On a small island out on a lake in West Papua, a group of women are crafting themselves out of poverty by keeping a disappearing local art tradition alive.
The banks of their lake home skirt the far limits of Papua’s most modern city, Jayapura, but people here still travel between the islands using wooden canoes.
Traditional bark paintings (malo) have been produced by women from this area for hundreds of years. They spend weeks together making the canvases out of the beaten bark of fig trees, and then paint designs that express their culture, highlighting the theme of ‘harmony between all living things.’
Ask them how they learned the designs, and they all say, “our ancestors taught us.”
But despite everyone in their cooperative being talented artists and hard workers, they struggle to make a living, and their wider community lives in grinding poverty. The isolation of their island and their lack of business experience means that many of them work two jobs while raising children. Most of their husbands are fishermen, but fears of local overfishing has pushed their work out to sea and into the city where they make meagre earnings.
We wanted to invest in the women’s skills and see their business grow. So, after consulting with them about what they need, our local partners have been running business training and are helping them buy industrial sewing machines to help them expand their business to include bags and clothing with their traditional designs.
Together we’re helping them do what they love, get a fair price for their labour and lift themselves out of poverty.
My colleague Meilany, a local project manager, told me that empowering these women has huge flow-on affects for the community.
“You can’t make positive change for women here without also affecting all of society,” Meilanny says.
“These women work hard so that they can afford to send their children to school; many of them never had the chance themselves.”
“And if you teach a woman practical or artistic skills, or to read and write – she will teach her family, her children. That knowledge is passed on.”
West Papua has a staggeringly high number of people living below the poverty line. Upwards of 27% live on less than $2 a day. Our local partners are working to change this at a community level, through strategies that invest in critical aspects of life: food security, health, women’s incomes and the future of children.
They need our support to continue to make projects like these a reality. Invest in these skillful women and projects that are helping people grow a new future in West Papua.
Earlier this year, I made a trip across West Papua. It’s just 150km north of Australia, but it feels a world away – one of the poorest regions in the Asia Pacific. Yet everywhere I went, what struck me most was the profound generosity and sense of community that bound people together. This runs deep in local culture and traditions, expressed so naturally it almost seems to grow up out of the soil. It’s also what makes our work with the local Church so effective.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing stories of change and highlighting the work of our partners to tackle hunger, empower women and confront communicable disease in West Papua.
I’d like to start with the story of Beni and his family.
Beni and his wife Sarah live way up in the remote highlands of West Papua. When I met Beni in his garden one afternoon, he had been working all day but couldn’t stop smiling – even as he spoke about his recent struggles to put food on the table.
In 2016, the area he lives was gripped by one of the worst droughts in living memory. Crops right across the region failed. Beni and Sarah’s sweet potato, their main food source, was decimated.
“Our crop grew tiny and hard with the lack of rain; it was the same across the entire region, so everyone was worried… The whole village was wondering if we would all starve if we didn’t leave the area,” said Beni.
Thankfully, UnitingWorld’s local church partners were there to help during and after the crisis. Our partners gave Beni seeds and training to nurture the family garden and enter into field-sharing arrangements with his neighbours to test out how different crops grow across the mountain.
Beni says the help provided by the project has allowed his family to plan for the lean seasons.
He was beaming when he showed me his latest soybean plants sprouting up, and was keen to explain how well it had gone – not just for him but his whole community.
Imagine what it’s like to have – for the first time ever – the ability to plan confidently for your future. That’s the experience of Beni and Sarah today. Proud of their hard work and expertise, they’ve now expanded their skills to making tofu, much sought after in the highlands. It’s giving them a small additional income for medical and school needs for their children.
Our partners are providing the expertise and training these families need – but they can’t do it without our support. Your gift can get more workers in the field, supply more seeds and nurture more families to take up life-changing opportunities.
With your support, together with the hard work of people like Beni and his family, we’re helping communities grow better futures.
I’m looking forward to sharing more stories of change over the coming weeks!
This is adapted from a sermon delivered by UnitingWorld’s Rev Dr Ji Zhang in April 2017 after returning from the 15th General Assembly of GKI-TP in West Papua (-Ed).
Romans 8:1-2, 6-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
The Romans reading is a part last week’s lectionary. I have been avoiding this passage and preached on more “juicy” Gospel readings. After hearing a feminist critique of Christian theology’s treatment of the body, I could not look at the passage same again. This year, having traveled to Papua recently, I have a different insight.
The passage is a part of Paul’s debate of Law and Grace. The Law can be traced to the time of Moses. In the Old Testament books, human behavior and community organisation are defined and written down, and then passed on from generation to generation. In the New Testament, we know Jesus has simplified all laws down to two commandments: to love God, and to love neighbours.
We also know that Paul took the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way to the Romans. On this journey towards a new identity, he discovered a contradiction. Paul tells his Christian community there is a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. The connecting point for today’s reading is in the early passage where Paul talks about his struggle. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). This is not just a problem for Paul, but also an existential struggle of all Christians.
By talking about his struggle, Paul names a common problem – “I do what I do not want” (7:17). Like Reinhold Niebuhr once said: Human beings are self-contradictory beings.
