INTERFAITH - Why and How - Think small.



By the third rooster crow, Rima wakes to start her day. She, like all other women in the village, gets up at 4:30 every morning to rekindle the fire inside at the front of the hut. Her husband stays sleeping at the rear of their woven bamboo walled home. Her four children are asleep in the other smaller hut just next to theirs.

Her first act is to kneel beside her sleeping mat on the dirt floor to say a prayer to Papa God and then she starts baking bread, as much a religious ritual as to provide breakfast for her family. But to Rima, they are one and the same. Rima is a deeply spiritual and devout Christian, as is the way with most Ni-Van, the people of Vanuatu. She proclaims that all she does is for God.

It is still dark outside, but she can hear all the women of this small, close-packed village in the remote island of Malekula in Vanuatu, setting about their similar, routine, ritualised days.

Rima is a Mormon now, however she grew up Catholic. She is raising her children under the umbrella of the Mormons. The two young, male missionary Elders will be visiting Rima’s Branch today as part of their circuit around Malekula. She will have to make sure that she gets all her children to the modest, thatched meeting house on time. No “island time” today. The boys must wear their white shirt and tie. The girls will wear their modest dress. They must impress the Elders.

About half her neighbours are Catholic. The other half are an eclectic mix of Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventists, Baha’i and Animists. Her village, Walarano, has a population of 400 people, who are mostly related through an ancient familial lineage that has occupied this same village for….. ever, says Rima. Rima knows all their religions.

As part of this community, there are now two Muslim Indian families who volunteer in the village and some Taoist Chinese living in a construction camp nearby who have come for a few years to build the first paved road on Malekula, as part of a Chinese Aid Project. They are all welcome.

There are some ex-pat Aussies and New Zealanders who have come to this idyllic place that time has forgotten to live a Buddhist existence. Vanuatu is still largely a subsistence economy, and the family garden is the primary livelihood and source of survival. There is no electricity on most islands. These Buddhists live quietly and are accepted in the villages.

This scene of ‘faith’ diversity is repeated all over the eighty islands of Vanuatu, in a population of only 240000 people living scattered across a landscape limited by volcanoes and inaccessible forests. It is the most language and culturally diverse nation on Earth with about 110 distinct languages. Each language group has accompanying distinct cultural practices.

According to main stream media you would think this religious diversity in a small space would create a cauldron for interfaith conflict. However it is quite the opposite.  Vanuatu is consistently proclaimed as “one of the happiest nations on Earth”. This year it was declared 4th place in the Happy Planet Index.  Also according to travel advisories by Governments around the world, Vanuatu has the reputation of a low crime and low conflict nation.

Having been to Vanuatu now 8 times, my wife and I can see that happiness and peace are just not statistics, it is reality, and quite different from anything else we have experienced.  We are both Physiotherapists working with people living with disability. We first went five years ago as tourists, and felt an immediate affinity for the way the Ni-Van interact and treat each other. We keep going back as volunteers hoping to start a community based rehabilitation service for people with disability (PWD). That is, training local people to monitor and look after PWD in their own village. Rima is our friend now, and we have become part of her family and village. She will be our fieldworker in Malekula. She sees this as an opportunity to live her faith, by serving people of all faith in her own and surrounding villages.  Interfaith in action.

Sometimes when we look at the enormity of need for PWD in Vanuatu, we get frustrated at how small our project is, and how we can only reach a small group of people. But Rima has the answer. She tells us that there is a traditional saying in Vanuatu that “small is beautiful”. She reassures us that the well intentioned acts of just one or two people, even if it only helps one or two other people is just as worthy and beautiful in the eyes of God as an act on a large scale for a multitude.  It is sometimes hard for us, from busy and big Australia to remember this.

Using the definition of ‘Interfaith’ as “The cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels”, it is obvious that Vanuatu and the Ni-Van like Rima, are a living example of Interfaith harmony in action. When you take time and look deeply into  each layer of Ni-Van society, that is, the national institutions, village life and each individual you can see why “Interfaith”  is practiced and how it is achieved successfully, with seemingly little effort, or awareness that they are doing it.

Starting first with the ‘institutional level’ of the National Government it is easy to see ‘why’ and ‘how’ Interfaith is a reality in Vanuatu. Before European settlement and eventual administration by the English and French, these islands, first known as the “New Hebrides”, were populated by a disparate array of Melanesian people that had very little in common with each other, including language, culture or “faith” rituals. What they had in common was trade, and they intermarried because of their understanding of the need for genetic diversity in small island populations. Also in common was their belief in ancestor worship, animal spirits, spirits in non-living phenomenon such as volcanoes, and ‘black magic’. We might classify them as ‘Animists’ today in our lexicon, but even this definition is not adequate to describe their deep sense of spirituality and how it rules every action of the day.

Then the “Christians”came to civilize and govern them, firstly with missionaries then with western, bureaucracy. Faith, the Christian faith, was used as the uniting force to bring these islands together for the first time under one banner. Of course the aim of the missionaries was to bring the Ni-Van to the Christian faith, and by natural attrition eliminate their Animist beliefs. Because of the vast expanse of remote and inaccessible islands, the Animist faiths survived, and today 7% of the population still identify as Animist. The 86% of Ni-Van today who are Christian adopted the denomination of the mission that came to their village. There also came a strong influence of non-Christian faiths such as Buddhism (4%) and Baha’i (3%).

