Mystery Worshipper: Tukai
Church: Paton Memorial
Location: Port Vila, Vanuatu
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 May 2011, 10:00am
The church was named in honor of the Revd Dr John Gibson Paton, a 19th century Scottish missionary whose dedication and work in what was then called the New Hebrides earned him the title King of the Cannibals. It is basically a white A-frame building supported by rolled steel joists that are very visible from inside. The lower side walls can be, and are, opened completely for ventilation and access during services, but are shut at other times, not least to keep out the tropical rain. Inside the church was recently decorated with posters prepared for Easter by the Sunday school. It shares a compound with the national offices of the Presbyterian Church.
The population of Vanuatu is overwhelmingly Christian, but which denomination one belongs to depends on which of the 19th century missions reached a particular island first (or, more precisely, avoided death the longest). To judge from the large number of elders and committee heads who spoke at the ceremony after the service, there is much active lay participation in the governance of this congregation, though I did not hear much about outreach as such.
Port Vila is the capital of Vanuatu, a Pacific island country composed of about 30 islands and known as the New Hebrides until independence in 1980. It was previously administered (if that is the word) jointly by Britain and France, in an arrangement known officially as a condominium but unofficially called a pandemonium. Vanuatu is notable for its profusion of languages, with Bislama (the local version of Pidgin English) spoken by almost everyone. Port Vila is a typical small tropical port city with a population of about 40,000. It boasts several excellent restaurants and resort hotels, and has a thriving tourist trade, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, helped by having a very friendly, though not overly sophisticated, population. The excellent harbour is much frequented by cruise boats and cruising yachts. The church occupies a prime site facing Independence Park, which in turn is surrounded by government offices. The waterfront is three minutes' walk away down the hill.
The service was led by the Revd Joash Sina, described as a session pastor, who was also the preacher. In appearance he was clearly not ni-Vanuatu (indigenous), and in fact (I found out later) comes from the Solomon Islands.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service
How full was the building?
Almost full – I estimate about 300 people, mostly a young crowd. As a latecomer, I had to sneak in through the open side walls and then slide past a few people to find a seat. The congregation, like the population of Vanuatu generally, were 95 per cent ni-Vanuatu. There was also a sprinkling of Polynesians, a few of Chinese ancestry, and four "Europeans" (whites).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I got a smile from the young lady I sat next to. Those who arrived on time probably got more of a greeting, given the friendly nature of Vanuatu society. After the service, several people chatted generally with me, and also explained what the after-service ceremony was about.
Was your pew comfortable?
Quite tolerable. I sat on a wooden pew, but each pew was extended by about five portable uncushioned steel chairs placed right out to where the outer walls would be.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I could not say, as I arrived about 20 minutes late, having just come off a plane from overseas.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I'm afraid I missed them, as I was late.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed hymnbook had been distributed at the door to early arrivals. The girl next to me had a copy, so I was able to join in the songs, which were all in Bislama. Many people had brought their own Bibles and referred to them during the service.
What musical instruments were played?
None. All the singing was unaccompanied.
Did anything distract you?
As I come from an island where Bislama is not so common, translating the songs back into English kept my mind active.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Basically a hymn sandwich with a longish sermon. No liturgy or robes to speak of, though the preacher did wear shirt with tie, closed shoes, and long trousers – which is formal wear for these parts. No sign of hand clapping except a round of applause for the visitors' musical items. After the sermon, a visiting choir from a neighbouring congregation sang a hymn in good harmony. Then an Australian visitor, well-known to the congregation as one of their former pastors, came forward with a CD player and a recorded accompaniment for the song "Count your blessings". He then produced a mouth organ and played along to it! This performance was greeted by big applause from everyone except me.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The Revd Joash Sina spoke clearly in English, with only the occasional throwaway line in Bislama, which made it easy for me to follow. I did wonder for the first ten minutes or so if he was going to make any direct connection to the Bible, but he did then link to one of the readings for the day. Although the sermon was longer than I am used to, it was well thought through, clear, and pertinent to the congregation and the occasion.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As the next day was a public holiday for Labour Day, his theme was "Labour for Christ". As Christians we should be hard workers of good character, displaying integrity matching our faith. If we all did this, Vanuatu would be a blessed country. (Though he didn't say so, there have been some prominent counter-examples among Vanuatu's leaders.) He linked this to Colossians 3:22-23 ("Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for men"). The message of this and the surrounding verses is the need for respect, which goes both ways: family members must respect one another, just as workers and bosses need to respect one another. In neither case should they act harshly.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A church packed with mostly young people paying rapt attention to the service. As usual in the Pacific, the singing was hearty, though perhaps with less elaborate harmonies than in Polynesia.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was hot! Although the side walls were open, not much breeze filtered through and it was very sticky. So almost everyone in the congregation were fanning themselves more or less continuously: some with fans made from leaves of pandanus (a fruit tree whose leaves are woven into a variety of objects from baskets to sails), others with anything available such as a hymnbook or notebook.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the conclusion of the service proper, the preacher invited us to assemble on the lawn outside for tok tok, which I assumed was Pidgin for "conversation" but which turned out to be much more than that. In fact, it was a ceremony of reconciliation, Vanuatu style, between the church elders and the family of the chairman of a fundraising committee who had died the previous week. It was whispered to me that there had been bad blood between the parties, as the chairman had brought in considerable money for a new church hall but no construction had yet begun. Outside the church on the lawn, there was a pile of gifts from the elders to the family: woven floor mats, taro (a potato-like plant that is a staple of the local diet), and a trussed up but live pig. We formed three groups around the pile: the extended family, a group of church elders, and the rest of the congregation. Each elder spoke in Bislama about how their committee supported the gift of reconciliation. The father of the deceased then touched the pile of gifts, thereby accepting them. Finally, the son of the deceased presented the elders with a gift of tinned food. The congregation then shook hands with the family members. Only then did the pastor (as master of ceremonies) announce that refreshments were served.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The refreshments had been on a table at the side, concealed by a cloth. Given the preceding ceremony, I half-expected that they would be a pre-cooked feast, and was rather disappointed that they turned out to be nothing more than store-bought biscuits and fruit cordial!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This was my first day in Vanuatu in 25 years! On the previous occasion I was made welcome at the Anglican church, but their service was too early in the day for me. On this evidence, I would be happy enough to come again to Paton Memorial, hopefully in less than 25 years time!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes indeed – what with lots of young people taking Christianity seriously and a spirit of Christian charity in evidence.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The presentation of a live pig in the reconciliation ceremony.