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New Guinea Martyrs

New Guinea Martyrs Day: 1 September, 2013
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

+ May my words be spoken in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As a recent traveller to Paua New Guinea and a visitor to the church there I bring with me to this day greetings from the clergy and people of the diocese of Port Moresby and the diocese of Dogura, Milne Bay. I also bring greetings to you from Bishop Clyde Igara, Bishop of Dogura Diocese and Archbishop elect of PNG.

Today as we gather and commemorate the PNG Martyrs, I give thanks for my recent experiences in PNG and for what it has taught me about God and about the other. I think that it is these experiences that also influenced those who have also greeted the people of PNG throughout its rich history with the church. To explain what I mean, let me first speak of something of the great story of the Anglican church in PNG.

On St Laurence day, 10th of August 1891, The Reverend Fathers Copland King and Albert Maclaren brought their small sailing boat ashore at Kaieta between the villages of Wedau and Wamira, on the north East coast of Papua New Guinea. Some years earlier, under the conventions of European Ecumenical considerations, this area was given over to the responsibilities of the Church of England in Australia for 'pastoral care and support of the natives and the local settlers'. In response, these two priests set forth into a world of unknown, perhaps even with a sense of fear for their own lives as they recalled stories of other missionaries who had been less successful in their mission. But a warmth of welcome was received by King and Maclaren where a conversation of life and faith began.

By December of that year Maclaren had taken ill and was forced to return to Australia where he eventually died. However, this didn't dampen the passion for the people of PNG that Copland King had developed. Something within his very being beckoned him back to a place where he knew God was at work, long before he had arrived. Once back in the area King went about setting up schools at Dogura plateau and in neighbouring villages and gradually set up stations along the coast. It was to be five years after he came ashore in PNG that King would baptise the first Anglican converts. And this is an important point to note. For King, the importance and emphasis obviously wasn't about 'getting in and getting a job done' in regards to converting people or forcing upon them a few bibles, but the fact that it was five years until he baptised anyone suggests something more about King, that he was on a journey with the people of God in this place — a pilgrimage in fact.

Here commenced a journey of faith 'sharing and living' between missionaries and the Papuan New Guinean people. King found here in the people with whom he lived in community, and for whom he cared, a stirring of the depths of his own faith which called him to look closer at what this understanding of God is that he was beginning to understand. I am convinced that King did not stay on to just do a job for his own pride or pious position, but because he was, as many who have visited the church in PNG, 'bitten by the PNG mosquito'. A metaphor for how the beauty of the people and the land gets under your skin and into your blood. A new and fresh understanding of God was not only being shared with the local PNG people, but also with King and his companions as their hearts were moved by the people of God in that place. A conversation had begun, a journey together in the light of Christ.

So we come forward to the middle of the 20th century where PNG came under threat of military invasion by Japan. [As if caught up in the middle of a fight between countries and places that were so far removed from the Papuan New Guinea people, the innocent victim would suffer.] By this stage, the Anglican mission stations of Copland King had continued to grow and develop into a considerable size and influence along the coast. Many women and men were now sharing in this partnership of the gospel in many and varied ways — from teaching in schools, caring for the sick and needy as health care workers in hospitals, builders and architects, to the clergy in chapels. But as the Japanese invaded in 1942, the then Bishop Phillip Strong gave orders for the missionaries to 'remain at their posts and stay with their people for whom they were caring'. It was to this end that eight Anglicans lost their lives and were martyred alongside many others from different Christian traditions.

Although these faithful women and men were given orders from their bishop to stay, I strongly believe that it was more than words from above that caused them to commit their lives to what they were doing. Here, as with Copland King, the people serving the church in PNG found something which they knew only to be the work of God. Here in the slow but genuine building up of deep friendships and partnership God was to be found at its heart. This was not a one way converting of people to an ideal or religious dogma, but the living God who does transform life was found in a mutual partnership between people of great difference. These women and men, had they decided to leave, would not have just left a job but would have abandoned their sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers in faith. People whom they had grown to love and care for and who loved and cared for them as well.

At the beginning of August, last month, 122 years after King arrived ashore at Kaieta, I too walked ashore on the beautiful beaches of Wedau. After commencing some reflections on this trip before I left, I wondered why our group organiser, the Anglican Board of Missions, would call this trip a pilgrimage? For there was not really, in my mind, any ancient and Holy site which had given purpose for thousands of others to travel many hours by air, truck and small dinghy to get to. But as we arrived, here we were greeted by a depth of hospitality and warm welcome, such as I had never experienced. I watched as our luggage was carted from the beach up to the small guesthouse where we were to be staying. Every bit of me longed to carry my own bag as one who finds a place in 'doing' things, but here I was tremendously humbled by people I did not know and who did not know me wanting to carry my bag. Even some young children decided to come and carry bits and pieces of our luggage. As we walked together up the road, conversations began as if old friends were taking off again from a conversation which stopped years ago but only seemed like yesterday. Here, at the beginning of our pilgrimage, I too was quickly bitten by the PNG mosquito. It was here that I learnt that this trip was indeed a pilgrimage and as conversations grew so too did our sharing of faith. This wasn't a trip where I would get in and help out with some building project. Nor was it a sight-seeing holiday. But this pilgrimage engaged in conversation, in mutual sharing around the table, of friendships growing, of life experiences being shared — all grounded in our faith and love for our great and holy God of community. Here we gathered as equal sisters and brothers in Christ. Not as one bearing down upon the other with an air of Western World supremacy but as one people in Christ.

Our gospel reading this morning from St John speaks to us of another holy gathering where some Greeks longed to speak with Jesus. As they ask to approach, Jesus is delighted as he confirms through parable that the kingdom of God is for all people, Jew, Gentile, slave and free.

Here are Greek people — people with very different cultural backgrounds, from very different places to Jesus and his disciples. Both groups knew that it was inappropriate to converse with one another and even share in anything. The Jews in particular knew that having anything to do with Gentiles would be going against their laws of purity. But yet Jesus tells them to come to him, to converse with him. What a bold statement that Jesus makes here! And to emphasise even more, Jesus tells about the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God through the parable the importance of being with one another in God.

My trip to PNG has impacted on my life and faith immensely, as obviously it did for King and Maclaren, and for all those who lost their lives in WWII. As the genuine and lived faith experiences of our brothers and sisters in PNG was shared with us, and our faith experiences shared with them, a commonality in Christ was found and deepened. The faith of 'the Greeks' who longed to see Jesus was such that they persisted in approaching those who were extremely different to them so they could learn something of God. May we too have that same passion and zeal to see the face of Christ and approach those people and places much different to ours in our journey with God. May we too pray that we find God in places where we least expect but may we have the boldness to even go there in the first place. What if we were to stop and talk with that person in office to whom we have never spoken? What if we were to engage in an honest conversation with that next door neighbour who seems so different from us? What if we were to stop and hold the beggar's hand and share life stories together? For it is to this that St Benedict writes into his rule of life that 'conversion, in the gospel sense, is a daily turning of ones self to God, a life long process by which the members seek the will of God through a deepening of their baptismal commitment'.

Are you ready to take the challenge of seeking out God in the life of the other? Are you willing to enter into God's mission of conversion, not only of the other but of the self?

This day as we give thanks for the Papua New Guinea Martyrs may we be encouraged to go into the challenging and the uncomfortable and seek there the face of God.

The Lord be with you.


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