The LDS Church in Papua New Guinea

by | Jun. 26, 2012

Papua New Guinea is a country rife with rich variety. Over 600 islands make up just 10 percent of the country’s land. Thousands of species abound in the rain forests, highlands, and islands, with more species of birds in this country the size of California than in all of Europe combined. Divided by a diverse geography, each tribe has a unique culture, and over 830 languages are spoken by the 6.2 million inhabitants of the land. The Huli wigmen are known for their vain men who spend their days preening and growing their hair out at wig school before they can associate with women. The Baining fire dancers have a close communion between the spirits and fire, walking through flames to bring good spirits or calm bad ones. But in the cities, life edges closer and closer to modern society while others look on from the fringes of the ghettos, called settlements. Witchcraft, animism, black magic, and ancestor worship are still rampant, but Christianity is the predominant religion, practiced by 96 percent of the population.

It is in this setting that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spreading at an extraordinary rate, but with that comes a unique set of circumstances and successes, challenges and changes to be made.

A Rapidly Expanding Church

“Different to most missions in the Church, we are teaching people who come to us,” says Elder Dirk Smibert, who served for several years as a member of the Seventy over the area. “People come to Port Moresby [the capital of PNG] or the areas where the gospel’s established and then they will return to their village—which could be in a very remote place—spread the gospel among their friends; invite the missionaries to come up, teach, and baptize; and suddenly we have a branch in a very remote area.”

And those branches in remote areas can quickly and easily burgeon into much more. On one of Smibert’s visits to PNG in November 2010, he and Mission President Meliula Fata created a district of nine branches from one single branch. “We had over one thousand people greeting us as we arrived,” he says. “They were standing on the banks of the river; they had been there all night because we were anticipated arriving the night before . . . and when we arrived the next morning they were chanting and cheering. They had made an incredible display of cultural things made out of straw and a little archway for us to walk through and mats through the mud to take us to the village. It was very humbling.”

Within six months, the district had gained another 600 members. President Fata sent four missionaries there ahead of him in preparation for a district conference in May 2011; when he arrived three weeks after them, they had already baptized 72 people. After the two-day conference, 114 more committed to baptism.

While the Church is expanding rapidly, it is still extremely young in PNG. The first branch was formed in the country in 1979, and the growth has progressed steadily since: during the latter part of 2010, there were approximately 28 missionaries in PNG; as of March 2012, there are 106.

And just as diverse as the people themselves are the chapels in which they meet. Some buildings are solid brick structures, but others are little tinder buildings or huts with grass roofs made by the local members. In one place with frequent flooding, a chapel is built on stilts; in the dry season the members walk up the steps, but during the rainy, they paddle their canoes right to the veranda. Others are just tarps. “We have some chapels we call shade tree chapels, which are literally that; it just varies depending on where it is,” says Smibert. “The Church physical facilities just can’t work fast enough to meet the growing demand in Papua New Guinea.”

Finding a place to meet is the least of the difficulties presented by the great growth of the gospel in PNG, though.

Overcoming Obstacles--At Battle and in the Home

“It’s difficult to regulate the Church in such remote areas,” says Smibert, who explains that they’re trying to curb growth in rural areas, where they can’t aid or instruct the members well, in favor of developing centers of strength. “But it’s also very difficult not to service people when they’ve returned to their village, they’re wanting to hold sacrament meetings, they’re wanting to develop the Church there.”

The structure of the Church is being cemented in place, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hiccups along the way. Traditional Church functions such as youth and young single adult conferences are becoming more common, with food provided by the Relief Society. But in the tribal culture of PNG, villages are constantly at war with each other, and sometimes that impacts the members as well. Once, while at a district conference of about 500 members in Port Moresby, their chapel was attacked.

“I was giving my talk and suddenly I see panic on the faces of mothers and they start grabbing their children,” says Smibert. “I hear this blood-curdling screaming, and there were men dressed in traditional clothing who had come to the chain wire fence . . . and they had iron bars, and they were screaming, and they were trying to poke the iron bars into the chain wire fence to break it so they could get in.” Realizing he was presiding and that serious bloodshed could occur, he called for them to huddle together and sing their favorite hymn: “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“They just sang for their lives—literally,” says Smibert. “It was the most incredible rendition I had ever heard. It was powerful, and at the end of it, the men had just run. They’d gone. We really felt the protection of the Lord.”

One of the greatest challenges the Church faces is combating traditional cultural practices, such as the practice of providing a bride price in exchange for a wife.

“The women are used in many cases like chattel,” says Smibert. “After all, they purchase them.” Imagine a woman walking down the street with a pile of wood on her back, a child around her neck, and groceries and another child in her arms. A few paces ahead is her husband with only a bush knife in his hand with which to swat the flies away. This scene is far from uncommon, says Smibert. The separation extends to the chapel, where men would often come to meetings and sit on one side while the women and children sat on the other.