What the statistics don’t tell us is that nearly all of the Ni-Van Christians still believe in and enact their lives through many of the animist, ancestral worship and black magic faith practices. Vanuatu’s religious profile is truly unique and is considered to perhaps be the only country that can boast that religious tolerance is not a far-fetched idea.

So, in 1980 when the people succeeded in becoming the Republic of Vanuatu, the tribes had to come together as one Nation. To unite this kaleidoscope of ‘faiths’, interfaith harmony was essential.  Vanuatu has been successful in doing that. So how has this small population of simple living people, with very little formal education or monetary wealth, created a truly harmonious multi-faith society, achieving what large, affluent Nations have been unable to do despite having vast resources and higher level education? How has small managed to be beautiful?

Primarily, the Vanuatu Parliament was established deliberately retaining the traditional and powerful influence of the tribal chief. The Council of Chiefs remains as an arm of their democratic institutions, acting as a House of Review, to ensure that all legislation is consistent with traditional values, faiths and practices.

The founding document of Vanuatu, its Constitution, has interfaith practice front and centre. The small preamble states that:

WE the people of Vanuatu,

PROUD of our struggle for freedom,

DETERMINED to safeguard the achievements of this struggle,

CHERISHING our ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity,

MINDFUL at the same time of our common destiny,

HEREBY proclaim the establishment of the united and free Republic of Vanuatu founded on traditional Melanesian values, faith in God, and Christian principles,

AND for this purpose give ourselves this Constitution.

 This small yet powerful proclamation recognises the existence and importance of traditional faiths and values while embedding these alongside one uniting faith, Christianity. Small is beautiful.

This pre-amble reinforces why interfaith is essential, to safeguard previous achievements and freedom, and to realise the common destiny of people. The simple truth of these small, seemingly ‘common-sense’ statements can be demonstrated in nations around the world where interfaith conflict reigns. Past achievements are forgotten, freedom is a casualty, and mindfulness of a common destiny is lost.

The next level down in the structure of this society is the village. In a village, traditional law is known as ‘kastom’, which includes traditional faiths.  Kastom exists alongside the modern legislative framework of Vanuatu.  In each village the Chief is responsible for both Kastom and ‘legal matters’. He must maintain both Kastom and law and order. There are no police in the village. To maintain a harmonious, lawful society he must practice ‘interfaith’ by acknowledging the equal value of each person in his small jurisdiction, including their faith, and apply a unique blend of traditional ‘kastom’ and legal rules to his determinations.  Interestingly, Black Magic is included in his jurisdiction.

My wife and I have witnessed a couple of examples where what we would call a ‘crime’ was committed through faith based Black Magic practices. The matters were taken to the Chief for a determination and ‘sentencing’.  The Black Magic nature of these acts was understood and accepted by the Chief and the community, so the determination was that a ‘crime’ (outside established faith) was not committed, and there was no ‘punishment’. There was consequence, but this fell under the practices of traditional faith, rather than Vanuatu law. If the chief had not accepted the traditional faith, he would have stirred up inter-family rivalry, and there would have been retribution.  All the community accepted the decision and peace was maintained.

To an outsider this may seem incredulous, but it works. Interfaith practices keep the peace, and the Chief through these small, everyday actions knows how to do it. Small is beautiful.

Lastly I come to the individual level. There is more to tell about Rima. After church, this very devout Christian goes to perform her tribe’s traditional dance which involves costumes, movements and rituals representing and celebrating the animal spirits and worshipping the ancestors. Frequently she tells us stories of current and past Black Magic activities occurring in the village that have caused disability, deformity and death of her neighbours. She desperately tried to stop us going to the volcano as tourists because ‘there are bad spirits there, and they will harm you’. She was genuinely concerned for our safety. She asked us instead to stay for the circumcision ceremony of her two teenage sons to be performed according to traditional faith so the boys will be accepted by her ancestors as ‘men’.

When we asked Rima about how she reconciles both a devout Mormon-Catholic life and a traditional faith life, she is almost confused by the question. To her there is not a dilemma. These are all her faith. She is an example of ‘Interfaith’ within the one person.  They all hold validity for her, and are compatible parts of her identity that cannot be separated.  Nor is there a need to separate them.  Rima is a good person. Equally, Rima feels no need to question others’ faith. To Rima, their faith is part of them, as equal as any other characteristic such as gender, height, personality and age. “We don’t question those! So why question faith?”

In reality most Ni-Vans have a syncretic religious faith that mixes Christianity and local belief. In Vanuatu, interfaith harmony exists at the smallest level, within each individual. Small is Beautiful.

Hopefully, this small case study shows that interfaith harmony can and does exist. Why? For unity, law and order, freedom, to safeguard past achievements, realise our common destiny and even achieve internal peace. How? Through cherishing diversity and doing individual small acts for others and within ourselves.

We need to stop highlighting the big failures of interfaith conflict that grab the news headlines and cause us to despair.  Instead we should recognise and take comfort in the small acts of interfaith that happen every day… everywhere. Small is beautiful. If we added up all these small acts, I believe we would see a beacon of interfaith harmony which outshines interfaith conflict. When viewed as a whole, small can become large, and it is still beautiful.

INTERFAITH - Why and How


Tags: Vanuatu; Diversity; Religion; Garth Read, Interfaith

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