Why Alewai village needed a church: Some reflections on Christianity, conversion, and male leadership in south-east Papua New Guinea



In the Vula'a villages of south-east Papua New Guinea, the experience of more than a century of Christianity has been incorporated into local understandings of identity and tradition. Church-building (in both the architectural and ideological sense) is at the centre of village life. Even though it was a general policy of the London Missionary Society to build a church in every village in which conversion was undertaken, they did not build a church in the Vula'a village of Alewai. In 2001 the fact that Alewai did not have a church initiated a chain of events that draws attention to a situation of current relevance for Papua New Guinea, as evangelists no longer work to convert the ‘heathen’ but to convert Christians from one denomination to another. As a case study the article is focused on the pastors and deacons of the United Church and thus also serves to document some of the changes that have occurred in male leadership since the early colonial era.


It is striking that with a population that is more than ninety per cent Christian, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is today one of the most intensely evangelised countries in the world. The appeal of PNG to evangelists is well-illustrated, for example, on the website of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) where it states that ‘Papua New Guinea provides a wide variety of missionary opportunities, ranging from pioneer tribal evangelism to urban church planting’ (ABWE n.d.). This statement is followed by an advertisement for ‘Four church planting couples to partner with the church fellowships’ in designated areas of PNG. The fact that a very high number of Papua New Guineans are at least nominally Christian suggests that evangelists are no longer interested in bringing the gospel to the ‘heathen’ but in converting people from one Christian denomination to another.

The evangelism that I draw attention to here is different from the Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelism that has to date been the focus in Melanesian anthropology (Douglas 2001). Towards the end of the 1990s Robbins' interest in Pentecostalism emerged as the dominant discourse in the anthropology of Melanesian Christianity. This foreshadowed the ‘rupture’ and ‘continuity’ debate (Robbins 2004, 2007) that highlighted the division between coastal and island Melanesia, where Christianity had flourished for more than a century, and the much more recently evangelised interior regions of PNG. Robbins' self-proclaimed interest in ‘discontinuity’ is the result of his extensive reading of the literature on global Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity (2007: 32).1

Noting that the spread of Pentecostal forms of Christianity has been a global phenomenon, Jorgensen has cautioned against privileging the local over the global as we pursue the ethnography of Melanesian Christianity (2005: 445). I agree that this is a key concern for the anthropology of Christianity. Further, we must be careful not to exoticise non-Western forms of Christianity. It also needs to be said here that the Christianity of the established national churches of PNG—those with members numbering more than 100,000 (Gibbs 2007)—is also a globalising force that has had implications for the anthropology of Melanesia since its inception (Dundon 2011). Moreover, I suggest that it is in the regions where the mainline churches are well-established that evangelism has uniquely local consequences. The enduring stability of the national churches in PNG has largely gone unnoticed in recent debate. In a session on Pacific Christianity at the conference of the European Society for Oceanists in 2005 it was mooted that Pentecostalism may turn out to have a unifying effect as it spreads throughout PNG. The reality is, though, that the mainline denominations, such as those in the Vula'a villages, are historically embedded in local sociality.

The question of why Christianity has been so successful in Melanesia is one that remains to be answered, but it is noteworthy that when PNG gained independence in 1975 the Constitution of the Independent State of PNG proclaimed itself to be Christian. Lātūkefu has discussed the apparent contradiction in the Preamble of the PNG Constitution wherein the people pledge to ‘guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now’ (1988: 83). Any perceived contradiction between Christianity and the ‘noble traditions’ of the past rests largely on the interpretation of ‘noble traditions’ and Lātūkefu makes an admirable attempt to resolve the problem. He also points out that most of those involved in framing the Constitution came from strong Christian backgrounds (1988: 92). Lātūkefu confirms a connection between Christianity, the education provided by mission schools and, on the south-east coast at least, the emergence in the pre-independence period of a pastorate that Oram (1971) described as an educated élite.

