Simply the Gospel in Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, a small South Pacific nation, a pastor passes on life-changing truth.

Katie Croft

Cannibals ate the first missionaries to Vanuatu.

The visitors' demise was masked by the pristine beauty of the Y-shaped string of islands; the message of salvation did not make it past the picturesque beaches.

What couldn't get in 170 years ago is now going out from Pastor Philip Baniuri's classroom.

Barefoot, Philip silently weaves through desks filled with students hunched over exams. His black Croc shoes are discarded beside his leather briefcase at the front of the concrete room as he noiselessly offers more paper for essays.

"God has led me to Talua to train godly men and women for mission and ministry," says Philip.

The Talua Ministry Training Centre professor teaches his students to be outwardly focused with their faith.

Christianity has changed the small South Pacific nation that rests 1,090 miles east of Australia.

Eighty-five percent of Vanuatu, known as the New Hebrides until 1980, now claims to be Christian, according to Pastor Fiama Racau, principal of Talua.

"There is a need for this young nation of Vanuatu to equip young men and women to fear and love God," says Philip.

Born to an uneducated coconut harvester, Philip graduated from the school where he know serves as a professor.

Teachers and students live on the Talua campus, allowing Philip to spend time with Luna, his wife of 10 years, and their 2 young girls, Bolerina and Ireen.

In the evenings, Philip frequently helps Luna with dinner preparations and clean-up.

"He cooks so I can go to class and study," says Luna, who is earning a bachelor's degree in ministry at Talua. "He is a very good cook. It comes from his bachelor days."

Philip often finds himself hunched over his desk at home, grading papers by candlelight after the girls are in bed. The school generator only provides electricity until 9 p.m. on weeknights, leaving staff and students to study by flashlight or candlelight.

Before he took the teaching appointment at Talua, Philip's family lived in Luganville town, a 45-minute drive down a bumpy dirt road.

While there, Philip was pastor of 16 churches and rarely at home. The churches varied from a handful of village meeting-huts to more than 200 gathered in a concrete building with pews and a steeple.

His position of influence and responsibility required Philip to travel most of the week, spending days at a time in hard-to-reach villages tucked away in tropical mountainous areas.

The travel came at a cost to Philip's family, who felt his regular absence. "This was not a good thing to have so many churches and only one pastor," remembers Philip.

Philip learned first-hand that there is much spiritual ground to cultivate in Vanuatu. He knows he must prepare his students, to the best of his ability, for the important work ahead of them.

He often connects lessons from the classroom with experiences from his years of pastoral ministry. Philip and the other staff members firmly believe that application is part of learning: personal evangelism bridges the classroom to real life.

Three times per semester, Talua students and teachers disperse over the island hoping to engage anyone, from neighbors to far-off bush villagers, in spiritual conversation. Beneath palm trees three times the height of buildings, they carry God's message of salvation. It's all part of the lesson.

"The way he teaches is interesting," says Joyce Napuat, a student in Philip's Introduction to the Bible class. Joyce speaks in a range just above a whisper, nearly upstaged by the quiet chirps of palm lorikeets overhead.

She was born with only one leg and rejected by her father because of her disability. After coming to know Jesus, the young woman took comfort in the truth that God is a Father to the fatherless.

Following graduation, Joyce plans to do mission work with children in the bush, teaching people -- called Ni-Vanuatu -- that they matter to the One called "Papa God."

Joyce and other students at Talua use the Four Spiritual Laws booklet, a four point explanation of Christianity translated into Bislama. This pidgin language used for trade combines English, French and island dialect.

Vanuatu Scripture Union added 12 basic Bible lessons to the end of the short evangelistic booklet in 2006, now widely recognized in Vanuatu as the Jisas book.

At that time, the couple had just returned from 3 years of theological training in Manila, Philippines, at the International Graduate School of Leadership, a ministry of Cru.

Before their appointment at Talua, Philip and Luna joined several others to train 500 church leaders and pastors from their denomination in personal evangelism using the new tool.

Luna remembers their response to the Jisas Book. "They kept saying, 'This is what we need! This is very simple. Everything is there.'"

Traditionally, the churches in Vanuatu relied on large evangelistic meetings, church traditions, and mass alter calls to impart the message of salvation by faith to others. Now, pastors and students attending Talua are trained to utilize the one-to-one approach to spiritual conversations.

"it is simple, systematic, and clear. Our traditional system was not clear," he says, shrugging his broad shoulders.

The choice to send Philip and 2 other pastor-teachers from Talua to IGSL was strategic. The men, recognized as leaders by their denomination, were to glean as much as they could from the graduate program and then return home to teach the next generation of church leaders.

Keith Schubert, a teacher at IGSL, fondly remembers Philip.

"I was his faculty mentor and so, in a way, I became his best friend. He had his vision expanded for reaching the world for Christ," says the Cru staff member. "I think he will be very instrumental in seeing his country move that way."

This desire motivates Philip and Luna. Even though there are slightly more than 220,000 people on the 83 islands of Vanuatu, the whole message of Jesus has spread slowly. With a surface no bigger than Connecticut, Ni-Vanuatu speak more than 100 tribal languages.

Cannibalism is no longer an issue, yet missionaries continue to struggle against tribal cultural norms like ceremonial dancing and ancestor worship when calling Ni-Vanuatu people to repentance.

"They have all heard the gospel but they have not received," says Pastor Fiama, principle of Talua. "I have the responsibility of making sure that, in the last year of study, our students are qualified to go out to the field."

Bush villages on the island of Espirito Santo are between 5 to 8 hours walking distance from Talua.

The food is basic -- rice, taro roots and papaya picked from the tree -- and at the end of a long day villagers and missionaries sleep on the soil.

In recent years, Talua has changed their approach on how students are placed in bush missions.

When Philip was studying at the school, graduates were sent out, alone, to a village. "But they were not making it," remembers Pastor Fiama. Now, 2 or 3 students go together, which provides a built-in level of comfort, support and community for the rough days ahead.

Not far from Philip's classroom, the school offers a mock bush village - Mission Village, they call it - used to train students for the ruggedness awaiting some of them. Despite its difficulty, several of Talua's students have set their sights on going to the bush after graduation.

"I never dreamt I would be a teacher at Talua," states Philip, who graduated from the school 20 years ago. Philip has been appointed to teach at Talua through the year 2012. After that? "We just pray that God will lead us to wherever He wants us to be," says Philip.

His denomination's general assembly could extend his appointment, asking him to continue teaching, or they may challenge him to consider another placement.

Philip and Luna are willing to go wherever they are needed. But, if were up to him, Philip would choose to stay put for a while.

He hopes to see at least one class of students through to graduation. "I would like to see the product of what I am investing in," he says.

Day's gone dark for an hour before 3 students visit Philip at his house, knocking on his office door. Luna invites the men into their kitchen, piling leftover rice, noodles and boiled cabbage onto plates.

What starts with a question about tomorrow's exam gives way to a conversation about their future.

Philip is passing along his hope that Vanuatu, and eventually the world, will continue to change.  

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