harmony with the women of Kiribati; the carefully crafted Child Protection work that becomes a thing of strength and beauty for the children of Timor Leste; the soaring symphony of millions of voices lifting as one to support the earth in the face of a changing climate.
September is one of my favourite times in the office, because it’s counting time. This is when our team spends days collecting the stories and reports of all the people who have been touched by our projects in the last financial year – people whose lives are changed because of your gifts. Men, women, children, people with disabilities, minority groups, we gather data on all of them – because we want to know how they fared, learn from their experience and figure out how we can do better. Imagine the stories and numbers from villages and towns and churches across Asia, Africa and the Pacific coming together like quavers and crotchets, till we can hear the song that the Spirit sang last year through all of us. It’s a hard work, and takes a lot of chocolate, but it is a humbling and inspiring privilege. Thank you for being part of the song and look out for our Annual Report soon.
I’m interested in your voice too. We’ve launched a supporter survey, from which I hope to learn more about what inspires and interests you as one of the faithful people I report back to each quarter. You matter because without your prayer, love and financial support, the work we do would not exist. Please take the time to add your voice to ours by filling in the survey here. I would appreciate it very much!
Pictured above are two children from the church in Ambon, Indonesia, delighting in the experience of singing for their congregation in a small village about an hour from the city. Twenty years ago, this province was virtually destroyed by conflict that played out in hand to hand fighting between Muslims and Christians, with homes, mosques and churches burnt. We’ve just been in Ambon to capture stories of the peace building process led by God’s people and transforming the entire island. It’s an incredible story of God’s redemptive and reconciling love at work, and we’ll be telling it for the first time for next year’s Lent Event! Stay tuned.
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?”
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.
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.
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
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
“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.
Dr Sureka Goringe
You can help our church partners change lives and end family violence with the biblical message of equality between women and men.
Last week I had the great privilege of attending the Annual General Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWC) with Uniting Church President Dr Diedre Palmer.
The day we arrived in the capital Nuku’alofa we were swept up in the famous hospitality and fellowship of the Tongan people. Our church partners invited us to feast with 3,000 of their members and then join in worship among a thousand choristers.
The sound of their harmonies soaring over a massive brass band is something I’ll never forget.
Along the way I was blessed to meet some of the leaders and members of FWC; hear their stories, hopes and struggles, and experience the great wisdom and dedication they have to offer.
The conference was an opportunity to connect with our partners in fellowship and share in the life of their church. Among many issues raised, the important matter of the Uniting Church’s decision on marriage at the 15th Assembly was discussed with openness, honesty and integrity.
Re-elected FWC leaders, President Rev Dr Ahio and General Secretary Rev Dr Tevita Havea reassured us that they have been on the same journey with their New Zealand and United States partner churches, and that our partnership is built on strong foundations of respecting difference while holding to unity in Christ.
They affirmed that Tongan members of the Uniting Church were under the oversight and authority of the UCA and shared our joy in the vibrant life of the Tongan National Conference. They manifested their love and partnership in the honour and recognition they showed Dr Palmer and I throughout the conference.
Dr Palmer reaffirmed to our partners the Uniting Church’s
commitment to respect and protect the rights of all members and partners to
hold differing views of marriage and make decisions based on those views.
It was the first official visit to Tonga for both Dr Palmer and
I, but the warmth, trust and the good faith that was extended had very little
to do with us personally. We were embraced as members of an extended family,
our forebears and theirs had built a strong bond of respect and friendship and
we were but the latest embodiment.
Holding partnerships like this is a privilege that I
treasure deeply and sometimes feel the huge weight of. But I’m reassured in the
knowledge that some connections are already far stronger than anything I might
manage to mess up.
Dr Sureka Goringe National Director UnitingWorld
Tonga was part of the Methodist Church of Australasia from the early 19th century until 1977 when the Uniting Church in Australia was formed and the Wesleyan Church gained its autonomy (thus the “Free” in its name). In Australia, the Tongan National Conference within the Uniting Church has grown to become the biggest of the twelve national conferences. Read more
“It’s our choices that matter in the end. Not wishes, not words, not promises.”
How many choices do you think you might make each day?
Researchers suggest it’s about 35,000 choices – 227 relating to food alone.
Little wonder so many of us have choice paralysis! So what
guides our decisions? Some are impulsive, some are emotional, some come from
rationally weighing up the facts. Too many are just unconscious, routine. We do
things because it’s the way we’ve always done them. But as so many people have
pointed out, it’s our daily choices that become habit, habit that becomes
character and character that becomes our destiny. That means our choices are
powerful – even the ones we might not think matter all that much.
We went to a small community in Papua New Guinea to film an interactive video that allows you to make choices revealing what life is like as a young person living with limited options in a developing country. If you haven’t already tried it out, you can find it here: https://unitingworld.org.au/choice
The video highlights that “35,000 choices a day” don’t include most of the world’s poor. In Papua New Guinea, the third most difficult place in the world to access clean water, most people have only one water source – and it’s often dirty enough to kill them. One person dies every minute around the world from complications relating to dirty water. Most of them are children. But faced with little awareness about clean water and sanitation, what real choices are there? Lack of options for handwashing and clean water force people to choose unsafe sources, a lifestyle that can kill.