Gershon has correctly observed that the literature on conversion in the Pacific has tended to concentrate on ‘initial conversions to Christianity, not how people choose to move from church to church’ (2007: 148). A general willingness to try another church may, in fact, go some way to explaining the attraction PNG has for evangelists, but that is not my concern here. Moving from church to church is not a new undertaking for those Melanesian groups whose experience of Christianity has been relatively long-term. For instance the Vula'a, with whom I have worked since 2001, have been Christians for more than a century and Christianity is locally perceived as their ‘tradition’ (Van Heekeren 2011a; see also Groves 1957; Chatterton 1980; Barker 1993; Midian 1999; Goddard 2003). The socio-historical continuity that underpins any tradition is a dynamic process of innovation, negotiation, adjustment and localisation. In this article I outline a key event in the mission/Christian history of two Vula'a villages—Irupara, where I did my doctoral research in 2001, and their nearest neighbours Alewai—first to highlight some of the tensions that arise when different Christian denominations compete for members, an occurrence that is increasingly commonplace in PNG, and second to offer insights into how these are managed through entrenched socio-historical structures. As a case study, the article is focused on the pastors and deacons of the United Church and thus also serves to document some of the changes that have occurred in male leadership since the early colonial era.

The Vula'a and the Christian missions

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Vula'a are a population of approximately 5,000 who speak an Austronesian language commonly called Hula, and occupy seven villages along the coastal region of PNG's Central Province. Oral traditions and genealogies suggest that what Oram (1968) described as ‘the western group of villages’—Hula, Alewai, Irupara and Kaparoko—were settled in the early part of the nineteenth century by people migrating from an area on the eastern side of Hood Bay known as Alukuni (Map 1). Later, with the assistance of the colonial administration, another group left Alukuni and moved east to Viriolo Kapari, near Marshall Lagoon. A significant Vula'a population (more than 1,000) are also currently well-established on Daugo Island, off the coast of PNG's capital, Port Moresby. Since the early twentieth century Vula'a identity has been intimately linked to the London Missionary Society (LMS) and its successor, the indigenous United Church of PNG. This self-understanding of the Christian past as formative and traditional bears out Parratt's claim that church affiliation in Papua was very much a matter of one's place of origin: ‘a person's religion, determined largely by his ethnic origin, tends to be fairly inviolable; loyalty to religion is reinforced by loyalty to the village’ (1970: 107). He attributed this situation to Governor William MacGregor's policies2 which, as Trompf (1991: 49) has aptly remarked, created a particular historical ‘landscape’, one that reflected the presence of the various missions.3

Map 1.

Western Vula'a villages and neighbouring inland villages.

This was certainly the case in the Vula'a villages, where great importance is given to one's connection to place, and a person's identity is understood and represented through genealogies traced to village founders and exhibited in naming practices (Van Heekeren 2012). Vula'a understandings of identity have historically shifted from the concept of kepo (canoe group) to that of the village,4 and are today manifested in village church buildings. Further, in the theological writings of the Vula'a pastorate, exegesis is directed not at the United Church congregation in general but at Vula'a people in particular. For the very same reason that Parratt identified—the intimate connection between religious affiliation and village identity—success for new churches seeking converts depends very much on access to the village, and the acquisition of land on which to establish a church.

A brief account of the mission landscape of PNG is appropriate here. By 1890 French, British and German missions were working in the coastal and island areas. The links between colonial occupation and certain missions are evident. MacGregor's administrative strategy for British New Guinea relied upon the employment of the Christian missions to assist with the promotion of peace and European values (Jinks et al. 1973: 65; Waiko 1993: 33). The LMS dominated large sections of the south-east coast including Hood Bay, where they established a head-station at Keapara in 1887. Under the guidance of Rev. Caleb Beharell the station was later moved to Hula village, a decision that was said (unofficially) to be motivated ‘by the more favourable response to the gospel at Hula’ (Jones 1974: 176). The relocation of the mission had far-reaching benefits for the local population (Oram 1968; Jones 1974). The social implications of the transition from mission to church—the indigenisation of the LMS—that ensued were well-documented by Oram in the 1960s and 1970s. The LMS instilled European values such as peace, hygiene, orderliness and a Western education system. In conjunction with the colonial administration they brought new forms of material culture that were understood as part of the Christian message. Christianity and colonialism changed things forever, but not everything and not in the form of a radical break with the past. Rather, Vula'a ‘tradition’ was being refashioned.

