Anthropologist Rethinks Missionaries, PNG

From Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, by Michael French Smith (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 16-17, 20-21:

My desire to avoid areas of strong Catholic Mission influence was rather misguided, because Christianity was ubiquitous in Papua New Guinea and an integral part of the social and cultural change I intended to study. Just a few years later, in 1980, the Pacific Council of Churches would report that 85 percent of all Papua New Guineans considered themselves Christians. Catholicism was the dominant denomination in the East Sepik. German Catholic missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word entered the Sepik region in 1896, just a dozen years after the German New Guinea Company began the first sustained European effort to establish a commercial presence in the region. In Wewak itself, the mission headquarters at Wirui was a local landmark. It was the seat of the bishop of Wewak and headquarters of a diocese that covered most of the province and was staffed by approximately 227 priests, brothers, sisters, and lay personnel. Most of these mission staff were from overseas. Nevertheless, Catholicism was clearly a significant part of the local scene.

Many anthropologists have seriously neglected the importance of Christianity in Melanesia. Perhaps, like some tourists, they have been looking for “the last unknown” and have found Christianity insufficiently exotic. Whatever the reason, they have often failed to recognize the extent to which Melanesians have made Christianity their own. I harbored some personal prejudices against Christian missionary activity. Raised in a liberal, church-going Protestant family, I acquired a stern Protestant Christian conscience—enough in itself to account for an aversion to churches—but I failed in my efforts to believe in God in more than a terminally abstract sense. I also found the idea of going around the world denouncing indigenous beliefs and raising the specter of eternal damnation—as many Christian missionaries have done in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere—extremely distasteful.

I had little firsthand knowledge of Christian missionaries in the Pacific. One of my uncles, however, had been sent to Australia as a Mormon missionary in the first decade of the twentieth century, when he was only seventeen years old. He had left school before he was ten to help support his neglected branch of a polygamous family and, as he told the story, he set off on his mission ignorant, illiterate, and reluctant. He left the Mormon Church long before I came to know him, and the stories he told of his misadventures in Australia were very funny and portrayed the missionary endeavor in a most unflattering light. Told that God would put words in his mouth, he had received no such assistance and had, he claimed, turned more people against Mormonism than any missionary before or since.

Fortunately, despite such prejudices and influences I managed to keep a somewhat open mind. This allowed me to learn as the year progressed that Catholicism was very much apart of the local culture in Kragur and that there was no simple way to describe or evaluate its contribution. Kragur villagers’ own understanding of Catholicism tended to encourage the kind of painful self-doubts colonialism often sows. Kragur people also, however, had found ways to use Catholicism to assert their independence and moral worth. Looking too sharply askance at Catholicism in Kragur would have made it very difficult for me to understand life there in general.

Keeping my anti-mission bias in check also let me accept, without feeling too hypocritical, the considerable assistance and hospitality that mission personnel offered me. This began with a free passage to Kairiru on the St. John’s Seminary boat, a small, hard-used inboard with an ungainly open wheelhouse. We arrived late in the day at St. John’s, where the staff offered me a hot shower, a clean-sheeted bed for the night, a cold bottle of good homemade beer, and a seat at the dinner table. Such hospitality took some of the edge off my prejudices….

I also saw that many of the St. Xavier’s [school] staff had no interest in imposing their own religious beliefs on their students. Largely members of Catholic orders, principally the Society of Mary, they took their religion very seriously; but they did not seem alarmed that some of their students, themselves raised in Catholic villages, asked pointed and skeptical questions about the faith.

Had I known more of either Catholicism or the mission in Papua New Guinea I would have been aware that both had changed significantly since the early years of the twentieth century. In those days, missionaries conducted mass baptisms of the living and sometimes baptized the dying by stealth and tallied the souls they thus saved. Since then, the Catholic Church and the Catholic Mission in Papua New Guinea had been moving away from emphasizing individual conversion, religious ritual, and the veneration of religious artifacts toward what some of my mission acquaintances in the East Sepik called “building Christian communities.” And the daily business of many Catholic Mission personnel I met in and around Wewak was not gaining converts but running health and education programs.

I was to find that some Kragur people were not comfortable with the mission’s diminishing emphasis on religious rites and were themselves rather intense in their devotion to Catholic ritual. Had I first come to Kragur only six months later I would have encountered along the way rather dramatic evidence of many villagers’ deep involvement with Catholic rites and symbols: the statue of the Virgin Mary that Kragur people would erect in a broad clearing at the top of the trail over the mountain in April 1976. Villagers passing the statue on their travels often paused to stand reverently in front of it and recite the rosary.

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Filed under education, Papua New Guinea, religion, scholarship, U.S.

One response to “Anthropologist Rethinks Missionaries, PNG

  1. Pingback: Christian mission and culture « Khanya

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