Black Pearls shine brightly in dark times

The Uniting Church WA Black Pearl Network has just returned from another fascinating trip to the land of Papua, a place of both hopeful and troubling developments. Geoff Bice, justice and mission consultant at the Uniting Church WA recently traveled to West Papua with the Black Pearl Network. He reflects on his journey.

Whenever we say we are going to West Papua, people often think we mean Papua New Guinea (PNG), but we don’t. It’s close in a number of ways, but an entirely different place. It’s on the same landmass, its people are of a shared ethnicity, and it’s roughly equivalent in size to PNG; but it lies within the borders of Indonesia.

Whenever we go we do so at the invitation of our partner church – Gereja Kristen Injili Indonesia (GKI) di Tanah Papua – an amazingly courageous and gentle collection of Christians who are always wonderfully friendly and hospitable to us.

Whenever we come back we are always a little bit different. In a good way.

As always, it was a delight to meet with previous students from the Australia Papua Cultural Exchange Program (APCEP). We are always sure to take up a selection of children’s English books for them to use in running their own English classes with other young Papuans. It is so encouraging to see our small contribution multiplied by the students as they pass on their knowledge to others in their community.

We were also really excited to interview and select a new batch of APCEP students who will begin their Australian journey in early 2017. While the students will immediately begin their fundraising efforts to pay for their flights, we are also now preparing our hosting responsibilities. Finding enough host families is always a challenge, so please get in touch if you may be interested. It is a hugely rewarding three months.

The rest of our time in Papua was dedicated to following up other projects we support including the LEMAK water and sanitation program, and visits to a few health clinics. This included some time in the highlands where local church representatives were keen to make clear the added challenges facing their communities. Most of the highland villages are only accessible by occasional small aircraft; so access to healthcare, education or the broader economy is very limited.

Further challenges were added to some highland communities last year when they were unable to make a harvest due to the El Nino induced drought. Combine these difficulties with ongoing concerns about human rights abuses being inflicted on Indigenous Papuans and the situation, not just in the highlands but throughout Papua, is understandably tense.

Wherever we went throughout Papua, talk of human rights was not far away. During our time in Papua, a large demonstration took place advocating for an independent inquiry into human rights abuses. This resulted in another round of mass arrests taking the total number of arrests of peaceful demonstrators close to 3000 within the last two months alone. In response to these and other human rights concerns, the president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Stuart McMillan has written a statement at the request of our partner church.

West Papua is a stunningly beautiful place with beautiful people, but is not without its hardships and turmoil. As always, we return from this trip to find ourselves uplifted by the progress of our past students, challenged by the barriers to healthcare and sanitation, and troubled by the stories of environmental damage and human rights abuses. But for all these reasons the people of Papua remain ever close to our hearts and we pray that you may join us in ongoing prayer and action for our sisters and brothers in the land of Papua.

Geoff Bice

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