The Seventh Day Adventists were relative latecomers to the mission scene in PNG, beginning work in 1908 inland from the LMS dominated Port Moresby area among the Koiari. As late arrivals they often found themselves in competition with an established Christian denomination, but by the 1940s they had successfully challenged the religious monopoly of the LMS in the south-east; most notably in Domara (Williams 1944) which had been converted by Charles Abel's Kwato mission in Milne Bay. By 1945 they had also built a church in the Vula'a village of Irupara,5 after approximately half of the village population had converted from the LMS. In his 1970 survey of religious change in Port Moresby, Parratt noted that the Seventh Day Adventists were one of the fastest growing Christian denominations (1970: 108). Moreover, the Adventists in Port Moresby were vigorous proselytisers, attempting to attract adherents from the other missions (1970: 109). The evangelistic campaigns of the Adventists have to date been the most sustained in Port Moresby. In September 2012, 100,000 people gathered in the Sir John Guise Stadium and its environs for a campaign led by John Carter and 4,500 were baptised (Adventist Today 2012). The organisers claimed it was the largest audience in the history of the denomination ever to hear the Adventist message preached in English (Adventist Today 2012).

The dramatic rise in evangelical missions in Port Moresby has meant that there is increasing pressure on the established churches to retain the loyalty of their congregations. Somewhat ironically, this was particularly evident in the Irupara Adventist Church at the time of my 2001 fieldwork. While the United Church has retained its stronghold among the Vula'a, increased competition for new converts has had a significant impact. In the two decades between 1950 and 1970 only small inroads were made in Hula village (the largest of the Vula'a villages) by the Jehovah's Witnesses and a group known as the ‘Apostles’ that was described as a ‘sect’ (Jones 1974: 236). There was a large Christian Reformed Church (CRC) building in the neighbouring village of Makerupu in 2001, and by 2010 there were small congregations of Adventists, Grace Baptists, the Living Light Foursquare Gospel Church, as well as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses in Hula village. The Assembly of God (AoG) was perhaps the most well-established, and its Pentecostal prayer style has recently had an influence on the congregation at Irupara United Church.

Irupara is locally referred to as ‘the village with two Sabbaths’ in recognition of the friendly coexistence of the United Church and the Adventist Church. The two Sabbaths generate occasional social dilemmas, but these are generally very well managed at the village level (Goddard and Van Heekeren 2003). Indeed, village management, which is undertaken by local bodies known as Village Development Councils (VDCs), is largely a matter of managing the churches—a practice which is fully supported by both denominations. VDCs are diplomatically made up of representatives from both churches. The main requirement for a council position is that one is a ‘village man’; that is, one who has long-term and nuanced knowledge of village politics. It is the responsibility of the VDC to ensure that equity between the two denominations is maintained in commercial dealings such as the licensing of trade stores and the operation of PMVs (the minibuses that provide transport to and from Port Moresby).

The first LMS church in Irupara was built in 1922; the first Adventist church in 1945. Both have since been rebuilt and modernised on or very close to their original sites. The buildings are about 100m apart—separated by a tidal mud flat that serves as a sports field. People casually comment that Irupara is ‘half SDA and half UC’. In reality, though, the Adventists in Irupara have a significant majority and up until 2002 the United Church was known as Iru-ale Emmanuel United Church because it depended on its alliance with the neighbouring village of Alewai to bring its numbers nearer to those of the Adventist congregation.