We’re training health workers who are changing all that, and your choice to get involved makes a huge difference. When you donate to our water and sanitation work, as many of you already have, you’re supporting communities to gain access to clean water and learn new habits that save lives. It’s such a simple act that makes such a huge difference.
Thank you to everyone who has already made the decision to get involved in this work. Your gifts, combined with funding from the Australian Government,* mean that our partners are excited about the ways we can expand the work to many more communities in Papua New Guinea, West Timor, Bali and Zimbabwe.
Together, through our determined daily choices to be people of generosity and compassion, we’re building a world where people can thrive no matter what their circumstances. Thank you!
*As a partner of the Australian Government, UnitingWorld receives flexible funding under the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) each year to implement development and poverty alleviation programs overseas.
Every donation you make to this project will be combined with funding from the Australian Government to reach more people. We have committed to contribute $1 for every $5 we receive from the Australian government. Your donation will allow us to extend our programs.
Pic: Local change agents teach a community about water, sanitation and hygiene in Papua New Guinea.
At 3:44am on 26 February 2018, Papua New Guinea experienced a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre in the Southern Highlands. The initial quake and landslips resulted in 160 deaths and many more injuries. In the days and weeks that followed, severe aftershocks and landslides caused many more deaths.
The quake caused widespread destruction of property and infrastructure; including roads, houses, rupturing of tanks and pollution of fresh water from underground oil and gas leaking into streams from below. The human cost was immeasurable. Along with the loss of housing, shelter, water and food supplies, people were deeply shaken emotionally. Aftershocks left people afraid to sleep in what was left of their homes and communities. Already facing poverty and lack of resources, in the aftermath of the massive earthquake social fragmentation and tensions quickly reached boiling point.
Even today, the Papua New Guinea highlands are very remote. After a plane flight from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen, it took nearly three hours by four-wheel drive on heavily damaged roads tracking through rainforests, mountains and villages to reach the township of Mendi. On arriving there I was given a tour of the town. It is a beautiful place with lush, tropical growth, surrounded by banana plantations and you can see mountain tops hidden in mist. Even so, signs of the earthquake were clear.
Dark stripes on mountainsides showed where the earth had slipped. Houses were sitting squat and bent on the ground where their piers had collapsed and the local hospital still had walls missing. There were signs of human-caused damage as well. I was shown where the police station and courthouse had been razed by arson and where a passenger plane was destroyed; all this during riots in the town that had followed the earthquake.
Mendi was a fitting venue for UnitingWorld to organise joint training courses for pastors from the Highland provinces, where the church is at the forefront of social integration and care. Following the earthquake, churches worked alongside government and not-for-profit agencies to help cater for basic needs and continue to be the prime provider of psychosocial support and mediation in conflicts.
The earthquake struck while I was working with UnitingWorld supporting our partners in Tonga following Cyclone Gita. For some time, access was too restricted, and priority was given to basic human and social needs across Papua New Guinea. It took months of logistical challenges (including access, funding and people involved) to bring everything together for the workshop in September. This turned out to be good timing, as any earlier it would have been difficult for primary pastoral carers and leaders to get away from the needs of their people.
The workshop was attended by over 25 participants, with the week divided into two segments: disaster recovery and trauma counselling, followed by sessions on peacebuilding.
The Disaster Recovery and Trauma Counselling was facilitated by myself and Lua Alu, a counsellor who works throughout Papua New Guinea and specialises in counselling on stress, conflict and sexual violence. I was able to bring a framework to the workshop with input on disaster dynamics, trauma, critical incidents and debriefing.
The second part of the week focused on peacebuilding and was led by the United Church in Papua New Guinea (UCPNG) team, an extraordinarily gifted group of people with extensive first-hand experience in negotiating warring groups to lay down their weapons, find forgiveness and extend peace.
These two elements melded seamlessly, with the first giving an understanding of post-traumatic reactions, symptoms and care, and the second giving a platform on practical ways to move forward in reconciliation.
The workshops were a time of great refreshment for all involved. They provided an opportunity for pastors to come away from situations of ongoing stress in the provision of pastoral care and share with brothers and sisters in Christ; being equipped and affirmed, ready to return to the difficult ongoing work of supporting their people.
I came away blessed by the kindness, hospitality and warmth shown by our local partners to a stranger from Australia. I learned a great deal as I taught and shared with these dedicated people. As I prepared to leave, many urged us to thank the people of UnitingWorld and the Uniting Church in Australia for this time, and to ask the church to remember them, recognising that – even now – they continue to face enormous challenges in caring for communities still fragile from the impact of the earthquake.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Robinson National Disaster Recovery Officer
Uniting Church in Australia
In the Paciﬁc and Asia, there’s no polite way to turn down a meal. Hospitality is everything and everywhere, lovingly and lavishly prepared—sometimes for days—and open to all. Time and expense are rarely part of the equation as men, women and children hunt and gather (often literally) and then throw wide their arms and doors to make sure everyone enjoys the feast.
