Friday, November 22, 2013

Intercultural Communication, Part 2

I was invited back to the Intercultural Communications class to lead a discussion on "How Intercultural Communication Has Affected My Faith." I have mentioned in previous posts how much I've enjoyed sitting in on this course and considering the topic, and I especially appreciated the opportunity to think through the past 8 years in these terms.

At the outset I had to disclose that sometimes I feel like practically 100% of my "Christian experience" has taken place in an intercultural setting, and thus it can be difficult for me to ascertain what part of my faith has been impacted by intercultural experience and which part as simply been impacted by (generic) experience. There is a sense in which all of my real-world experience has been in a culture foreign to my own, and I think that's a fairly unique position in which to be.

One of the impacts that stands out most clearly in my mind is the role my cross cultural experience has played in creating a great dependence on God. Shawnda has been the best help-meet I could ever ask for, but operating in the absence of an extended family and (similar-culture) friends has forced us to rely that much more on our God. I remember vividly the strengthening of our faith as we endured Titus' on-again/off-again adoption process, as we prayed to and trusted in God for provision and strength. Financially speaking, we have been living on faith for years, and God has never ceased to provide. Living in a different culture has meant living outside our comfort zone in a lot of instances, but has also provided an opportunity for our trust in God's providence to grow.

My experience has also shaped my appreciation for what we might term "incarnational ministry." It was best exemplified by Jesus himself, as he gave up heaven to come to earth, humbling himself to the point  of taking on flesh and ultimately dying on the cross. Paul followed that example by becoming "all things to all all means." My own attempt at incarnational ministry has paled in comparison, but I have a more keen awareness of what Jesus and Paul were doing in their ministry because of my opportunities to minster cross-culturally.

One of the greatest things about living in Vanuatu, and especially about spending a few years in the village, has been witnessing the natural expression of hospitality, generosity and community that is evidenced in their culture. I have been convicted time and again in these areas, as members of this "developing country" teach me lesson after lesson on these very-Christian principles/attitudes. From the elderly widow who unexpectedly gave us money for an upcoming mission trip, to the village store owner who refused to raise the price of a kilogram of flour even after I helped him realize that he was losing 10 cents on every sale (because he was operating his store as much to bless the community as he was to make a profit), to the numerous times I've witnessed people sacrifice greatly to help a family member or friend in need (sometimes I myself being the recipient). Generally speaking, independence is not a valued quality in their society ... and as hard as it sometimes is for me to accept that, I am growing in my appreciation for a life lived in dependence upon others.

My comprehension of Bible narratives has been enriched through my experiences as well. I am convinced that 21st century Vanuatu culture is has much more in common with 1st century Palestine than 21st American/Western culture does. I have had the opportunity to be exposed to "households" like Lydia's or the Philippian jailer, to noncommercial fisherman and gardeners (who rely on their skills for their livelihood), and to unique travel scenarios (boat, walk, cart, canoe, etc.). The list could go on and on.

My experience has also impacted me in regard to the relevance of the NT Scriptures cross-culturally. Perhaps the best text to consider as an example (and the one I brought up in my discussion in class) is Galatians 5:19-26. I am amazed at how the things mentioned in that text can be so very true and relevant in cultures as divergent as America and Vanuatu. They are sometimes manifested in different ways, but the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit are very much cross-cultural.

One last observation I shared was the way in which I have been able to understand how absolute truths can still be applied in variant ways. For instance, we understand the command to "honor your father and mother" to be absolute. However, "honor" in Vanuatu looks something like making a way for your parents to be in their home village, well taken care of (food, clothing, housing, etc.) by their son(s). On the other hand, in America it could be quite admirable to financially provide your parents a comfortable residence with care givers (e.g. assisted living or retirement village) who are able to provide a comfortable and pleasant atmosphere that they very much enjoy, albeit hundreds or even thousands of miles away. But in Vanuatu, to pass off your loved ones to someone else's care would actually be interpreted as dishonor. Sometimes it can be a challenge to determine what in my makeup is "American" and what is truly "biblical." I think that setting up an American church in a non-American culture can be a recipe for a very empty faith, because such would not be relevant to the individual. This only adds to the beauty of Scripture - it's ability to be applied across cultural lines.

One of the things we hear most from people who travel internationally is how that experience affects them in various (mostly positive) ways. I think there is a great value in understanding cultures foreign to our own, especially as it relates to our faith. Some day as Christians, we will be able to be a part of "a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes ... saying, 'Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'" (Rev 7:9,10). It's a blessing to get to experience that in a small way even here on earth!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

OT Story

A couple of weeks ago, one of the instructors here at OC had a speaking engagement out of the country, and asked me to fill in for him in his Story of the Old Testament class.

On Tuesday morning (at 8am - which is VERY early for college students), I had 50 minutes to present an overview of both Ruth and Esther. It was fast and furious, but I enjoyed the opportunity to view the books from a "30,000ft level" perspective. Some of the highlights from the Book of Ruth that we discussed were:
  • the fact that the narrative serves to present a bright spot amidst the perilous time of the judges,
  • it illustrates the compassion that was at the heart of the old Law (gleaning, levirate, kinsman-redeemer),
  • of primary Jewish concern, the legitimacy of David... and ultimately Jesus,
  • and most beautifully, the providence of God ... for Ruth/Naomi as well as for the establishment of the kingdom.
Some things we focused on from the Book of Esther were:
  • the historical setting of the narrative (why were there Jews living in Persia?),
  • God's ability to work in spite of evil people/motives,
  • and once again, the providence of God for Esther/Mordecai, the Jewish nation, and ultimately the Messiah/kingdom.
On Thursday morning, I had the equally complicated task of giving an overview of the entire book of Isaiah in only 45 minutes (a quiz over the assigned reading took a few minutes of class time). Because of time constraints, I was forced to take an outline approach to the book, which I hope proved to be helpful.