It was LMS policy that ‘When mission activity was undertaken in an area, a Pacific Island teacher was appointed and a church built. Even if villages were close together, each had its own church built’ (Oram 1971: 118). Perhaps as a consequence of its proximity to the mission head-station at Hula, the LMS did not build a church in Alewai village. Vula'a migration and settlement at the end of the eighteenth century reproduced the close kinship ties between the canoe groups that became Alewai and Irupara villages. Following the emergence of the United Church, as successors to the LMS, in 1968 the church at Irupara became known as Iru-ale Emmanuel United Church. Irupara and Alewai are relatively small villages (current population estimates are around 500 each). The disjunction between village identity and church identity has proven to be problematic for both villages. In the eighteen months between mid-2001 and the end of 2002 Iru-ale United Church ceased to exist. Its successors were the Irupara Emanuel United Church and a newly formed Alewai village United Church, which was well established by early 2005.

With hindsight this historically important transformation can be explained in relation to events that appeared disparate to me in 2001. At the forefront was the Mormon Church's attempt to gain a foothold in Alewai village. There was persistent gossip about problems between the United Church pastor and his deacons, and there was also the politics of my own involvement with Iru-ale United Church (as a consequence of my fieldwork) that I will not elaborate here. Before I outline the exigencies that led Alewai villagers to split with Irupara and build their own church, a general discussion of the rise of the LMS pastorate is in order.

From mission to church

The LMS missions established churches that were largely self-governing (Langmore 1978: 5). Chatterton, himself an LMS pastor, wrote that in the villages under LMS influence ‘members of the church were accustomed to taking part in decision making, both directly through congregational meetings and indirectly through deacons’ meetings' (1980: 27). Moreover, the congregational form of church government accorded very closely with the socio-political structure of the Papuan coastal communities (Chatterton 1974: 18–22). For the Vula'a the establishment of local churches enhanced their sense of identity, as it became symbolised in the presence of the village church building that displayed the name of the church and the village.6 There were also other changes occurring in the village that contributed to the rise of the church as a political entity. For instance, there was a decline in the demands on communally-based forms of male labour as a result of the availability of commercially-made fishing nets, aluminium dinghies and tractors. And because the mission had suppressed much of the ritual and feasting through which men gained status they now sought new avenues of prestige through the church.

As I have said, for many Papua New Guinean populations, Christianity is seen as an integral part of their history and tradition. This is nowhere more evident than in the indigenous pastorate that developed in the Vula'a area. Oram described the period between 1918 and 1945 as one in which ‘The [LMS] pastorate developed in importance and in numbers’ (1968: 259). He also pointed out that many of the pastors in the district came from Hula village (1968: 259). The Vula'a people generally had gained significant advantages as a result of mission education and their proximity to Port Moresby, the national capital. Those with connections to the pastorate were most advantaged. In 1971 Oram traced the education and careers of five families from the Hula District of the LMS through four generations to show the development of an educated élite, based on mission education, kinship and marriage alliances. The strength of this tradition was highlighted in 2002 with the ordination of the first female United Church pastor in Central Province, the Rev. Gloria Renagi, who is the daughter of Bishop Laka Renagi from Hula.

The trend that Oram identified was still evident in Irupara in 2001. Retired pastors and their wives continued to enjoy high status, and receive regular gifts of food and cash from the local villagers. At that time the serving Iru-ale pastor was from Hula where his father lived as a retired pastor. The Iru-ale pastor's previous station was the neighbouring village of Babaka, where he and his wife spent two years. The pastor who replaced them at Babaka village previously served at Iru-ale. After twenty-nine years of service he was planning to retire in the near future and build a house at Babaka, which is his village. In short, the pastorate in this part of PNG is highly localised.7

