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Memorial, Port Vila, Vanuatu
The church: Paton Memorial, Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.
The building: The church was named in honor of the Revd Dr John Gibson Paton,
a 19th century Scottish missionary whose dedication and work
in what was then called the New Hebrides earned him the title
King of the Cannibals. It is basically a white A-frame building
supported by rolled steel joists that are very visible from
inside. The lower side walls can be, and are, opened completely
for ventilation and access during services, but are shut at
other times, not least to keep out the tropical rain. Inside
the church was recently decorated with posters prepared for
Easter by the Sunday school. It shares a compound with the
national offices of the Presbyterian Church.
The church: The population of Vanuatu is overwhelmingly Christian, but which
denomination one belongs to depends on which of the 19th century
missions reached a particular island first (or, more precisely,
avoided death the longest). To judge from the large number
of elders and committee heads who spoke at the ceremony after
the service, there is much active lay participation in the
governance of this congregation, though I did not hear much
about outreach as such.
The neighbourhood: Port Vila is the capital of Vanuatu, a Pacific island country
composed of about 30 islands and known as the New Hebrides
until independence in 1980. It was previously administered
(if that is the word) jointly by Britain and France, in an
arrangement known officially as a condominium but unofficially
called a pandemonium. Vanuatu is notable for its profusion
of languages, with Bislama (the local version of Pidgin English)
spoken by almost everyone. Port Vila is a typical small tropical
port city with a population of about 40,000. It boasts several
excellent restaurants and resort hotels, and has a thriving
tourist trade, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, helped
by having a very friendly, though not overly sophisticated,
population. The excellent harbour is much frequented by cruise
boats and cruising yachts. The church occupies a prime site
facing Independence Park, which in turn is surrounded by government
offices. The waterfront is three minutes' walk away down the
The cast: The service was led by the Revd Joash Sina, described as a session
pastor, who was also the preacher. In appearance he was clearly
not ni-Vanuatu (indigenous), and in fact (I found out later)
comes from the Solomon Islands.
The date & time: 1 May 2011, 10.00am.
What was the
name of the service?
How full was the building?
Almost full – I estimate about 300 people, mostly a
young crowd. As a latecomer, I had to sneak in through the
open side walls and then slide past a few people to find a
seat. The congregation, like the population of Vanuatu generally,
were 95 per cent ni-Vanuatu. There was also a sprinkling of
Polynesians, a few of Chinese ancestry, and four "Europeans"
Did anyone welcome you
I got a smile from the young lady I sat next to. Those who
arrived on time probably got more of a greeting, given the
friendly nature of Vanuatu society. After the service, several
people chatted generally with me, and also explained what
the after-service ceremony was about.
Was your pew
Quite tolerable. I sat on a wooden pew, but each pew was extended by
about five portable uncushioned steel chairs placed right out to where
the outer walls would be.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
I could not say, as I arrived about 20 minutes late, having
just come off a plane from overseas.
What were the exact
opening words of the service?
I'm afraid I missed them, as I was late.
What books did
the congregation use during the
A printed hymnbook had been distributed at the door to early
arrivals. The girl next to me had a copy, so I was able to
join in the songs, which were all in Bislama. Many people
had brought their own Bibles and referred to them during the
instruments were played?
None. All the singing was unaccompanied.
As I come from an island where Bislama is not so common, translating
the songs back into English kept my mind active.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Basically a hymn sandwich with a longish sermon. No liturgy
or robes to speak of, though the preacher did wear shirt with
tie, closed shoes, and long trousers – which is formal
wear for these parts. No sign of hand clapping except a round
of applause for the visitors' musical items. After the sermon,
a visiting choir from a neighbouring congregation sang a hymn
in good harmony. Then an Australian visitor, well-known to
the congregation as one of their former pastors, came forward
with a CD player and a recorded accompaniment for the song
"Count your blessings". He then produced a mouth organ and
played along to it! This performance was greeted by big applause
from everyone except me.
Exactly how long was
On a scale of 1-10,
how good was the preacher?
7 – The Revd Joash Sina spoke clearly in English, with
only the occasional throwaway line in Bislama, which made
it easy for me to follow. I did wonder for the first ten minutes
or so if he was going to make any direct connection to the
Bible, but he did then link to one of the readings for the
day. Although the sermon was longer than I am used to, it
was well thought through, clear, and pertinent to the congregation
and the occasion.
In a nutshell, what
was the sermon about?
As the next day was a public holiday for Labour Day, his theme
was "Labour for Christ". As Christians we should be hard workers
of good character, displaying integrity matching our faith.
If we all did this, Vanuatu would be a blessed country. (Though
he didn't say so, there have been some prominent counter-examples
among Vanuatu's leaders.) He linked this to Colossians 3:22-23
("Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though
you were working for the Lord and not for men"). The message
of this and the surrounding verses is the need for respect,
which goes both ways: family members must respect one another,
just as workers and bosses need to respect one another. In
neither case should they act harshly.
Which part of
the service was like being in
A church packed with mostly young people paying rapt attention to the
service. As usual in the Pacific, the singing was hearty, though
perhaps with less elaborate harmonies than in Polynesia.
And which part
was like being in... er... the other place?
It was hot! Although the side walls were open, not much breeze
filtered through and it was very sticky. So almost everyone
in the congregation were fanning themselves more or less continuously:
some with fans made from leaves of pandanus (a fruit tree
whose leaves are woven into a variety of objects from baskets
to sails), others with anything available such as a hymnbook
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
At the conclusion of the service proper, the preacher invited
us to assemble on the lawn outside for tok tok, which I assumed was Pidgin for "conversation"
but which turned out to be much more than that. In fact, it
was a ceremony of reconciliation, Vanuatu style, between the
church elders and the family of the chairman of a fundraising
committee who had died the previous week. It was whispered
to me that there had been bad blood between the parties, as
the chairman had brought in considerable money for a new church
hall but no construction had yet begun. Outside the church
on the lawn, there was a pile of gifts from the elders to
the family: woven floor mats, taro (a potato-like plant that
is a staple of the local diet), and a trussed up but live
pig. We formed three groups around the pile: the extended
family, a group of church elders, and the rest of the congregation.
Each elder spoke in Bislama about how their committee supported
the gift of reconciliation. The father of the deceased then
touched the pile of gifts, thereby accepting them. Finally,
the son of the deceased presented the elders with a gift of
tinned food. The congregation then shook hands with the family
members. Only then did the pastor (as master of ceremonies)
announce that refreshments were served.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
The refreshments had been on a table at the side, concealed
by a cloth. Given the preceding ceremony, I half-expected
that they would be a pre-cooked feast, and was rather disappointed
that they turned out to be nothing more than store-bought
biscuits and fruit cordial!
How would you
feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 =
7 – This was my first day in Vanuatu in 25 years! On
the previous occasion I was made welcome at the Anglican church,
but their service was too early in the day for me. On this
evidence, I would be happy enough to come again to Paton Memorial,
hopefully in less than 25 years time!
Did the service
make you feel glad to be a
Yes indeed – what with lots of young people taking Christianity
seriously and a spirit of Christian charity in evidence.
What one thing
will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The presentation of a live pig in the reconciliation ceremony.
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