How sailing, toothbrushing and mission fit together

As professional musicians and keen amateur sailors, Miriam and Peter Handsworth never thought that their accomplishments could be used in a medical mission to Vanuatu.

But then they stumbled across the work of Medical Sailing Ministries (MSM), co-founded in 2009 by (now retired) Melbourne financial planner Robert Latimer, which helps teams of doctors and dentists go out to remote island communities in Vanuatu to service their medical and dental needs.

Miriam and Peter have now taken a sabbatical from their work as music teachers at Redlands College in Brisbane to sail – with their six-year-old daughter Clara – to Vanuatu, where they are currently docked in Port Vila ahead of heading north to Espiritu Santo this week.

They are taking part in a program of supervised tooth brushing in schools called “Gudfala Tut Skul”, which means “Healthy Teeth School” in the local Bislama language. Their role is to visit ten schools on the west coast of the island of Ambae, one of more than 60 inhabited islands that make up the archipelago-nation of Vanuatu.

The Gudfala Tut Skul brushing program has been running since 2018 and is now operating on a daily basis in about 40 kindies and schools, directly involving around 3500 children and indirectly about 12-15,000 family and household members.

“Hopefully, when they see some funny faces like ours, that will remind them to keep brushing.” – Miriam Handsworth

According to the 2017 National Oral Health Survey, an estimated 70 per cent of children aged five to seven years in Vanuatu have tooth decay and bleeding gums, and over 40 per cent of students never or rarely brush their teeth.

“It’s just a really simple thing to help with the toothbrush program and just to get the children brushing and hopefully, when they see some funny faces like ours, that will remind them to keep brushing,” Miriam tells Eternity via Zoom from their yacht in Port Vila harbour.

One morning under passage from Brisbane with crew member David Mansfield

The Handsworths have formed an association called Remote Sailing Ministries (RSM), which brings together a small committed group of associates and friends to keep them accountable and also to brainstorm.

On this first trip, they will work with medical volunteers, local health workers from the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV Health), plus Vanuatu government staff, at pre-arranged locations to transport them, their gear, supplies and equipment to the remote islands, where clinics are conducted in village settings. They will need to call on their extensive sailing expertise to locate safe anchorages on the challenging rocky shorelines and fringing reefs of the islands.

They are spending most of their time on the island of Ambae, which was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 2017. There was a very real danger that the mountain and the island of Ambae would explode in a shattering eruption, so the government of Vanuatu evacuated everybody from Ambae to nearby safe islands. It was a traumatic experience for the people to sail away from their villages and homes, and while many have returned, many buildings are in desperate need of repairs.

“So one of the things I’m going to be helping with is putting some roofs on some of those homes,” says Peter.

As musicians, the family will also entertain the school kids with some songs – with Peter on clarinet, Miriam on bassoon and Clara on violin. And in collaboration with Gideons, they will be delivering Bibles in Bislama and English/French to middle school children.

“As a kid growing up in Australia, I always thought I was a bit useless as a missionary because I was a musician and I was not a doctor or a nurse or the type of person that is a traditional missionary,” says Miriam.

“So this is exciting. We’re coming out to do work with some children in the primary schools and there’s that mix between evangelism and aid – and trying to get that right … For me, it’s a little presumptuous to come here when I feel like the nation is more Christian than ours, so who are we to start saying anything? But I suppose the main thing is encouragement and walking side by side.”

“I always thought I was a bit useless as a missionary because I was a musician.” – Miriam Handsworth

Both Miriam and Peter see this trip as an experimental one with limited targets, and they hope it proves to be the first of many visits.

“I’m trying to grapple with where this Gudfala Tut brushing program goes. They’ve got 40 sites – kindies and schools – at the moment, but obviously, the whole country would benefit from a national rollout, and it’s a matter of trying to figure out how that can be best achieved because when you get more stakeholders involved, it becomes more complex,” Miriam reflects.

“At this moment, it’s grassroots, and that’s good. It’s just us doing it because we really want to do it, and there’s no other ulterior motives. At this point, we raised an amount through the sponsorship program in Australia called Tooth Buddies that allows us to start ten more schools, directly involving roughly 500 children. It’s funny, for the cost of just three cappuccinos, about $12, one child can participate in the program for a whole year.”

Peter and Clara, who is already a good sailor.

For Miriam, the South Pacific has been a personal passion because of family connections.

“The South Pacific has been in our family from way back because my mum was on the board of Church Missionary Society, and we used to have missionaries from the Solomon Islands coming to Australia for conferences,” she says.

“My dad [Graeme Butler] was here working on the Pacific Ruby with YWAM [Youth With a Mission] in the 80s and 90s as an optometrist. And he climbed Tanna [volcano] when they still had the cargo cult guy [John Frum] and they wouldn’t let anyone just climb up. Dad was very privileged at that point because he was working for the people and they let him climb up the volcano. So it’s a nice connection with what my dad did in the past.”

As a relatively new Christian, Peter’s main interest is evangelism.

“We are not here to change the world, obviously, but we are here to invite people to read the gospel again, to talk to them about our lives, be a witness of Jesus Christ and hand out Bibles,” he says.

“I’ve come to the Lord quite late but with great ferocity.” – Peter Handsworth

Peter came to Christ about seven years ago after a very successful career in music and academia.

“I was an international orchestral musician professor in a German university, and came to Australia and led a department in a big university in Australia. Anyway, the way I see it now is, God, one by one, took things away. I had a previous marriage – broke down, had a business, it broke down, and my children from that previous marriage went to live with their mother in Sweden. And so things were taken away from me, which I had used as crutches in my life for ways of proving myself, and eventually, I was pretty much flat on the ground.

“I had always believed in God, but I hadn’t had a personal relationship. And things came together quite quickly. I met Miriam and her family and, having spent some time in the family house, a house of God which did declare that Jesus Christ was Lord, it really woke me up, and it was a little bit like coming home.”

After he started going to church and reading the Bible seriously, he discovered “a deep passion for knowing more about the word of God, finding out about him, who he is and his promises and what he has in store for me and my life. So I’ve come to the Lord quite late but with great ferocity.”

Asked what difference becoming a Christian has made in his life, Peter says it has extinguished the need for prideful success in his own right.

“I was a very ambitious musician in my career, and I probably played pretty hard in the game as everyone has to, to get somewhere in professional music. I have left that completely and I have no regrets. The biggest change in my life is I tend not to look over my shoulder anymore, worrying about the world and the expectations of me. I struggle enormously because there’s always a big backlog of habitual things that are in my life, but the hope and promises of the Bible, of the word, have made up for that many times.”

For Miriam, another driving force of this project is its impact on Clara, whom she is homeschooling this term.

“It’s just the whole idea of showing her this privileged world she lives in is not the only world, and hoping that will have an impact that is longer lasting. And also coming and helping these kids here, because they’re gorgeous.”

One of about 3500 participants involved in the Gudfala Tut Skul program, initiated by Medical Sailing Ministries

Peter is putting out the call to any men with sailing experience who would like to join them on this or any other journey, to email him on [email protected]. Anyone who would like to support the Handsworths through prayer or in any other way can also contact them via the same email.

“We just pray that our work is seen by the locals as not being divisive or intrusive, but that shows our love for each other and therefore our love for the Lord,” concludes Peter.