Missionary Diary: Digging into taboo subjects in Vanuatu

Joel and Tiffanie Atwood, with Hosea, Timotheus and Zephaniah, are Church Missionary Society gospel workers in Vanuatu working with the Gud Nius Yunivesiti Felosip (GNYF), a movement of students who want to see the gospel of Jesus flourish.

Vanuatu tends to be oddly quiet around Easter, and yet our Easter turned out to be anything but quiet!

A fortnight before Easter, our dear friend, the director of Scripture Union Vanuatu, asked if we would speak at the senior high Easter camp. We’ve never been to one of these camps, but we have been increasingly convinced that we need to meet and work with students long before they get to universities if we want to build the kind of leadership, momentum, and trust to see GNYF flourish. We also thought it would be great to invite some of our current uni students to come along as leaders so we could spend more time off-campus with them as well!

Our preparations for teaching were a little hurried, including Tiff staying up late several nights sketching and painting my crazy illustrations for my talks on Luke 23.

Tiffanie Atwood prepares sermon illustrations.

We are used to most of our work here being quite small. Against our expectations, the camp was over-capacity, with 70 senior high school kids, then leaders on top, and kids being turned away the afternoon we started because there was no room to even fit any mats on the ground in the dorm.

The impact of the resurrection

While our first talk was on the crucifixion (it was Good Friday, after all), we devoted most of the weekend to speaking about the resurrection. This part of the Easter story is rarely discussed in Vanuatu, and – as we discovered – not really thought about at all. We slowly walked from the cross in Luke 23 to the reality and surprise-but-not-really-because-Jesus-prepared-them of the actual bodily resurrection of the Messiah in Luke 24 on Friday afternoon. This session was a joy as we let the students chew over the passage for a long time together before we gave any input – how amazing to see young people burrowing into the Scriptures, asking questions, and finding answers together!

Saturday was the ‘big’ teaching day as we looked first to Acts 2 to see why the resurrection had to happen in God’s plan, which led to an incredible Bible overview from our friend Loui and others from SIL mission (the overview is a key part of the ‘Trenem Tingting’ program SIL has been developing to equip and disciple translators). This helped us understand how Peter was drawing threads from all over the Bible story to explain the coming of the Holy Spirit and why the risen Jesus is both ‘Lord and Messiah’! Phew!

Applying God’s word to our daily lives

That afternoon, if that weren’t enough, we turned to the ‘so what’ of the resurrection – how it affects our lives right now, from 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. This passage shows how Jesus being raised means that what we do with our bodies now matters immensely to God and is directly applied to a culturally sensitive topic … sex. It’s taboo to speak about sex in churches or families, so there is very little opportunity to address a pastorally significant issue for this age group with the gospel.

Unsurprisingly, it was the quietest audience of the camp and led to a whole evening of discussion time in groups, as well as some of the most harrowing questions and stories coming out in chats around the campfire and in our Q&A session the next day.

These conversations reminded us that although we have had a rest from dealing with abuse and its effects over the past few months, sadly, it is a significant pastoral issue in Vanuatu. And it is rare for most people to have heard Bible teaching on grace, justice and honouring God with our bodies.

We rounded out the Easter camp with a dawn service on the beach, reading John 20 and hearing Jesus’ declaration of peace on his people. After the Q&A session we shared a closing service with a short message on 1 Corinthians 15 reminding us that if the resurrection isn’t central to our gospel, so much of our faith unravels.

Serving as a family

While the teaching took up much of my time and energy, our whole family loved being able to come away on the camp, especially with some of our closest friends living on-site. The weekend did bring a few curve balls as our sons Zeph and Timmi both came down quite sick on the second morning (one with a chest infection, the other with high fever and no energy or appetite for most of the following week.) This meant that Tiff couldn’t lead a discussion group as planned, as she was caring for our boys, although many students stopped to sit outside her room for a chat, while she fanned Timmi, or for a little cuddle with a snotty, wheezy Zeph

Our other son, Hosea, at least, came back from camp with his extrovert batteries charged to bursting from all the people, constant play with his friends living at the campsite, and a chance to go fishing with ‘the big boys’ two days in a row!

We thank God for this opportunity to minister together as family and for God’s care despite the illness. Please pray for the campers to keep focused on the risen Lord – the hope the resurrection brings and the change it offers now.