When it was confirmed I would be travelling to Ambae, Vanuatu, with Global Mission Partners, visiting communities affected by a still active volcano, I thought I might need some courage.
The island of Ambae hit Australian news last September, when the volcano in the centre of the island began erupting. The entire population—11,000 people—was evacuated from the island. When people returned, many found their home changed. Their gardens had been damaged by ash; there was little local food around. Local water sources, once crystal clear, were now contaminated with ash, milky and grey. Acid rain had burned plants causing them to wilt, and the leaves of banana palms had broken under the weight of ash.
When people returned after the evacuation, GMP’s Programme Officer Suzanne and GMP Partners Esline (Secretary General of the Churches of Christ Conference Vanuatu) and Linda (their Community development Coordinator) had conducted surveys of Churches of Christ communities to assess their needs. In response to that survey, they established a voucher system, allowing communities to choose and buy extra basic goods they needed from local shops. Now they were visiting communities to follow up and get their feedback on the vouchers, and how they had worked. These were the amazing women I travelled with.
I, however, had no experience in development; I just had the privilege of being welcomed along, a camera, and a hope I could contribute by listening and sharing stories.
Being a part of the community consultations was amazing—seeing Linda, Esline, and Suzanne work together, listening, advising, and being advised by local communities. What stayed with me most the stories I heard throughout these consultations and travels.
Trying to summarise this experience has been really difficult. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to do it justice. I could use my space here over and over, sharing the different stories of people we met. There is Leah’s story, of losing her entire fish breeding program overnight to acid rain—120 fish raised by hand, dead in a single night, and Lead too scared of the acid to even remove them from the pond. Or a lady from South Ambae, who brought her washing to dry inside because the hot scoria falling from the sky was burning holes in her clean clothes.
There was, and is, no single story of the current situation in Ambae. One community we visited in the south was struggling with their main water source being contaminated with ash. A community in the east were positive and beginning the process of rebuilding, pushing forward with church renovations. One community in the west, right on the edge of the 10 kilometer danger zone, was still feeling the pain of losing all their gardens, their pastor close to tears as he explained how they were now having to rely almost completely on emergency rations.
It’s easy to just roll the experiences of everyone up into a single story of fear and helplessness. But that wouldn’t be true or fair. Among the stories of fear or struggle, there were stories of courage.
When we arrived in the community where I met Leah, they had their community hall full of people. They had taken in a community from the south indefinitely, because they had been evacuated from their village. They were in the process of discerning how best to help care for them. We heard stories of leaders staying until their whole community had safely been evacuated. We saw people who still trusted God, despite all the challenges they were facing.
There’s another story I got to be a part of as well: the friendship between the Churches of Christ Conference Vanuatu and GMP. As we visited communities and listened, I started to see traces of this story. As one person I met said, “many people come visit, but very few people come back.” There was a mutual appreciation of this relationship—beyond thank you for the vouchers, it was thank you for coming back to see how we are. And for myself and Suzanne, it wasn’t thank you for attending the meeting, it was thank you for eating with us, and walking with us to the airport.
This long term investment in one another, the willingness to stay in communities together, to listen, to share stories and eat together—this all reflects a relationship. No matter what the volcano does now, that relationship holds. In my time with GMP, I’ve heard a lot about the how authentic relationships are the best base for effective mission. While I believed this, experiencing it was something special.
It’s uncertain what will happen in the future for the people of Ambae. It’s possible they will be evacuated to other islands indefinitely. Or they’ll stay on Ambae, and adjust to life with an active volcano. There’s no easy answer. Despite that, the relationship will continue, and GMP will support our friends in Vanuatu, and share their stories as best we can. You can also be a part of this. Please remember Ambae and its people in your prayers, because you are a part of this story too. Pray that they’ll have the courage they need in this difficult time.
First published in Churches of Christ VIC/TAS’s The Edition: Volume 3, Issue 2: Courage. You can read The Edition at www.churchesofchrist.org.au/theedition.