Monday, April 22, 2013

PNG's Changing Signs of the Times

When I landed in Port Moresby more than four months ago I was told about and could observe the increasing number of cars on the road. Here in Madang the town roads have visibly deteriorated due to the increased number of cars coming in and out of town. When I first lived here, expat references to “traffic jams” almost always came with a smirk. Now, we can ask quite seriously about how the traffic was on the way in and out of town. Granted, the traffic situation may still be exacerbated more by potholes than by congestion, and it in no way approximates the kind of traffic one encounters in most of the world.

But things are changing. I’ve read that GDP growth has been over 8% over the past three years here. This means that last year GDP growth was higher here than in China. A lot of this growth appears to be coming from natural resource extraction, especially the investment coming in through the LNG project in the Southern Highlands. I don’t quite understand the intricacies of which companies have differing stakes in the project, but I believe the American company Exxon-Mobil is involved as a major partner.

Logs ready for export just across the inlet from us
I've heard from multiple sources about rampant illegal logging in some parts of the country. There have been newspaper articles and a government report. I am by no means well informed about the latest developments on this front, but we can observe dozens and dozens of round logs being loaded onto a ship just across from us in what I presume is one of the legal logging operations. (We can sometimes hear the low roars and beeps of the machinery followed by the thunder-like “thud” of the logs being dropped into the ship’s hold all through the night) I don’t mean to take a radical stance against all logging, but I would greatly prefer that all logging be done in an environmentally sustainable manner that allowed Papua New Guinean landowners to benefit more and which made more room for more “downstream processing” of the wood here in country.

As with many developing countries, there are many, many young people who want education, jobs, and a better future for themselves and their children. They are sometimes frustrated, but are far more likely to give off a vibe of optimism and ambition than disillusionment or despair.

Violence has always been an issue here in PNG, but it has apparently made the international media repeatedly in the last few weeks. The burning of people (especially women) accused of sorcery appears to have taken a modern turn towards sheer cruelty and spectacle in some cases. Last week I heard it first suggested that the increased media attention may not be as helpful as some would think. A researcher insisted that the key is to get the whole concept out of people’s minds. In some cases, the “power of suggestion” may be more harmful than the good done by public condemnations.

Now I hear that foreigners (including an Australian and an American) have been violently attacked within the country within the last week or so. Tribal warfare continues in many areas, and the rascal gangs (“rascal” has a far, far more serious connotation here than it does in the States; it is the primary word used to refer to “gangsters” or “outlaws”) continue to be a major problem in many areas of the country.

I hold all of this in the back of my head. I have a desire to somehow “synthesize” all of this information, but have yet to do so. I sometimes feel disappointed that despite my BA in International Relations, I sometimes feel just as perplexed as everyone else as to what can be done to help countries like PNG develop.

And what does the Gospel have to say to all of these situations? How should I pray for PNG? What should I pray for specifically? How can the self-sacrificial and transformative love of Christ be incarnated in this context?

Our first short term break starts next week. I plan to take a PMV (public motor vehicle) along the greater part of the length of the very important yet inadequately maintained highlands highway. I know that I’ll be observing what I see at the roadside stands, PMV stops, and markets of the highlands. I am sometimes tempted to embark on an “expat rant” about road quality, corruption, and whatever else may not be the way I would have it be. Complaining about government is by no means limited to expats (or by any means to PNG!), but I feel as an expatriate I may be tempted in a particular way to forget the corruption, greed, and violence that characterize my own culture, let alone the extent to which greed and selfish ambition can and do continue to wound my own soul.

And there is so much beautiful about PNG, its people, and its cultures. Not everything is doom and gloom, but I’m sometimes
acutely aware of the fact that this country is encountering the stresses and pains of a national transition to modernity. Indeed, that transition seems to color nearly everything that I observe or read about in the national newspapers.

By writing this post I hope that I can remind myself to not just observe and analyze this transition, but to pray as well. We are still in the Easter season; we Christians are still living with, in, and through the risen Christ. I need not be naively optimistic about this country’s future, but as a Christian, I can live with a firm and historically grounded hope which also invites me as an individual to ask what it means to follow Jesus here in PNG in light of the signs of the times. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Letting Others Blog for Me

I tried to write up a post or two for today, but I kept forgetting what I was writing about and ended up writing about way too many things. I've been meaning to post some links to the blog of my fellow lay volunteer/missionary here for a while, though, so this is my golden opportunity.