Recently I attended the 15th General Assembly of the Papuan Church. Our partner church GKI-TP gathered 5000 people from different parts of the church that has a membership of 1 million. I remember vividly a re-enactment of Gospel arriving in the land over 150 years ago. Church members dressed in traditional cloth to represent their past lives, practicing tribal law and using ‘black magic’ on their enemies. When the Gospel came, it appeared as light in the darkness; people took the old clothes off, and put on the new clothes – representing a new life in Christ.
However, the culture of tribal war still lingers. We see a similar situation in Papua New Guinea. People are always ready to go into battle, and use conflict to resolve difference. These conflicts always cost lives, but never bring peace.
The theme of the GKI-TP General Assembly was “May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”. After a courageous message from preacher Rev Dr Rumbwas, I spoke on the behalf of the UCA and made this point: “When we listen to God, we are able to listen to each other”.
Our partner church was in a time of major change. The spirit of God chooses this vulnerable time to reshape it. Despite imperfect nature of the process, the church has grown as it receives migrants; but in the transmigration program some of the newcomers have taken the lands and businesses of indigenous Papuans. The church has elected a new Synod leadership team, and by doing this the Assembly has turned a volatile leadership conflict, into and opportunity for peace – not just in the leadership, but in the culture of the whole church.
“You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This passage is real in the life of Papuan church.
From this experience I read Paul’s writing again, and realise that Paul is doing contextual theology. We know his people believed in the Hellenistic worldview, the Body-Soul dualism. In the Neo-Platonic world, the physical is inferior whereas the spiritual is transcendental. Plato once described our desires are like horses pulling in different directions whereas the soul is like the charioteer who wants the wagon to move in one direction.
But here, two key words indicate Paul has different ideas: Kata sarka – meaning ‘after the flesh,’ and Kata pneuma – ‘after the Spirit’. Notice Paul did not use the word ‘psych’ i.e. “the Soul”, but the Spirit, which is the Spirit of God.
Is Paul accepting the Hellenistic thinking: the body bad, the spirit good? No. He is encouraging unity, not duality. By speaking the language of the Romans, he inserts two new ideas: Zwh – Zoe – meaning ‘life’, and Oikei – ‘making its home’. This is the same root word for World Council of Churches – which means ‘becoming a household.’
Paul further uses the word – ‘making its home’ – to stage his key argument about God. God’s life and peace are making home in our lives, more importantly making home in our bodily life. This is a new union between the flesh and the spirit. This indwelling nature of God speaks the beauty of Christian life. I have seen this partaking nature of God among our partners where the Spirit is transforming communities.
So, what does this mean for us today?
We struggle with many things. Yet God is graciously making home in our lives. It calls us not to go after the world of desire, instead to go after the Spirit of life and peace. Desire separates people, but peace unifies us across racial, national and religious divides.
In this season of Lent, we remember the recent Cyclone in QLD, the transition in the Papuan church, the famine in South Sudan, and the millions of people displaced by wars the Middle East. We also remember God is making home in the lives of these people. UnitingWorld’s Lent Event fundraising appeal supports our partners in Africa, India, PNG, and China. The way we support them is by showing how God of peace and justice is making home in the lives of the faithful.
The Church is the Body of Christ. The church is not just aiming for survival, but making an impact through witness and action. By working together we begin to understand Paul’s writing. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you”.
May we live and act according to the Spirit this Easter.
And may we share the same hope of our partners in Papua:
“May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”.
Rev Dr Ji Zhang
Manager of Church Partnerships, Asia
Amid reports of a deteriorating human rights situation in West Papua, a minute of support for Papuans was issued on 28 June during the closing day to a meeting in Trondheim, Norway, of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The WCC has followed the situation since before the 1969 incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia.
During peaceful protests of government policies in May and early June of this year, more than 3,000 people are said to have been placed under arrest. A further 1,400 West Papuans are reported to have been arrested on 15 June.
Calling on member churches to pray and act in support of Christian witness in the region, the Central Committee authorized an international ecumenical delegation to be sent “as soon as possible” in order to “hear the voices of victims of violence and human rights violations, and to pursue the pilgrimage of justice and peace in this context.”
The President of the Uniting Church in Australia Stuart McMillan has called the people of the Uniting Church to pray for our Papuan brothers and sisters in Christ as the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua (Gereja Kristen Injili Di Tanah Papua ‘GKI-TP’) lead their people through troubled times.
“We ask for congregations across Australia to hold our partners in prayer as they lead their church towards God’s justice, peace and reconciliation”, said Mr McMillan. Mr McMillan was responding to a letter written to the Uniting Church in Australia and other international partners. In the letter, our partner the GKI-TP has condemned the increasing levels of political tension in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, and has asked for prayers and assistance from its international partner churches.
The GKI-TP outlines four issues it believes must be addressed to reduce political tension and avoid conflict in Papua:
1. Freedom of expression: Throughout May, more than 2000 people were arrested and arbitrarily detained across Papua, including the mass arrest of more than 1700 people in Jayapura for publicly stating their political views and requesting a dialogue with the Indonesian Government. The GKI-TP calls for a commitment to peaceful dialogue, the lifting of media restrictions and respect for freedom of expression.