So much of our understanding the writings of the prophets depends upon the historical context of Israel/Judah, so we spent some time recalling what was happening in both the North and the South during Isaiah's time of prophecy (invasions, foreign alliances, etc). We then looked at his unique "calling" from chapter 6. I think chapter 1 is especially valuable in setting the tone for the entire book, because it gives a glimpse at the real problem Judah/Jerusalem was facing: a very poor spiritual condition. They continued to go through the "right" motions, but their hearts were woefully far from God. From there, we considered:
  • the fact that Jehovah is a universal God and is in total control,
  • the 6 woes,
  • judgment/redemption terminology,
  • an interesting historical interlude (ch.36-39) regarding Hezekiah and Assyria, as well as the introduction of Babylon,
  • and finally, Christ, Redemption, and Consummation (with an emphasis on Messianic prophecies).
Isaiah's writings are very deep and sometimes hard to understand, but I remain in awe of how God used him to communicate His enduring love and devotion to His people and His cause. What an awesome God we serve!

Friday, November 15, 2013

World Mission Workshop

Photo credit: Henoc Kivuye, Oklahoma Christian University

The World Mission Workshop has been taking place on the campuses of Christian Universities since "Harding College" hosted the first back in 1961. As such, it is geared towards university students interested in foreign and domestic missions. Approximately 350 students from several different schools attended the workshop this year, hosted by Oklahoma Christian University here in Edmond.

I was given the opportunity to speak twice during the weekend event. My "keynote" was during the normal OC chapel session on Friday morning. Hardeman Auditorium seats 1,200, and every seat was filled, making it (by far) the largest crowd I've ever had opportunity to address. The theme for the workshop was "Renewal: Experience It. Share It." I chose to share a story of renewal from Vanuatu during that session. Looking back on our 8+ years in Vanuatu, it is really encouraging to see the ways in which the gospel has changed lives, particularly within family units. I centered most of my thoughts around Sam and Leimawa in Etas Village, and the significant change they've undergone over the past several years in response to their faithfulness to Jesus. I think they are a perfect example of those who have "laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One..." (Col 3:9,10).

I was also given the opportunity to teach a class on Saturday morning, and was very pleased to have 40-50 show up for that. The title of my lesson was "Sharing the Gospel in the Shadow of Traditional Religion." I had never really stopped to think about all the challenges we face in Vanuatu because of the indigenous religious roots that are shared by the ni-Vanuatu, but preparing this lesson really facilitated my "connecting the dots" on a number of issues that we face. Hopefully my presentation broadened the perspective of those present, to help them understand some of the unique contexts in which the gospel is being shared and having positive impacts.

A couple of professors from Harding University were in my Traditional Religion class at the workshop, and invited me to come and deliver that lecture to four sessions of their "World Christian" class (approximately 240 students total). It was a pleasure to travel there last weekend for a couple of days and share with them.

We continue to enjoy our time Stateside, and have especially benefitted greatly from our experiences at OC. It continues to be a wonderful opportunity for growth and fellowship.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Missions Prayer Group

There is a group of 15-20 students on campus who have formed an unofficial club of sorts that focuses on God's mission and how they are/will fit into it. They come from a diverse set of majors, but all of them are purposefully prayerful for how God can use them in their various vocations. It has been very encouraging to get to know several of them.

A few weeks ago, two of the group members came into my office and asked if they could conduct their Monday night meeting at our house, and have an opportunity to ask us about our life and work experience in Vanuatu. They requested that we split into guys and gals, because many of the questions they had prepared were gender-centric (especially the role of wife and mother on the mission field). I wasn't sure how a Q&A would go, but was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtfulness of their questions.

Both Shawnda and I came away from the experience very encouraged. We were grateful to be able to be an encouragement to these young people, and also appreciate so much the wisdom that is being manifested in them at such a young age. In fact, several of the group members have stopped by my office in subsequent days "just because they wanted to pray for me."

Today's youth sometimes get a bad rap, and perhaps often justifiably so, but rest assured that there are some very high quality young people that are seeking to glorify God in their lives. If you know of such a youth, let them know that you are proud of them and the decisions they are making! And be praying for them diligently.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Intercultural Communication

A couple of weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to present a lecture to one of the University's "Intercultural Communications" classes. The large majority of those students are "TEFL" (teaching English as a foreign language) majors, but I hope that many aspiring missionaries are also taking advantage of that very relevant course.

Intercultural communication is something I hadn't given much thought until around 2007 (two years AFTER moving overseas), when a friend recommended a book entitled "Foreign to Familiar."  Reading that book was like a breath of fresh air, and it began to change the way we looked at our work in Vanuatu. Sometimes we (myself included) think that so long as one knows the Scriptures well, he is equipped to share the gospel anywhere. To a certain extent that's true, because God's word is so powerful and He often acts in spite of our failures and inadequacies. But at the same time, we "jars of clay" can sometimes be guilty of getting in the way of the message. If we are offensive or ineffective in our presentation and communication of the gospel, we are hindering our usefulness in God's hands. I think the intercultural communication concept rings true regardless of context (religion, healthcare, retail, education, social, government, etc.).

In my lecture I basically gave a review of the aforementioned book, giving application/examples from our experience in Vanuatu. The author breaks the world's population down into two main groups - hot climate and cold climate cultures. She provides insight into the generic differences between these two groups under seven categories: Relationship- vs. Task-Oriented;  Indirect- vs. Direct-Communication;  Group Identity vs. Individualism;  Inclusion vs. Privacy;  Hospitality Differences;  High- vs. Low-Context;  and Time & Planning. Since I come from a traditionally "cold" culture and am living in a "hot" culture, I can really relate to each of these areas. It was fun to really consider these categories and see how true her analysis was in our experience - I was able to come up with several examples in each category (both successes and failures!). 

This book has blessed our ability to minister in a foreign culture, and hopefully its introduction was beneficial to the students as well.  If you are planning any type of intercultural communication (even something as simple as a vacation overseas or interaction with foreign nationals here at home), I would highly recommend this book by Sarah Lanier. It's an easy read and might prove to be very helpful.

