Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pasifika Youth Come of Age in Busan

The World Council of Churches General Assembly ended on Friday 8th November with commitments by member churches to continue to journey together as communities of “healing and compassion,” to listen to the voices in the margins and to  work for liberation and to act in solidarity in a time of global economic, ecological, socio-political and spiritual challenges.

For twenty-one young men and women from 10 island nations in Oceania, the end of the General Assembly also marked the ending of an epic voyage which took them from their islands, to Natalau Village in Sabeto, Nadi, and then to Busan and the world stage. 
Pasifika Oikoumene after their last concert, with their Spiritual
and Cultural Matuas - Padre James and Apisaloma Toleafoa

Like any epic journey of consequence, there were challenges and disappointments. However, when taken with the achievements of this young group, those challenges and disappointments add to the lessons learned in a coming of age of the next generation of Pacific Islander who have discovered that the Pacific Ocean is not what separates but unites us, and that working together, we can motivate and even transform the world.

While a number of the Pasifika Oikoumene group are working or studying, a number are also unemployed. Pacific youth, like many other youth around the world, continue to experience liminality - finding themselves in and in-between, marginal state in relation to the surround society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation.

However, for the Pasifika Oikoumene group, the experience of being both performers and advocates for Pacific issues at the WCC General Assembly has increased their understanding of the struggles of others around the world (the issue of Israel/Palestine) and the importance of the ecumenical movement (churches working in cooperation rather than competition). It has opened them up to the cultures and traditions and the issues affecting their brothers and sisters in the Pacific such as a nuclear-free Pacific, the decolonisation of Maohi Nui (French Polynesia) Kanaky (New Caledonia) and West Papua, the struggle for climate justice by Kiribati, Tuvalu and other low-lying Pacific islands; the challenge for democracy in Fiji and democratic developments in Tonga, as well as suicide and unemployment among many youth in the Pacific.

They have committed to work on certain issues when they go back to their islands – dealing with issues such as suicide, unemployment and the impact of climate change among youth. Taking a lesson from the work of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches, they have also committed to working together on these issues.

The process of bringing these young people together in an intensive and transformational programme is known as “Communitas,” a term coined by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner.

According to Turner and South African-born Missiologist Alan Hirsch, “Communitas” happens in situations where individuals are driven to find each other through the common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition and marginalisation. It involves intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging brought about by having to rely on each other in order to survive.

For Pasifika Oikoumene, this ecumenical journey has boosted their confidence, self esteem and hopefully given them a sense of purpose.

But this experience was not only for them alone. The leaders and representatives of the Pacific churches at the WCC General Assembly have acknowledge the work of these young people and the potential of their youth to be advocates in their own rights on the issues that Pacific Churches are engaging with.

According the Pacific Conference of Churches the use of Pasifika Oikoumene, to advocate regional issues through song, dance and oratory,  was, “by far the Pacific’s greatest gain – to advocate regional issues through song, dance and oratory.
“For 10 days they put on a spine-tingling performance of dance and song to tell the world of the need for a nuclear-free Pacific, the threat of rising sea levels, the struggle for self-determination and the need to end violence against women and children.Every day crowds flocked to watch the Pacific floor show and later people stayed on to speak with the youth.”

In expectation of the final performance of Pasifika Oikoumene, the Pacific Conference of Churches wrote in its website:

 “After keeping the 5000-odd participants on the edges of their seats over the last two weeks with song and dance, the finale is guaranteed to be raw passion and emotion which will force Pacific issues into the outcomes of the assembly. The finale will feature several items including the scintillating Samoan slap dance, a Cook Islands hula and end with a soaring rendition of Pasifika – a regional anthem reflecting on the beauty, vibrancy and diversity of the Pacific.

But it is the second last item which will remain under wraps until the performance which will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardened viewers and leave every member of the audience with the challenge to change society forever.”

That second-last item was the singing of the banned West Papuan anthem “Oh, my land Papua” by the West Papuan church delegation, surrounded by the Pasifika Oikoumene Youth and the Pacific Churches delegation.

The audience was taken completely by surprise when the Pacific Oikoumene Youth Group which was performing a Samoan slap dance suddenly parted and allowed the Papuans to take centre stage and sing.

“We are so thankful for this opportunity to sing the anthem of the Papuan people,” Reverend Albert Yuku, moderator of the Gereja Kristen Injili Di Tanah Papua (Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua) said after the performance.

“Our brothers and sisters from the Pacific have allowed us a space at this assembly in a way that was never done before. This is the church in action, the church in unity.

“We are so encouraged that there are people who care about the Papuan struggle for self-determination and hope this support will continue.”

A Papuan woman in the audience wept openly and the singers embraced tearfully after the performance.

Recognised by the Papuan parliament in 1961, the anthem was banned along with the Morning Star flag when Indonesia annexed the former Dutch colony in January 1962. The anthem and flag have since become symbols of the struggle for self-determination.

Later as we sat down for our final “team talk” at the end of the performance, I looked at tear-stained faces of 21 youth who had “come of age” in an ecumenical sense. They had shared their stories, songs and dances with each other. They had shared themselves with the churches of the world. And they had shared their space with their West Papuan brothers and sisters who also experience marginalisation, and their church leaders who in sharing their space in Busan with these young people have begun to embrace them as partners in the mission of enabling God’s justice to flow like a mighty river into an ocean of peace.

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