Steve Nelson has worked both in the corporate world, in campus ministry (Univ. of Tulsa), and with a Catholic new media non-profit. He is now a teacher here at St. Fidelis. He's been better than me about posting to his blog regularly while he's been here, and has managed to upload several videos to vimeo. Here are some links to his blog that some of you might be interested in:

Facts and Features of St. Fidelis

Holy Week Video

Holy Week (includes a picture slideshow)

Weekly Sports - this includes some short video of the students (and me) playing sports on Wednesday afternoons

Profession of Solemn Vows (I had previously posted a link to this video)

Of Flowers and Spiders (pictures of....guess what!)

Hope everyone is well. I was saddened to hear about the explosions in Boston today. People die in tragic ways every day, but I've found that I'm more likely to feel the effect of national tragedies when living as an American overseas. May God be with everyone involved and help the whole world to move closer and closer to peace.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter Highlights

Background: Power Outage

Holy Saturday began with a “brown out”. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to always live in a country with reliable utilities, then this means that there is some power coming in, but not enough to run some appliances or lights. If one has fluorescent light bulbs (as everyone here does), then some of the lights may not turn on at all. Our fans only turned very slowly, and only a couple of light bulbs could turn on. Our refrigerators and freezers were not operating. This “brown” out was only interrupted by lengthy, full-on “black outs”, and continued until sometime Monday afternoon.

The Pillar of Fire

At the Easter Vigil, it is part of the liturgy to build a fire outside of the church building. There the Easter candle is lit from the fire and the procession into the church can then begin, with the light of Christ being passed to everyone else from the Christ candle.

In Papua New Guinea, it has apparently become customary to build a BIG fire. In our case, after repeated pleadings from the rector to build a smaller fire this year, we ended up with a 12 feet or so high pillar of logs surrounded by dried palm fronds. I don’t have any pictures (I was handing out candles directly beforehand), but let me assure you it was quite a sight—especially since there were no electric lights on anywhere nearby.

Let the Children Come to Me

Our chapel is exactly that, a chapel, and not a parish. It is relatively small, and is intended for the use of the students, faculty, and staff of St. Fidelis. Most Papua New Guineans, though, have to walk a fair distance to attend Church services. During Holy Week, the greatest effort is made to spread the priests of the diocese out so that the maximum number of Catholics have access to the Sacraments during our most important holidays. A number of people from the village nearest to us had left to walk to a place called Maiwara for the Easter Vigil, but I was told that for many of the children it was too long of a journey to make at night time, and they had thus come to St. Fidelis along with a number of adults who regularly come to our chapel for Sunday Mass. This means that we had a very high ratio of children to adults at our Easter Vigil, even for Papua New Guinea.

At times my inner grumpy old white man wanted to come out. Kids were sprawled out in the aisles. The Church was crowded. Many of the candles had to remain lit since there were no electric lights Kids were spilling wax on the pews and everywhere—playing with their candles and the wax that dripped off. (The audacity! Who ever heard of children wanting to play with fire?) The fans were not working, and we had now crowded an unusually large number of people into a relatively small room, with fire, in a place that was already hot and humid. Then there was of course the sound of coughing, crying babies, and chattering toddlers.

But at the same time—interspersed with my temptation to think such grumpy thoughts, came the realization that it was an incredibly beautiful moment—to be gathered in the dark by candlelight with dozens of somewhat dirty children and barely literate adults---the sort of people Jesus most especially loves. How true it is that Jesus gives us so much that we don’t understand. The sublime imagery of the Easter Vigil may have been lost on the seven year olds who mostly remember the fire, and many adults may have missed the evocation of the broad arch of salvation history through the Scripture readings, just as I failed to fully appreciate the sheer awesomeness of what was really happening all around me due to my disproportionate concern with the soaking of my clothes in sweat,  but we all celebrated the risen Christ, renounced Satan during the renewal of our baptismal vows, and received Christ anew in the Eucharist. God’s gifts indeed exceed our ability to describe them. 

Despite the heat, it was Easter, and the service thus resembled heaven. I’ll undoubtedly remember that night for years to come.

He is risen!