Thanks for following our blog!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

GO Retreat

OC's Center for Global Missions hosted its third annual GO Retreat on September 13-14. "GO" stands for global outreach, and the retreat is designed "for students who've gone and those who want to go" on short term mission trips or mission internships.

Though the retreat itself lasted less than 24 hours, we got to spend some quality time with 70+ students at the Central Christian Camp grounds in Guthrie, OK. We especially enjoyed joining our voices with them in singing praises to God - congregational singing in larger groups is something we really miss while in Vanuatu.

The focus for the retreat was Hope, which brought to our attention the fact that we often focus on faith and love, but sometimes overlook the importance of hope. In our breakout sessions in small groups, we shared ways in which we have seen others participate in actions of hope, as well as ways in which we ourselves have taken part in hope-filled actions.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written a book called The Awakening of Hope, and was the guest speaker at the retreat. He brought with him loads of experience and presented some challenging lessons on looking for and participating in actions that manifest hope.

Shawnda and I thoroughly enjoyed the time with the students. We were even commended by all the "youngsters" for being able to stay up til 1am playing games. This is the first time in our lives that we are viewed as the older ones :).

Something that has struck us from day one at OC is the missions-mindedness of the students. That doesn't necessarily mean they are all planning to be foreign or domestic "missionaries", but that they all have at the forefront of their minds God's mission in their lives. We are blessed to be here, and hope that we will have a positive influence on them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Missions Chapel

Daily chapel is a regular part of campus life here at OC. There is a "main chapel" everyday in the auditorium, and there are "alternative chapels" that meet on various days once per week. Every Wednesday there is a missions chapel, wherein students, faculty and staff come together to consider mission principles and mission efforts that are taking place in Jesus' name.

I was given the opportunity to speak in last week's missions chapel, and took the time to share with the students and others about how God has provided for us, titling my speech "My Voyage to a Village in Vanuatu." I wanted them to see some of the ways in which God prepared the way and provided the means for us to end up leaving corporate America and ultimately spending 2+ years in a rural, village setting.  I've actually blogged previously about this here if you're interested in some of the details.

I opened my talk by considering Philemon 10,11,15. The fact that the name "Onesimus" means "useful" has always stuck with me, and I've even found myself praying that I could be "Onesimus" in God's plan. Paul says "perhaps..." in v.15 which indicates his belief that God was working things out for Onesimus to live up to his name.  My story would indicate that God has been working things out for our family to be useful in His service in a similar way.

The takeaway for the students, hopefully, was for them to be prayerfully considering how they can engage their gifts and talents to be "Onesimus" to God, and expect Him to provide ways for that to be fulfilled in their life, regardless of whether they are "missionaries" or not.  The world needs Christian businessmen, Christian nurses, Christian engineers, Christian teachers and Christian parents as much as anything! May it be said of us all... "now he is indeed useful."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Traditional Religions

My second lecture was in the college's World Religions class.  They were studying through a unit on traditional religions, and I was asked to come in and talk about Melanesian traditional religions. As is often said, I learned so much more preparing to teach the material than I ever would have being the student.

I opened the lecture talking about how the gospel was originally introduced to Vanuatu, primarily through European explorers (who, upon their "discovery" of a new country, stimulated missionary activity) and returned "blackbirds" (Pacific islanders who were recruited by trickery or kidnapping to work in cotton and sugar plantations in Australia, some of whom eventually returned to Vanuatu).

I then talked about three specific activities that are still very much in practice in Vanuatu, all of which are based in traditional religion. First is the John Frum "cargo cult." The religion's mysterious prophet allegedly came on the scene in Tanna Island early in the 20th century promising locals bountiful gifts of western-style cargo if they would reject the western influence that was beginning to adversely affect their custom ways and traditions. When African-American soldiers reached land in Vanuatu a fews later during World War 2, the locals assumed that the prophecies must be true, as there were indeed "black men" who had access to the cargo (radios, fancy clothes, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, firearms, airplanes, etc). It is said that John is going to return with the coveted cargo on February 15, but the year is unknown. There are still several devoted followers who are expectantly awaiting his return.

Second I discussed the custom called "nangol" or land-diving, which takes place on the island of Pentecost. It has religious overtones in that locals build large towers out of local materials and "bungee-jump" from various platforms in an effort to please the gods and secure a productive yam harvest, with only vines attached to their ankles. I showed a short video clip of the modern-day performance of this ritual in class.

Third I talked about an event that took place shortly after we arrived in Vanuatu, wherein one of the country's active volcanos was causing serious concern in the locals by spewing ash onto crops and homes. Local villagers, some of whom claim to be direct-descendants of the Volcano gods, made a peace offering to these gods in an effort to appease their wrath. A newspaper interview showed that the villagers strongly believed in these animistic gods, and that they were convinced that their offerings (woven mats and pig tusks) were indeed effective.

By way of application, I talked about a few issues that we deal with on a regular basis that have evolved from these types of traditional religious beliefs. I discussed issues such as custom medicine, sorcery and black magic; marriage, fornication and adultery; kava consumption (intoxicant); domestic violence; and land disputes. The gospel has an answer for all these issues, but implementing them has proven to be a challenge as we are cultural-outsiders. In many ways we feel like we are just now "hitting our stride" in regard to dealing with these sorts of cultural issues.

I really enjoyed the topic and sharing about it, and hope that it was beneficial to the students. I told them that my aim in the lecture was to broaden their understanding of the differences in culture throughout the world. Though most of them will likely never serve full time on foreign mission fields in that type of setting, several of them will likely take part in a short-term mission trip or will be a part of a local congregation that is involved in some way in a mission effort in a developing country. I feel like putting everything together like that was beneficial for me as well, and will help me be more effective as we move forward with the work in Vanuatu.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

First Lecture

I got my first lecture under my belt today, filling in for one of the adjunct Bible instructors in his "Introduction to the Bible" course.  It is a leveling course designed for international students who are unfamiliar with Christianity, which covers the story of the Old Testament this semester. The instructor, who himself is originally from Brazil, also focuses a lot on cultural transition in the class (his father was an international student at OC many years ago, and became a Christian then).