2. The monopolisation of their region’s natural resources by transnational companies keeping the wealth out of the hands of indigenous Papuans and denying them the opportunity to determine their own development.
3. Alleged human rights violations including assassination, torture, rape and kidnapping, particularly directed against peaceful activists. GKI-TP is calling on the government to resolve cases of human rights violations through the independent national Human Rights Commission (KOMNAS HAM).
4. Greater respect for the ongoing debate in Papua regarding the history of its integration into Indonesia. The GKI-TP requests that the expression of their political views not result in violent crackdowns and unlawful arrests.
“The Uniting Church celebrates Indonesia’s cultural diversity through our extensive church partnerships with Indonesian churches, and that diversity has enriched the life of UCA widely as many Indonesians have found their home in our Uniting Church,” said Mr McMillan.
“However, we are deeply troubled by the situation in Papua as expressed by our partner church.
“We express solidarity with GKI-TP, in its ministry of peace and reconciliation, and in its call for all Papuans to be granted an effective voice in determining their own futures.
National Director for UnitingWorld Mr Rob Floyd said the Uniting Church in Australia greatly valued the courage and commitment of its church partners in Papua.
“The GKI-TP provide wonderful ministry in Papua often under the most difficult circumstances.”
Echoing the concerns raised by GKI-TP, Mr Floyd said, “We call on the Indonesian Government and all parties to make a commitment to peaceful dialogue, an end to violence and a respect for freedom of expression.”
I was in West Papua recently on my first field trip with UnitingWorld, where I had the unique opportunity to meet with our partner, the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua and visit their P3W project (short for Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Wanita).
P3W is the Training and Development Centre for Women in West Papua and it aims to empower and support women in remote and rural areas. Founded in 1962, the centre today has three regional offices comprising four units: Education and Training, Research, Documentation, Information and Publication; and Counselling and Income Generation. With the help of 30 staff and 12 field workers, the centre currently has 30 active projects. One of them is the Livelihoods Project, which is training women in the highlands to understand the potential resources of their land and supporting them to grow crops – in particular soya beans to produce tofu and tempeh.
While at the centre, I asked if I could interview the head of P3W. Unbeknownst to me, the stylish woman I’d asked was exactly the person I was looking for – Ms Hermina Rumbrar.
“The church built this centre so that the women would not be left behind” said Hermina.
Ranging from raising awareness about HIV and domestic violence, to providing dormitories and information courses to students from remote areas, the centre has a strong focus on helping women. Towards the end of our chat, Hermina reflected upon the journey of the P3W and the positive impact it has had on the lives of countless Papuan women. I was moved by the genuine devotion she had for her work and the lives of her fellow Papuans. I could tell that for her, this was much more than a job – she was investing her heart and soul for the future of West Papua.
At its head office, P3W runs courses teaching basic maths, crafting, women’s leadership, nutritional information, cooking and more. This basic knowledge is beneficial to the women of West Papua, especially when they return to their villages to spread what they’ve learnt. The centre also houses facilities for children who are too young for mothers to leave behind. While at the centre I had the opportunity to play with a little boy just under the age of three. He was one of the most active little ones I’ve ever met. We ran around the centre together and took selfies making funny faces. A special moment I will keep with me for years to come.
Later I spoke with Christina*, a 23-year-old student from the course. “Here I can learn to cook, learn about women’s leadership, nutrition and how to save. It really helps me”. Christina* had lost her parents by the age of 12 and is the youngest amongst ten siblings, three of whom have died. As she was telling me her story, she couldn’t hold back tears no matter how much she tried. Christina* will be going to university next year to study farming and wishes to help empower fellow Papuan women.
At P3W, I saw the tears of two brave women and learnt so much about the role of each in empowering women throughout West Papua. Above all, I learnt that our work cannot be done in isolation. We will continue to work alongside our brothers and sisters from GKI Church in West Papua and we appreciate your support in further strengthening the lives of these women.
* The name has been changed to protect the identiy.
Over the past two years, UnitingWorld has worked with our partner churches, Indonesia Christian Church (GKI) and Evangelical Church in the Land of Papua (GKI-TP) to form a three-way partnership. The partnership is designed to improve the quality of Christian education in two provinces of Papua and West Papua.
The Indonesian government has introduced a regulation that requires all teachers to have a university degree by 2020. However in Papua, this task is extremely difficult to achieve as 80% of teachers currently do not have a degree. Unless they gain the qualification, they could be replaced by teachers from other parts of Indonesia. Time is running short, and the need is extensive. For GKI-TP, this is a ministry to preserve their indigenous identity and UnitingWorld will support them.
The project uses internet and satellite communication to deliver in-service training in three locations: the capital city of Papua, Jayapura; the highland city Wamena; and the island of Biak. The purpose is to improve academic qualification of school leaders and teachers. It also aims to strengthen the leadership capacity of the Papuan church to manage community development programs. A joint Coordinating Committee of three churches will work together on the principle of equality to share the oversight of design and implementation of the program.
We invite the friends of Papua in the life of Uniting Church to pray for the Papua education project. We’d love for you to support this great program.