‘A – a – ants,’ the class chants, diligently repeating after the teacher. Along with the photocopy of the alphabet and its corresponding sounds, the students each have a copy of John’s Gospel in front of them; a book they very much hope to be able to read one day after completing the three modules of their literacy course. ‘It will only be through reading it for themselves that they will really change,’ the mission worker explained to me. After watching for a while, I had the feeling that it will be a long process. But when they have come as far as they have, there must be hope.
The women taking this literacy class were once part of the John Frum cargo cult, which has rejected schooling along with other government institutions since its beginnings in the 1930s. As a result they are illiterate, and would have remained so, if their village had not become caught up in the excitement of the ‘Unity’ movement at the turn of the new millennium. Fourteen years later they are chanting ‘a – a – ants’ at the dawning of a new opportunity. Perhaps the most exciting opportunity they’ve known.
According to Joseph, the leading elder of this mission field, their ancestors believed that with a new millennium there must be a big change. Of course, that would have to be ancestors recent enough to have had calendar time, or a reinterpretation of the ancients, but certainly within Tannese thought, time is divided into epochs, each with its own distinctive characteristics. So at the new millennium, which, let’s remember, was a big deal world over, these followers of John Frum were ripe for a change.
Onto this scene stepped the charismatic leader, Prophet Fred, calling people away from their separate beliefs of Christianity, Kastom (Tanna’s traditional magic-religious system), and John Frum, and to join together. This appealed not only to the millenarian world-view of the Tannese, but to a desire of at least some, to join in a wider world community.
Joseph had enough insight into the world that his small island was part of, to grasp that the people of the rest of Vanuatu, let alone the whole world, didn’t know John Frum. They did appear however, at least from the vantage point of the deep jungle in which he stood, to know Christ. It made sense to enter a new age in which, if Fred’s promises held true, John Frum could be joined with Kastom and be joined to Christianity.
It all made enough sense to Joseph that he left his village to follow Fred to establish a settlement on a large hill above Sulphur Bay in the island’s east. If descriptions are true, it was little more than a Vanuatu-style shanty town; albeit a shanty town dedicated to the rising of a new religious order. When the Vanuatu Mobile Force came in to disband the camp, they set one house on fire, but since the bush-huts were so close together, the whole settlement joined with the volcano ash, blown by the south-east trade-winds to cover the island. The movement too was blown across Tanna, as people like Joseph took Fred’s teaching back to their own villages, which, after Fred signed a deal with the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, became ‘mission fields.’
It was through the church that Joseph and his mission field joined ‘civilisation.’ Joseph undertook a short-course at the church’s nursing school and became his village’s aid-post worker. He fundraised to build a clinic and introduced his people to pit toilets and hand washing.
For Joseph these changes have been a great blessing, but the greatest change brought about through his new-found religion has been relational. ‘I think that if I was still part of John frum,’ Joseph reasons, ‘I wouldn’t have many relationships with everyone, I would have been alone following my own decision. But when I came into Unity in Christ I could see that I had many relationships with many different people, from all the islands of Vanuatu and all countries’ (my translation).
For Joseph, people who haven’t yet joined and shared in the benefits of Unity are ‘held back’ but in the future everyone will see the benefit that the new millennium has brought about through Unity and join. Talking with Joseph is intoxicating; there is no divide between what he says and what he believes, his smooth voice, mannerisms and enthusiasm draw you in – you almost want to believe with him and let him keep on talking. Almost.
While the women chanted their way through their literacy lesson, the men regaled me with stories of prophecies and visionary encounters with Jesus. One man was sent back from the capital to clean the church – needless to say, he was made deacon. Someone else had Jesus nick a fifty out of his back pocket; a fifty that he had gained dishonestly. Yet none of their anecdotes really indicated that they believed that Jesus was the Son of God. The answer to why they might believe that was of course in the copies of John’s Gospel that the women couldn’t yet read.
Some of our mission fields that minister to people of the Unity movement are better-off than this one. Better-off in the sense that they have the New Testament in their ‘heart language.’ You see, the copies of John’s Gospel are in Bislama, which is a creole and a second or perhaps third language for most Tannese. Many members of the John Frum cult do not speak Bislama at all and so many people in Unity have only learnt Bislama within Fred’s new age. These women are both learning Bislama and learning to be literate as part of the same package. They do not have the New Testament in their own language and to date a translation has not been commenced.
By the end of this year, Tanna will have four New Testaments and one more in the pipeline, leaving only Middle Bush, where Joseph’s and five more mission fields are located, without a language translation.
There is only one mission field that I know that currently uses their own language as their primary Bible translation. It is also the only Unity mission field that I have heard of where some people have renounced glass. Glass, the brainchild of Fred, is Unity’s own form of spiritual engagement in which loosely Christian ideas take a pagan form. Spirit-possessed ‘angels’ look through ‘glass’ to see, among other things, a ‘heaven’ which is void of a lamb or a throne (you can find a description of glass here). Glass is the hallmark of Unity; it is the movement’s primary identity. While I cannot prove that some people renounced glass because they read the New Testament in their own language, the connection is striking.
Elder Joseph knows one piece of Scripture which he paraphrases to the best of his recollection; it is John 1:1-3. Not a bad passage if it is your only one, but any text without a context is hazard-text. From the idea that Jesus made everything, Joseph extrapolates that everything is good. From there it is just a baby-step to conclude that glass, which Joseph is passionate about and leads on Wednesdays, is a good thing.
Yet even Joseph concedes that glass may end someday. His reasoning is fuzzy but he suggests that glass may not be needed in the future as people would ‘see’ without it. It is unclear whether this will be because they will enter the utopian future on earth hoped for by many Tannese, or whether it is because they will come to a time when they will come to know and trust Christ. What is clear, is that for glass to pass away, what is needed is the word of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
I challenged the men to learn literacy as well as the women. While Bislama literacy is not the ideal solution, it is currently the best opportunity that these people have of reading words of eternal life. Learning to read a language in which there is a translation of a full Bible is a genuinely exciting opportunity.
Before the year 2000 these women wouldn’t have had access to the Bible and they would not have been allowed to learn to read. They were cut off from the world and closed to the gospel. Today they have a Christian mission worker appointed to teach them and a gospel in their hands; enough for them to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing, have life in his name. How wonderful it would be if they could read it themselves! How wonderful if the men could too!
What can you do to help?
Firstly, pray that the people of Unity will develop a hunger for the Bible, that they would believe it, and in the saviour whom it is all about.
Secondly, come to Tanna to translate the Bible into the Middle Bush language. You should do this through SIL (Wycliffe).
Thirdly, give money to provide MegaVoice units for the Tanna mission (you can do that here). Many of Tanna’s people coming out of cargo and kastom movements are illiterate. MegaVoice are small durable audio devices with a solar panel one side and a speaker on the other, which are loaded with recordings of the New Testament in languages into which it has been translated – languages that even the people of Middle Bush can understand. Using MegaVoice, people can listen to what they cannot read – over, and over again.