“I’ve been in many meetings in the villages where I’ve taught how my father would always open the door for his wife and how he would always carry the load, and that’s what the Savior would do and that’s what the priesthood should do,” recalls Smibert. “In the Church, the man carries the load, he looks after the woman, etc. And that’s hard doctrine for some of them. After the meeting, the women come up and kiss me and the men won’t shake my hand. . . . But that’s changing now. You’ll see families sitting together more and more. We’re overcoming more of those things.”

“It’s constantly trying to train, train, train,” says Smibert. “At every opportunity, we’re just trying to train these brethren as priesthood leaders.”

The Church in Times of Crisis

One of those opportunities manifested itself in an unfortunate way. On the morning of what was supposed to be a leadership meeting, Smibert was awakened by one of the branch presidents telling him he had lost 11 of his members during the night to cholera—and that was just the beginning of what would be a much greater outbreak. Recalling Brigham Young’s disruption of general conference in October 1856 to dispatch rescue parties for the Martin and Willie handcart companies, Smibert went to the leadership meeting, told the men assembled there the story, taught them how to consecrate oil and administer to the sick, then sent them two by two to the various villages where district members were located.

“That morning, one hundred and ten blessings were given, and it was just a magnificent experience,” recalls Smibert. “It’s those experiences that really help them to understand how to use their priesthood and do things the Lord’s way. I don’t think there’s any question among those brethren now—there’s no question about this being the main source we would turn to.”

But the Church got involved in other ways as well. Very quickly, supplies were coming in from different parts of the world as Smibert coordinated with politicians, doctors, and Church headquarters. The chapel became an extension of the hospital—which “was just in terrible shape”—and quickly following the supplies were doctors, members of the Church in Australia who also came and donated their time and traveled up the river to those remote villages where members of the Church were located.

Unfortunately, incidents like this are frequent in PNG, where 60 percent of people lack access to safe water and sanitation and health aid posts are often days of walking away. Even in the city, where medical aid is closer, living conditions are not improved, as most live in “settlements,” or ghettos, on the outskirts of town. Bits of corrugated tin create lean-to shanties crowded with people and no amenities—plumbing, electricity, or anything else. Some of these settlements are built on stilts over the water—the same water in which children swim and people wash clothes—as a makeshift plumbing system.

These poor living conditions are propagated by the lack of education and employment in the country. Only 10 percent of children make it past the eighth grade, and 85 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture to survive. Many people attempt to make a living by selling betel nut, a mainstay in PNG culture. Chewed with lime and mustard, the nuts are exchanged constantly as a sign of friendship, peace, and agreement. But because the nuts also have a narcotic effect, they are against the Word of Wisdom. Many of the people the missionaries contact on the streets make their livelihood by selling them; when they join the Church, they also give up their only source of income.

But that’s just one example of the faith of the members in PNG.

A Believing People

Many of them make great sacrifices to be able to attend the temple. It takes days to travel—on foot and by canoe—from their villages to larger cities, and from there they are flown to Port Moresby, where they stay in tents for a few nights before flying to either Brisbane or Sydney, Australia. But that’s just the travel. The preparations to attend the temple in Australia can begin years in advance for members in PNG.

In order for some members to obtain a passport, someone has to travel for days, taking photos of the members and helping them fill out forms. But sometimes the photos are rejected, and it’ll take another month or two before the new photo can be taken and sent in. And, of course, in order to get a passport, the people need a birth certificate, and in order to get one of those, many have to register their birth—which some of them end up doing at age 50 on up. The corruption that can exist in some parts of the government doesn’t make the task any easier, and even once it does all go through, the Papua New Guineans still need to obtain visas from Australia, and if they’ve had medical problems, they may not pass there, either.

And all of those stages cost money, which is difficult for the many members who live in a cashless society of subsistence farming. They are encouraged to pay for their passports (which amount to about 70 USD per person), which is an incredible feat if accomplished. The rest is provided by the Church’s temple patron assistance fund.

“The experience at the temple is just unbelievable, seeing these families sealed together,” says Smibert. “They are a very humble people. . . . They are a believing people. They have great faith.”

That faith manifests itself in much smaller ways. Many of the members sacrifice on a weekly basis just to be able to make it to Church each Sunday. One woman walked three hours to Church—each way—while carrying her three children. And it is with that kind of faith that they can expect to continue steadily growing the Church in PNG.

“They would give their all,” says Smibert. “When you see that sort of faith and dedication and love, it just bursts your heart. . . . They would give whatever they had.”

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