By way of introduction, I asked the students to complete the following sentences: My name is...; I am from...; My major is...; I have been in the USA (how long)...; I first heard about Jesus (when)...

I had students from China, Canada, Japan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Ivory Coast, and an American who described herself as an "Army-brat" who grew up throughout the Middle East and Europe. Most of them had heard about Jesus at a young age, but knew little about him.  Two of the students said they knew "Jesus" from American movies (wherein His name is used quite frequently as an expletive - how embarrassing!).  However, three of the girls from China said they had never heard of Him until their first class (last week) at OC.  Wow!  All 18 of them said they plan to return to their home countries upon graduation. I told them that I hoped they would learn a lot about the Bible and Jesus, and that they would take that knowledge along with their education back home with them.

The instructor asked me to talk about Vanuatu in regard to the local culture and our adaptation to it, and why we are in Vanuatu. I emphasized that we are there to introduce people to the Bible, what it says about God, and the way in which we are called to live as we seek to imitate Jesus' example.

The students had some good questions following the presentation. They asked how our extended families felt about us leaving a modern society to live in an under-developed country, what our kids thought about living in Vanuatu, how we heard about Vanuatu (none of them had ever heard of it), and what the weather is like.

I heard a statistic last week that over 80% of international students who come to the US for university leave without having ever been invited into an American home.  I shared that statistic with them at the end of class, and told them that we would love to have them over for lunch or dinner any time.

My 2nd lecture is slated for tomorrow morning in a World Religions class, where I will be talking about traditional beliefs in Vanuatu and how they affect people's reception of and participation in Christianity.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

OC is Home

Our family has lots of "homes", and we can now say that Oklahoma Christian has been added to that list. "OC is Home" is a catchphrase for the university, and we have already been made to feel at home here. The faculty, staff and administration have been very welcoming as we serve in our role as Visiting Missionaries.

I visited several classes the first week of school, most of which I will be lecturing in at some time during the semester. My main role is to make myself available to students who are interested (or might become interested) in foreign missions. We have enjoyed opportunities to get to know students, and hope to have many more. There are actually four current OC students who have visited us in Vanuatu, and it has been fun to catch up with them.

Dr. Carpenter asked me to be a permanent part of his Vocational Ministry class this semester, and I am enjoying getting to know those students every Monday and Wednesday from 2:30 - 3:45. Ministering to others through your vocation is a wonderful thing to think about and plan for.

We are a part of the on-campus group known as Outreach, which is a missions and service organization that meets every other week. It is encouraging to see so many young people who exhibit a servant heart and are focused on fulfilling Christ's mission. 

First Week Follies is a very popular event on campus, in which the faculty performs a variety show for the students and other visitors. Some acts were serious and some were funny, but they all exhibited talent! It was a great evening to be a part of.

I have my first and second guest lectures scheduled for later this week, and am to speak in mission's chapel next Wednesday. More to come...

Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting Settled

We've moved into the visiting missionary house just across the street from OC's campus. We've only gotten lost inside a couple of times!

The missionary-in-residence at OC, Kent Hartman, is a longtime friend and he has made our adjustment much easier.  We've met tons of people and been around campus a time or two. We are going to be a part of the Edmond Church of Christ while we are here, which is where my brother and his family are.  It's been fun to be with them, and we have been encouraged by the church there as well.

Alexis had a sleepover at her cousin's house, and Titus went to Arlington with BB and JJ (my parents) for an overnight trip...primarily to see a Ranger's game.  Both of the kids think they are hot stuff!

We had a dessert get-together with several of the Bible faculty last Friday night, which gave us an opportunity to get to know some of the people we will be working with over the next couple of months.  OC is very missions-minded and everyone shows a great interest in us and what we have been doing in Vanuatu. It's a very encouraging place.

The students will be arriving throughout the week, and then classes will begin next Monday.  Currently I am scheduled to teach 6 class sessions, with the promise of a few more to come. It's all a bit overwhelming, but I think it's going to be a great semester.

We will continue to keep you updated, and thank you for your prayers and support.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Malekula Farewell Song

Here's the song one of the youth wrote for our departure, as sung by several of the Christians during our going away party. While we will, Lord willing, continue to work with them, our departure marks the end of our being based in the village.  Here are the lyrics (precisely as written by Bronsly, age 13)...

Mr. Eric you are about to leave us now and go back to your home sweet home. We thank you for the works that you have done. For your kindness and loves for us all. Our lifes will not before gotten. Will meed again someday. Please take our loves with you for you living us behind, will sing a song with broken heart, good bye and good bless you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


We're going to keep the blog going while stateside, and this will serve as our first post. We invite you to keep up with our reporting and "visiting missionary-ing."

Our travel from Vanuatu was event-free. We ended up finding a shipping container to rent in Vila to store our Vanuatu things. After one last trip to the storage container, we headed for the airport. Several from the church in Vila, as well as a friend from Ambae that I've been studying with all came to see us off at the airport. It's encouraging to see those whose lives have been changed, and it's always nice to be missed.

We boarded our plane in Vila about 1:20pm on Saturday, and believe it or not, we arrived in Los Angeles about 1:20pm Saturday - the international dateline is a funny thing! Our six hour layover in the Nadi, Fiji airport was a bit tedious, but besides that our intercontinental flights went well. The kids slept several hours each on the 10 hour flight from Fiji to LA.

