Pacific Partners

vanuatu villageBy BEN GRUNDY

When Cyclone Pam devastated parts of Vanuatu earlier this year, the North Ringwood Uniting Church swung into action. A close relationship developed throughout many years with the Paunangisu community (a small village outside of Port Vila) meant the church was able to act quickly to offer support where it was needed most.

Already engaged in a broader project, the North Ringwood UC also raised significant funds for the recovery effort.

The congregation has a breadth of programs involving youth ministry, community support and international community development.

The partnership between North Ringwood UC and the Paunangisu (Pow-nan-isu) community grew out of the congregation’s Medical Sailing Ministries (MSM) project in Vanuatu.

Church member Rob Latimer cites the support of North Ringwood members as being instrumental in establishing MSM, a program that facilitates volunteer medical professionals to undertake working trips to treat remote communities in and around Vanuatu.

“The congregation has a diverse age spread and wonderful leadership in Ian (Rev Dr Ian Hickingbotham),” Mr Latimer said.

“It’s also got a range of skills and an enthusiastic ‘can do’ approach which welcomes ideas with an external focus.

“With the Vanuatu work, I just put the idea out there and people said they’d like to help – the whole thing has grown from there.”

Established in 2009, as the name suggests, volunteers are transported via yacht throughout remote islands in the region to provide medical treatment.

The project has continued to expand and now includes a range of community development and partnership activities.

The North Ringwood congregation was also instrumental is establishing a permanent dental service in Vanuatu that employs locals and is supported by visiting healthcare workers from around the world.

“We discovered that they needed a dental program and at North Ringwood we’ve got a range of skills,” Mr Latimer said.

“There’s Dr Barry Stewart, who is a dentist, and also Mike Clarke who has been involved in consulting work in finance and banking fields.”

“Both of them came on board and we were able to start the Vanuatu Dental Care Service. It’s now running alongside an eye care program – The Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness project – started by (Gippsland) Uniting Church members and 2014 Order of Australia recipients, Don and Meg MacRaild and administered through the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu in partnership with UnitingWorld.

The widespread interest in the program eventually planted the idea for supporter’s trips to the region in 2013.

Thirty supporters were able to join the 10-day tour and, as part of the program, attended a ‘Village Experience Day’. The Paunangisu community – where Morinda, one of the local dental care workers lives – organised the day where proceeds raised went directly to the village.

The community used the funds to install solar electricity that has enabled the church building to be utilised at night for a wide range of religious and community activities. These include kid’s homework, health talks, charging phones, connecting the internet and village film nights.

“When the idea was raised, the Paunangisu church elders were really keen to put on a village experience for supporters involving the broader community, not just church-folk,” Mr Latimer said.

“They made island dresses, shirts and woven baskets for everyone.

“There was amazing singing and they had a feast prepared for us. Everyone was so overwhelmed by it all that we wanted to continue the relationship.”

Several follow-up trips have since fostered even closer ties that have been formalised.

“We’ve started a partnership between North Ringwood Uniting Church and the village of Paunangisu through the Presbyterian Church in the village,” Mr Latimer said.

“We’ve got a formal agreement stating that we’ve come together for mutual spiritual development, cultural exchange and to support economic development in the village community.”

As these ties have strengthened over the years, other opportunities to collaborate with the community have come to fruition.

So when Cyclone Pam struck in March this year, North Ringwood was quick to identify opportunities to support the Paunangisu community.

“Since the cyclone, North Ringwood UC has raised more than $10,000 for the recovery effort,” Mr Latimer said.

In recent months the North Ringwood congregation have been busy preparing supplies for the construction of toilet facilities as part of a broader project to improve hygiene and expand tourism opportunities for the village.

Currently, a shipping container on the church grounds is being loaded with building supplies, prebuilt toilets, water tanks and dozens of computers for a local school.

The container will be shipped this month and a work party will commence construction in October.

“The toilet block in this context is more than just local hygiene,” Mr Latimer said.

“Because the village is about an hour’s drive from Port Vila, they’re strategically placed for tourists.

“The community elders are hoping to work towards catering for tourists and expanding cultural exchanges and village experiences.”

Discussing the success of the MSM, Mr Latimer is quick to point out the hard work and support of many in his church community.

He says the North Ringwood Uniting Church approach of supporting congregation members to take the first step in missional work is invaluable.

“You’ve got to be prepared to get started and look at what your current skills and experiences are,” he said.

“Don’t worry if it’s not a big project. Once you get started, you’re in a position to be led to other ideas and opportunities.

“It’s like that idea of a boat being tied to a wharf – it’s not made to be tied up, it’s made to go places, to be useful. Likewise, we are not made to be sitting idle, we are made to seek God’s purpose for our life.

“We’ve got to get underway and do something. Once you’re underway you can be led to support and do great things.”

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