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franciscan - January 2004

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Impressions of Papua New Guinea

by Justus SSF

I am recently back from spending ten months with the brothers in Papua New Guinea. It was my fourth and longest visit.

Papua New Guinea is a country with about 800 different languages and cultures.  The mountainous topography continues to make travel and communication difficult.  Many villages are a long walk along a bush path or track from the nearest road which is usually not paved and full of pot holes and wash-outs.  Public transportation is limited.  Mail and telephones are rare outside of the urban areas. Visitors to the friary would sometimes walk for a day or two to get there.  After learning of his father's death, one of the brothers had to spend days waiting for a dinghy to take him on the next-to-last leg of his journey home and this was already after having traveled for over a week.

Early education is usually done in each village using tok pleis (the local language). Opportunities for education above basic literacy vary and high school is limited to the fortunate few.  Tok Pisan (Papua New Guinea Pidgin) and English are the second, third, or fourth languages of most of the brothers.  This means that the brothers frequently only have a sixth to eighth grade education and are often not fluent in the languages used for common prayer.

Despite these conditions, my experience is that Papua New Guinea is marked by an overwhelming sense of abundance and a practice of radical hospitality.  This sense of abundance is displayed in several ways.  If asked how many items are on a table, the response might be ‘four or three’ rather than the ‘three or four’ that Europeans and Americans might reply. The working premise is not ‘save for a rainy day’ but rather ‘give no thought for tomorrow’.  More than once we only had bananas to eat for days on end after having eaten the tinned fish - our staple protein - three meals a day for several days.

And yet hospitality reigns.  Betel nut and cigarettes were freely shared.  People were always willing to give a hand and provide food from their garden.  If unexpected guests arrived while we were eating dinner, brothers would not hesitate to share the food they had with them, even if it meant giving them their plate of half-eaten food.  Often in the capital Port Moresby while I was riding on a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle - the major means of transportation), someone would buy a coke bottle filled with water at one of the stops and after having a drink from it would pass the bottle to the other passengers before returning it to the vender to refill and sell again.

This is the context in which the brothers minister and have ministered for over 40 years.  People come to visit and share in the life of the community and invite brothers to their villages to bear witness to the Gospel. Guests help with preparing food, cutting grass with bush knives, or whatever other tasks need to be done.  People gather in the chapel - whether at the friary or in the villages - to pray Morning and Evening Prayer.  The sharing - food, work, faith - is the important thing.  The interaction is what counts. The interplay between things heavenly and things mundane is so familiar that it is taken for granted.

Some of the brothers have been schooled in ‘western’ skills and are priests, mechanics, nurses, teachers, administrators, etc.  But that type of ministry is not the focus of the Franciscan life as it is in other parts of the world.  Papua New Guinea is a place of ‘being’ rather than a place of ‘doing’. The way the brothers live seems so like the way that I imagine Jesus and his disciples or Francis and his followers lived.  Going about, regarding nothing as their own, but rather sharing in the lives of people, proclaiming their faith, living in the abundance of God. f

Br Justus is normally resident in the United States of America.


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