Our 3 hour layover in LA was filled with Immigration, Customs, baggage, walking from international terminal to domestic, checking in, and eating lunch (old McDonald's, as our kids say). There are two families in Ripon, CA who have been supporting us financially for several years, so we had a quick flight over to Oakland and a two drive to get there for a long weekend. We always enjoy starting our furlough time with the O'Hara family because they are good friends and very easy going (it takes us a few days to get our bearings). The congregation where Caleb preaches asked me to share a presentation on the Vanuatu work during Bible class, and then preach during the AM assembly. Having arrived at their house the night before about 9:30pm, I wasn't sure how coherent I would be on Sunday morning, but it worked out fine. There are some exciting things happening among that congregation, and it was a pleasure to be with them.

We were up super early Tuesday morning for an 8:30am departure, in order to contend with the San Francisco Bay Area traffic. After another uneventful flight, we made it to Denver. It has been a pleasure to be back together with Shawnda's family. Mema and Auntie Leesha took Titus and Alexis to the zoo today, while Shawnda and I stayed at the house and tried to get our things organized.

We are scheduled to be in Denver for a week, and Lord willing will head on to OKC next Tuesday. School starts at OC on the 26th, and we have a few activities planned for the weeks leading up to that.

Please keep us in your prayers as we travel and adjust, and we look forward to seeing many of you in the coming months!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Anatomy of a "lafet"

In Bislama, a "lafet" [pronounced *laugh-it] is a special meal or get-together. Aiel (Lembinwen Village, Southwest Bay, Malekula) requested that we time this month's visit to coincide with his grand-daughter's 1st birthday (traditionally, the only birthday actually celebrated in Vanuatu - I assume that stems from the high infant mortality rate that under-developed countries tend to face).

Lafets are foundational to the Vanuatu culture, and while each one (weddings, funerals, circumcisions, going away parties, first yam harvest, etc.) has its unique attributes, the common bond is sharing food together.  Here are some of the things that went into baby Lexi's (named after our Alexis) 1st birthday celebration...

1. Aiel went through the village a few weeks in advance notifying everyone of the upcoming lafet. One of the provincial counselors lives in a nearby village, and volunteered to supply a 25kg bag of rice [rice is obviously a fairly modern introduction to Vanuatu, and still isn't farmed domestically - traditionally, root crops such as yams and taro would have been the primary dish for the meal].

2. Two days before the big event, Aiel's son, Jansen, went and talked to several of his friends about going on a pig hunt.  Seven or eight of them headed out early the next morning with about a dozen dogs, and sure enough came back just after lunch with a wild pig hanging upside down from a tree limb draped between their shoulders (yes, just like in the movies). The dogs tracked and chased down the pig, tangled it up long enough for one of the boys to run over and spear it with a machete.

3. They had "gutted" the swine in the bush, and quickly got to work skinning and piecing up the meat (basically into legs, ribs and head).

4. [This part, obviously, isn't quite so culturally-rooted] The Vanuatu Police Force Representative for Southwest Bay lives in the village (monthly salary means he's fairly well-off financially) and has a deep freezer that he powers for 6-8 hours a day with a gas-powered generator. When he heard about the celebration and the pig, he had several boys carry the freezer to Aiel's house to store the meat in overnight.  

5. Aiel and Jansen had built a skeletal-structure from tree limbs and bamboo a few days prior, and several of us worked together to extend a large tarpaulin over it as a roof. 

6. The boys who helped Jansen with the pig were invited over for dinner that night (a very common way to express gratitude for a day's work).

7. Early the next day (event day) everyone grabbed a make-shift cutting board (cut down a small tree, cut the trunk into segments, and made each one somewhat flat on each side) and a knife and went to town de-boning and dicing the pig meat. The meat was later added to vegetables and water for a soup to put over rice.

8. People slowly start to trickle in, some bringing food, some decorating the shelter, some making cakes, some cutting firewood, some cutting vegetables, some tending the fire, and some cooking the rice and soup.

9. By nightfall, we were ready for a party. Aiel did most of the speaking, thanking everyone for their participation and recounting some of the events of Lexi's birth. It was very obvious that her future spiritual well-being if of the utmost interest to him, and I was proud of him for making that known.

10. After Lexi cut the cake (with a generous assist from mom), all the kids gathered around a sang happy birthday, with a second verse of "happy long-life to you."  Then, everyone lined up to shake hands with the birthday girl and give her a present - all very practical things such as dishes, soap, powder and clothing. After everyone (I would guess that there were about 100 people there) had some cake, the food was served (and by the way, everyone knows to bring their own plates and forks to a lafet).

11.  Lots of visiting, eating, and being together.  Fun was had by all (and most people took home left-overs).

[Photos below - Bringing in the pig; showing the wound; firewood; what a birthday present from grandpa!; decorations; island-style cooking; dicing the meat; cake; decorations; Lexi 1 and Lexi 2; birthday girl; washing pots and pans the next morning.]


We originally titled our blog "afta" with a plan to keep folks up to date on what is happening. Seeing that we haven't posted in over a month (getting close to two months), some must be asking "well, what happened 'afta' that last post?!?"

Our family spent the month of June in Vila. I assisted Scott Richards who came over from the States in association with his teaching of two PIBC classes.  That primarily entailed traveling out to Epau each am, and then picking up / dropping off students in Vila in the pm. We also scheduled the month in Vila because our now-Stateside teammates, Aaron and Cindy Baker, made a two week trip to Vanuatu (spending most of that time in their old home village in Tanna).

Since returning to Malekula at the first of July, we've been in "wrapping up mode." I am finishing up a series of lessons that we began as a congregation last year on the OT books, a series on Proverbs with the youth, a series on leadership with the men, and Shawnda is finishing up a series on Christian Living with the ladies. She has also been finishing up her first full year of homeschooling the kids. We made one more trip for the year down to Southwest Bay to visit the Christians there.

In between, we've been packing up, throwing away, giving away and selling things, in preparation for our upcoming five month time in the US (primarily as Visiting Missionaries at Oklahoma Christian University and visiting/reporting to supporters). Though, Lord willing, we'll be returning to Vanuatu early next year, we do feel a certain sense of loss as move on from this chapter in our lives. Living in the village for the past few years has changed us in almost every area of life, and we are very grateful for the experience. We pray that God has been glorified by our efforts, and that the lives that have been touched by the gospel will continue to grow and mature in faith and good works.

