Back to PNG – ‘life-shaping’

It was 50 years since I last walked on Papua New Guinea’s rich, life filled soil. I was born there, the child of mission parents almost 53 years previously. My parents were sent by our Church to establish new schools in remote communities. After returning to Australia my sisters and I grew up on PNG stories. Those stories were important. They kept our own identities solidly connected with PNG, even after our own memories of that time had long faded.

When I was invited by Glenice Hartwich from the LCA’s International Mission to attend the annual mission partners’ consultation in Lae I was curious. Sure, this invitation was very much located in my service as Principal of Australian Lutheran College, but I was personally curious too. How much would it matter to me to walk on the soil of my birth, a context which had no place within my conscious memory? Would this be life changing?

So, with my two agendas tucked away, I went.

I spent a total of eight days in PNG. Most of that time was based at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea’s (ELCPNG) national headquarters at Umpo. While there I visited Martin Luther Seminary, delivered a theological paper over two days at the mission consultation, preached at a Sunday service and met an amazing cross section of people. There was little opportunity for sight-seeing. Time constraints, firstly, didn’t allow for it. Secondly, our personal security was a constant concern, and thirdly my LCA travel companions from International Mission were flat out working.

Was all of this life changing for me? I can’t say that it was, only because I think that it was the wrong expectation. As westerners I suspect that we sometimes crave life changing experiences to fill deficits that we feel in our own lives. The danger with that can be that we plunder other cultures to fill those gaps. The other side of this is the deficits that we believe we see in the lives of others, and so we are tempted to step in and attempt to rescue them. In both cases there is no space for respectful and appreciative partnerships.

This wasn’t life changing, but it was life shaping. I was certainly shaped and equipped by this experience to return to the life and service that I am called to.

In the end my own questions about my identity slipped into the background. The identity of the ELCPNG and the individual people I was meeting through it became increasingly important. Firstly, with well over a million members and somewhere between three and five thousand pastors the ELCPNG is somewhere between ten and twenty times the size of our own church. They are our big sisters and brothers. We would do well to learn from them. Secondly, the ELCPNG is filled with and led by capable and competent people. They are amazing people. Education in that Church, along with the wider PNG community, is highly valued and people will sacrifice everything for quality learning experiences. Thirdly, the ELCPNG values its partnership with the LCA. Our stories are very closely linked at so many levels and there is a strong desire to stand and serve shoulder to shoulder.

I am grateful for this small experience. Much of it spoke directly into the life and service of Australian Lutheran College. Even more, it spoke into the life of our whole Church. I’m glad that it didn’t change me. That would have been to miss the point. I am, however, grateful for its shaping.

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email For more information, go to

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