This is life among our partners, and I’ve been blessed to be part of it over the past few weeks, attending the Pacific Conference of Churches in New Zealand as well as the General Meeting of the Christian Evangelical Church in Minahasa (Sulawesi).
My experience is food for thought as Christmas approaches, sharply dividing us into those who relish the opportunity to kill the fatted calf with all the ceremony it involves, and those who dread the arrival of relatives and over-priced hams in Coles.
Justine Vogt says that hospitality is, “making your guests feel at home, even if you wish they were.”
Less precociously, Henri Nouwen suggests “hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” He calls us to make our homes and lives places where even those with whom we have little in common feel able to be heard and intriguingly, open to personal transformation. While many of us feel caught up in making sure that every detail of the culinary experience we offer in our homes is perfect, he suggests genuine hospitality is about the readiness of our hearts to deal with difference, to extend grace, to find those who are lonely and create for them a place of freedom that leads to change.
What a tantalising possibility! How delightful that rather than simply feeling slightly bloated post-Christmas Day, we might feel energised and open to change as a result of our time together.
Viewed this way, I’m reminded of the many acts of hospitality carried out by our partners in so many ways and places throughout the year. As they visit hard to reach areas with resources like goats, small business training, health education or workshops for women, they create relationships that are acts of true hospitality – spaces in which people are heard and create change for themselves.
As you contemplate Christmas this year, I encourage you to reflect on this kind of hospitality. As God sent Jesus into the world to be among us, may your hospitality reflect the presence of the Spirit of Love and the opportunity to seed real change. Thank you so much for the generosity each of you has extended to our partners this year; you’ve provided people with opportunities to bring hope and dignity for themselves and their families through countless gifts made in times of crisis and as long- term givers.
Wishing you the joy and love of Christmas and always,
We all want to be generous during our favourite time of year, but collectively our Christmas giving creates pollution and waste that has a huge environmental impact.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to be generous without more stuff, more waste and more CO2 in the atmosphere.
One way to think about it, is that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.
Here’s six gift ideas that don’t cost the planet.
1. Gifts that fight poverty
Think of charitable organisations that reflect the values of your loved ones (like us!). Donate in their honour or give a poverty-fighting giftthat can change a life. What could be a better gift than clean water to a community that doesn’t have it? Or income opportunities like goats and pig-farming to help a struggling family secure their future?
Check out our full catalogue of life-changing gifts here. They come as gift cards with envelopes, or you can even go completely digital and send via email.
2. Give an experience
Theatre, concerts, workshops, community and cultural events often fly under the radar because there’s so much competing for our attention each week.
People say rock is dead and nimbys killed live music, but that will only happen if people stop going! The first step is getting some tickets…
Give someone an escape from the office to places like this urban farm that runs useful workshops on organic gardening, pickling and preserving, beekeeping and how to make things like beeswax wraps and hand-carved kitchen utensils.
Or give an experience outdoors with eco/wildlife tours, kayaking, canyoning, snorkelling (or shark dive, anyone?)
Visit a local community market, there’s usually great plants for great prices. Find some nice pots (second-hand/recycled even) to put them in. Give them to loved ones and they’ll grow into some really thoughtful and unique gifts. You can even pair it with a gift card that supports tree-planting projects in the Pacific and Indonesia!
4. Give time
It’s an absurdity of modern life that despite all our technological advancements – still we work more. Pledging your time could be a thoughtful and useful gift.
Maybe your in-laws could use some extended babysitting to get away for the day? Perhaps your dad can’t get up the ladder to do the gutters any more? Or your partner has been meaning to get their bike serviced but hasn’t had the time to do it?
Imagine asking your grandma if your gift this year can be time spent helping her with the garden…
Yes, you should do these things anyway, so why don’t you?
You could even pledge your time in a card with an explanation and deadline, so they know you mean business.
5. Buy second-hand
Fifty dollars for a T-shirt? Nah mate.
Buying at your local op shop saves you money, cuts down consumer demand for stuff to be produced and supports organisations making positive change in the world. That’s something to dance about.
Onto Gumtree yet? It’s a brilliant place to save a few second-hand treasures from landfill to be re-gifted.
6. Buy local, buy sustainable
Want to reduce your global impact? Think local. Buy from local small businesses, craftspeople, those grandmas selling delicious jams at the school fete. Stuff that hasn’t been shipped across half the world to arrive under your tree.
Why not bake something yourself? Rise up a whole army of gingerbread men to scale a pyramid of brownies.
Vote for a better world with your choices this Christmas.
Disclaimer: vote with your whole community. We know that to overcome the global challenges we face, individual action isn’t enough. We also need drastic changes to our social, political and economic systems to mitigate the climate crisis ahead.
This global problem requires global action.
Truly purposive action is holistic – individual behavioural change leading to important ‘awkward conversations’ in our communities, plus collective action aiming to influence widespread societal change.