We are scheduled to return to Vila on Monday, and then head towards the States on Saturday.  We are to have a long weekend in Ripon, CA with supporters there, and then be in Denver for a week.  We are to arrive in OKC on August 13, and school starts August 26. I have my first lecture scheduled for September 4, and must admit that its a little intimidating - I've been about as far removed from academia as possible over the past several years.  The good news is, most of my speaking will entail talking about Vanuatu, which shouldn't be too much of a problem!

We are looking forward to seeing most of you this Fall, and pray God's blessings on you richly. It is our intention to keep the blog going (more frequently with more consistent internet access, hopefully!) to share our OC and travel experiences.  Tankyu tumas mo lukim yu...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Special Opps in "opportunities." It's neat to see how God answers our prayers for open doors (Col 4:3).

Vira is in his late 20's and works at the National Bank of Vanuatu in Vila. He recently responded to an ad in the newspaper for a Bible correspondence course, and indicated that he was not only interested in the course, but also in a face to face meeting. I was excited to meet him and learn about his and his wife's interest in studying the Bible. He intends to take the PIBC courses in Vila this year, and I will continue to study with him each time we are in Vila.

Christopher is an older man, and I also recently had the opportunity to visit and study with him. His is an interesting story. He was promoted to "pastor" in his church several years ago, but by his own admission knew/knows very little about God's word. He is hungry in the truest sense, and I am glad that our paths have crossed, and pray that as he learns he will make the determination to live for Christ.

During our recent trip to Tanna, one of the local Christians (Tom) had scheduled a study in a nearby (about an hour's walk) village. Daniel had invited us to come because he is tired of manmade doctrines and practices and just wants to go back to the Bible. When Tom told him that is exactly what we want to do as well, the invitation was quickly submitted and accepted. Daniel leads a group of 15-20 people in his village (Iannuhup, "yen-new-hoop"), and about 12 of them showed up that morning to study the Bible. I presented the gospel to them and answered the questions that they had. Daniel expressed that they were surprised (at this "new" teaching) and very interested in future studies. Tom is going to continue to work with Daniel and the others, and I look forward to my next opportunity to be there as well.

One of the Christian ladies here in Tulwei is married to a man from the northwest side of the island, Rano Village. They have had a tumultuous relationship from its inception, with him living in Rano and her living in Tulwei most of the time. They are still cordial to each other (for the most part), but it is a strange situation (I still don't understand it totally). However, as Stellen has been studying what God's will is for her as a mother and wife, she has attempted to apply those teachings to her life. Her brother, Williamson, has also made a sincere effort to reach out to her husband, Willie, having studied with him on several occasions. Willie came to our church campout a few weeks ago, during which both Alsen and I had some good spiritual discussions with him. Following the campout, I studied with he and Stellan for three nights, and as a result he made the good confession and was baptized into Christ. Our first order of business, so to speak, is to try and get their marriage on the right track. It is something they are dedicated to, but is definitely going to require a lot of effort from both of them. In the near future, we will look to begin preaching the gospel in Rano Village, once the two of them are living there.

Please be praying for all these situations, and that God will continue to open doors for the word. What an awesome God we serve!

Photos below: Christopher during our initial visit; The group we studied with in Iannuhup Village (South Tanna Island); Myself, Tom and Alsen welcomed in Iannuhup; Visiting with Willie at the campout

Church of what?!?

Since moving to Malekula in 2011, I've heard rumors of a mysterious religious group on the south side of the island, referred to (at least by outsiders) as "the church of marijuana." I had my doubts, as the "coconut telegraph" (island version of "hearing it through the grapevine") can sometimes be quite exaggerated. The story goes that the group meets together every Friday afternoon to "worship" by, you guessed it, lighting up and getting high (with Bob Marley music and videos blaring in the background). They supposedly cook the marijuana into foods as well, and intentionally blow the secondhand smoke into their children's faces in order to "train them up" in the way they want them to go. Repulsive, I know. I imagine they have a pretty effective outreach program in the area.

When we were last in Vila, suspicions were confirmed by the headline in the local newspaper that said "Melip Villagers Arrested." Over 50 men from the village were arrested for marijuana cultivation, distribution and use, and were brought to Vila from Malekula to be incarcerated (word is their sentence is 20 years, which is a VERY stern punishment by Vanuatu standards).

Upon our return to Malekula, we were surprised to see some new faces in the neighborhood, as we know all the kids in our area (they are at our house playing on a daily basis). Come to find out, these new faces were children whose dad had been arrested, and their mom brought them back to her home village (here in Tulwei) to be with her family. Most of the rumors have been confirmed as true by these first-hand observers, though my understanding of the religion is still a bit cloudy. In accordance with the religion, the children were not allowed to wear red, leave the house, or use modern medicine - ever.

Interesting, to say the least. The church is trying to minister to these four kids and their mom, and hope that they will learn to follow Jesus.

[Below: photo taken in Etas Village last year of a marijuana plant being cultivated outside the front door of a house, taken by visiting brother John Carlisto]

Bringing In the Dough

During our recent trip to Tanna, we learned of an interesting situation that we thought might be good to share, as we try to give our readers a clearer understanding of the goings on in Vanuatu.

One of the most stressful issues that ni-Vanuatu face is in regard to educating their children. While the vast majority of the schools are government-run, students are still required to pay school fees to attend. That burden has been lessened recently, as the government passed laws that ensure kids are able to go to school through the equivalent of 6th grade fee-free. However, beginning with secondary school, the fees are still imposed, and can be a significant financial burden since the majority of island families do not have a source of regular income.

Harry and Tess were some of the first Christians in Tanna, and have grown a lot in their faith. It has been our pleasure to work with them and get to know them better. Their oldest daughter, Joslyn, is enrolled in secondary school in the main "town" of Tanna Island, Lenekel. At the beginning of the year it became quite evident that they were not going to be able to foot the bill for their daughter's continued education (9th grade). So, Harry went and talked to the administration about the possibility of paying the school fees in the form of local produce (such could be plausible since the majority of the students board at the school, and thus the school is responsible for feeding some 160 people everyday). The administrator countered his offer with a job opportunity - head baker. Harry had baked bread back in the village before, and so he took the job.

To ensure that his daughter is able to attend school, Harry walks to Lenekel everyday (7 days a week) to bake bread for the students and faculty. Thankfully, it is an otherwise flexible schedule, since he bakes bread "today" to be consumed "tomorrow" - thus not preventing him from other family obligations and the weekly assembly. The walk down to Lenekel (there is a pretty significant drop in altitude) takes a little less than 2 hours from his village of Lorakau. The walk back up to the village takes almost 2.5 hours. Bread baking takes about 4 hours total, as he has to make two batches due to the size of his utensils and oven (he uses a 50lb bag of flour per day). A couple of perks include getting to take home the empty flour bags (used for transporting produce from the garden) and several loaves of bread.

Harry doesn't take home much pay, because the large majority of his wages are retained by the school for his daughter's fees (I would guess that the fees are between $400-500 per term, with 3 terms per school year). But, Harry and Tess are happy "because God has provided a way" (his words) for them to send their daughter to school. They have two more daughters and three sons coming up behind, and it will prove to be a continual struggle to educate their children in this environment. I am proud of the way they've handled the situation, and think they are to be commended for their sacrifice, commitment, and dependence upon God's provision.

I followed Harry to/from work one day while we were in Tanna last month, and very much enjoyed getting to visit with him. He is a thinker, and really does seek to manifest Christ in his life. Please be praying for him and his family.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Early this year, the men here in Tulwei Village had a meeting regarding some objectives that we could focus on for the year to ensure that the congregation is positively influencing people through good works. One of the things that I suggested they do was initiate a "WidoWork Day" in which all available Christians spend one day per month helping one of the members, Leana, with whatever work she chooses.

Leana was widowed shortly before their 5th child was born almost 9 years ago. Village life in Vanuatu is physically taxing, and while Leana's five children (3 boys aged 9, 11 and 14; 2 girls aged 18 and 21) do help out a lot, the family can still use the assistance. A family without a male leader/provider is at a distinct disadvantage, not to mention that Leana has had some health problems recently.

Most men in Malekula have formed "work groups" wherein 8-10 men rotate working for each member of the group one day each week (you help other members during "their" weeks and they all help you during "your" week). The WidoWork days are formed similarly, only its the whole church helping out once per month with no reciprocation.

Recently, the congregation spent the day working on Leana's peanut garden, cleaning the area of brush, leaves, weeds, etc. At harvest time, she will prepare the peanut plants into small bundles and sell them for $1 each at the open market in Lakatoro. The work day proved to be beneficial on a number of levels, including the fostering of Christian fellowship and an attitude of servitude. Cool!

Pictured below is Leana (right) with her two oldest children, Lolin and Lolit.


During our most recent trip to Etas Village, we had a flat tire. And when I say flat I mean FLAT.

Several months ago the public works department laid new coral on the road to smooth it out, but with all the recent rains the potholes are back in full effect. In trying to miss the larger potholes, I apparently got a little too close to the edge of the road and banged into a large piece of uncrushed coral, piercing the side wall of our front right tire.

Nothing like changing a tire in the tropical sun on Sunday morning on your way to the assembly. Thankfully, we had all the tools necessary to change the tire and proceed ... dirty and sweaty, but on time nonetheless!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Special announcements

Most of you have already heard the news, but in case you haven't...

We are excited to announce that, Lord willing, our family, in conjunction with the Columbine church of Christ, is in the process of extending our commitment to live and work in Vanuatu through 2025. We intend to relocate to the capital city of Port Vila, and from there carry out the following discipleship objectives:
- Evangelize new areas with a view towards establishing congregations on each of the nation's twelve most-populated islands.
- Edify and equip Christians currently spread over five the country's 83 islands by making ourselves available for regular visits to teach and encourage.
- Produce and distribute biblical literature in the Bislama language.

In addition, we are also excited to announce that our family has been extended an invitation to serve as Visiting Missionaries at Oklahoma Christian University during the Fall 2013 semester. With the approval of the Columbine leadership, we have accepted that role. We will be "doing missions in a different context" for a few months as we promote missions based on our experience. Our stint at OC will coincide with our regularly-scheduled 2013 furlough, and we will be making trips most weekends to report and fundraise. We look forward to seeing you all then!

We earnestly desire your prayers and participation as we move forward on these two items!

Washing dishes

Having been in Vanuatu for 8 years now, there are lots of things that have become a part of our "normal" that might not be considered quite so normal to most of our blog-followers.

During a recent trip to SWB, Malekula with Shawnda's parents, I realized that some might be interested in knowing about how dishes are washed in the outer islands. First, items like dish soap are luxuries (available for those who have the extra funds, but most choose to use their discretionary income on other things like rice, tea, sugar, tinned meat, or toilet paper - also "luxuries" for outer island locals). So, most people simply have two large dishpans of room-temp water sitting outside their kitchen - one for washing (the goop off) and one for rinsing (the goopy water off). They might have a sponge or small dishrag, but usually just give it a good rub with their hands. Once washed and rinsed, they set the dishes to the side to dry, where they sit until they are needed again (no cupboards or cabinets for storage).

Cooking pots are another story, as hand-rubbing and water don't get the cooked-on goop off. Something abrasive is need for scouring, and when you live on an island the best available (and totally free) option is sand. In Lembinwen Village, every evening you will see locals down by the shoreline scrubbing their pots with handfuls of sand, and rinsing them in the ocean. For those villages that are not oceanside, locals will sometimes even carry bags of sand up to their house for this purpose.

Now you know why they prefer to eat with their hands (instead of utensils) and off of leaves (instead of plates). Not normal to some, but it's been working around here for years!

Note 1: The photo of Shawnda's parents washing dishes does have sudsy water, as we always try to bring "luxury items" to the local Christians we stay with when visiting, such as those listed in this post, as a thank you for hosting us.

Note 2: One of the things that we are most "proud" of is the way most ni-Vanuatu Christian men help their wives with children, cooking and cleaning. To see Aiel helping his wife with the sandbeach-scouring of the pots is unusual in Vanuatu.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Last year, one of our supporting congregations (29th and Yale - Tulsa, OK) provided funds to begin placing a classified ad in the Daily Post here in Vanuatu offering Bible Correspondence Courses (BCC). To date, 27 direct responses have been received. Several of them include a letter with their request. Here are some excerpts:

“I believe that this Free Bible Correspondence Courses will give me lots of answers to my questions that my church Pastor can’t give me and he always says that my questions or arguments about his Bible studies are disturbing.”

“My home, family, community, island and country will be blessed too, through these courses. Praise the Lord.”

“I have been longing to learn more about God’s word and I wish I would gain a place in the courses you are now offering in Vanuatu.”

“I am a 34 year old mother of 3. My husband just died [earlier this year]...I believe this is going to help me out with my family.”

“I really appreciate your offer, and I would like to have more knowledge of God’s word. Thank you, and God bless.”

“Thank you for the love of Christ in you all in helping many to know about Him more - and understand His word written in the Holy Bible.”

Many of these BCC students have included their friends and family as referrals, which means many more courses have been distributed. This month, I established an email address to which potential students can send their requests. The first day the new ad ran, we had three requests via email. In addition, I am compiling a mailing list that will be utilized in promoting various outreach events. For example, the Vila congregation will use the mailing list to invite all the Vila BCC students to the upcoming PIBC courses that will be conducted in June.

Please be praying for these BCC students, and that the ads will continue to promote interest.

Leadership training

Beginning this year, I decided to add a new element to our youth group meetings in Tulwei Village (N/W Malekula) - leadership training. We studied principles from the book of James for two months. Each week, we talked about some practical things they could do with the book of James to better understand the book, apply it to their lives, and assist others as well. I gave the youth seven options from which to choose (they each chose three items): Private reading, Public reading, Song leading, Lesson delivery, Exam, Drawing, and Memory verse.

Lolit and Lolin exhibited their skills during a Wednesday morning Ladies devo. Rensly, Bronsly, LinJon, and Nika exhibited the skills they had learned following a Sunday assembly. I was especially pleased that two of them chose Lesson delivery (as public speaking is very difficult in this traditionally-shy culture). I supplied them with a text from James and a short outline for the lesson. Several of the boys chose drawing, wherein they drew a picture of a verse from James, thus making it “come alive” very effectively (their drawings will be hung in the church building). For those who chose private reading, they were to read through the entire book in one sitting (three times total), marking the verses where they read the words faith or work. Two of them chose to study for and take an exam on the book (both got a 100%). Those who lead songs or read publicly showed how their song/reading fit within the context of James.

I think the process proved to be very effective, as the youth and the congregation were encouraged by the progress that was manifested. I was ecstatic! We are going to continue to follow this format, and hope that it will be a blessing to all involved.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Toilet Remodel: Village Edition

*See photos below for reference*

1.Note that the palm-tree-plank floor of your current "outhouse" is severely rotten (i.e. a wrong step could mean you take the "poo-plunge"
2. Note that your in-laws arrive in just under a month, (and you do not want them taking said poo-plunge!)
3. Dig a deep hole (enlist help as needed - will be a full day's work)
4. Call Mike in Santo to send you rebar, PVC, and roofing iron
5. If you don't have timber for boxing, dig out a rectangular form to size for concrete slab
6. Once you receive order from Santo (may take the ship 3 weeks to make the 12 hour voyage), lay plastic vapor shield and place rebar
7. Place round plastic dish (hole for toilet) and PVC (exhaust) in correct locations
8. Hand mix concrete in wheelbarrow (need five mixes for 7x150x200cm slab) and pour into ground form
9. Rinse slab 2-3 times per day for a few days while concrete sets
10. Early the next morning, round up all the helpers you can to move the slab over the hole (helpful hint: use coconuts as rollers if too heavy to carry - it works!)
11. Go coconut fishing: use a small-diameter piece of rebar to spear coconuts out of the hole that may have fallen in during rolling (this step is necessary because you'll need as much room in that hole as you can get)
12. Fill in gaps between slab and ground with crushed coral
13. Hunt around your house and your neighbors' houses for random pieces of timber (ask before taking neighbor's timber)
14. Cut and install posts, rafters, battens and roofing iron - duct tape seams ;)
15. Install treated plywood walls, hinged door
16. Install fiberglass toilet seat (cross your fingers that it fits the hole)
17. Celebrate your successful completion with a Coke

Monday, February 18, 2013

Off to school

In Vanuatu these days, most children leave home at around the age of 13 to further their education. The majority of village schools offer classes through 6th grade, but students must attend a boarding school beyond that. Of course, most of us can't imagine sending our kids away at such a tender age, but it has become quite commonplace here (and in many other parts of the world).

Our youth group was sad to see two of our best Bible students depart for boarding school this year (the school year here follows a calendar year schedule) in February. We are fortunate that the village school here in Tulwei goes through 8th grade, so kids are able to stay home two years longer than normal.

We had Wesley and Alsen over to our house a few nights before they were scheduled to depart, for a fajita dinner (Alsen's first such experience, Wesley's third). Kids don't traditionally talk much to adults when other adults are around, so it was great to get to visit with them some in that atmosphere. We encouraged them to always make decisions based on what God would have them do, rather than based on what their peers might have them do. We are proud of these two young men, and solicit your prayers on their behalf.

(Photos show Alsen and Wesley, and then family and friends putting Wesley on the ship bound for Southwest Bay, Malekula. Alsen is at Rensarie, Malekula.)