The pastors' houses and the church buildings exhibit a relative affluence when compared to most village houses. The pastor's house in Irupara, for instance, is accessed by wide timber steps that lead to a veranda, which serves as an occasional meeting place for various church groups. It has a blackboard at one end and some benches around its perimeter. The house is further distinguished by the fact that it has a water tank, a recognised sign of prestige in an area where water shortages are a frequent concern. There is little furniture, although I was told that some pastors' houses had furniture and refrigeration.8 There is a patapata (timber platform) beneath the church and another under the trees, where people gather to chew betel nut and talk after the services. The pastor's house at Babaka is more impressive, much larger and more elaborately designed, although also lacking in furnishings.

In the grounds of what is now the Lawes Memorial church at Babaka there is an expansive patapata with a roof for shade and, nearby, a large mango tree that also provides shade. It is usual for village meeting grounds to be marked by these enormous old trees with gnarled trunks that you can sit on, and vast branches for shade. It is also common for the patapata to serve as a ceremonial platform for food distributions on special occasions. The Iru-ale and Babaka church grounds resemble the verandas and village meeting places that were the centre of pre-Christian social, ritual and political life. They provide a regular meeting place outside of church services and are a venue for an array of socio-religious ceremonies.

United Church Pastors

At the time of European contact Vula'a social organisation was based on residential units called kwalu, a term which modern-day Vula'a translate as ‘clan’.9 These were divided into smaller units known as kepo (literally, a large trading canoe without sails or masts). Kepo members built their houses in groups within the residential area of the kwalu (Oram 1968: 246). The house of a kepo head was distinguished by a large veranda on which the fishing nets were hung. This was also the place where ceremonies took place. Important group activities such as the making of large nets and the building of trading canoes were undertaken within the kepo (1968: 246). And it was the kepo heads who were responsible for settling disputes (1968: 247). Between 1918 and 1945 ‘[T]he London Missionary Society consolidated its position and the whole village population became church members. Nearly all social activities at the village level were carried out in the name of the church’ (Oram 1968: 259). As church activities became more important, pastors who had been trained to organise new activities exercised a new authority (Oram 1971: 125). Together with the deacons they disciplined those who failed to adhere to church regulations (Firth 1975: 15). More importantly, the pastors were well-placed to access the new spiritual power that Christianity provided (Oram 1971: 125).

Pastors and their wives act as role models for their congregation in ways that extend beyond moral and spiritual concerns. Langmore has argued that for the early missionaries Christianity and civilisation were almost synonymous terms (1978: 6). Oram reported that ‘The use of modern domestic utensils, cooking and hygiene learned by student pastors and their wives at Lawes College in Fife Bay has had a strong influence on village people, who have in many ways tried to emulate them’ (1968: 259). Indigenous church leaders still consciously maintain the link between Christianity and modernisation. The Iru-ale pastor explained to me that, in the same way that village housing no longer utilises traditional materials, the people no longer subscribe to certain beliefs. Contrary to the pastor's rhetoric, this is not the reality. While there is no denying that new materials have been incorporated into village housing, the success of the churches has worked against the kinds of village development that might be considered modernisation. Simply stated, this is because significant time and energy goes into church-based activities that are undertaken with ritual zeal rather than into productive projects of a material kind. For instance, the VDC in Irupara expends considerable effort managing church politics, and fund-raising directed towards short and long-term goals—and framed in terms of the needs of the village church or the United Church more generally—is ongoing. Once raised, funds are usually directed back into further church projects, such as hosting church-related events and Bible translation, that don't bring measurable material benefits.

The Rev. M. Nixon, the last non-indigenous pastor to serve at Hula, suggested that ‘many pastors were able to raise large families because they had a secure food supply and some of their wives did less work in gardens than members of their congregation’ (cited in Oram 1971: 25). It is said in Irupara that the pastor has the best job in the village. He receives a small but regular salary from the United Church Administration, the congregation assists with the maintenance of his house and the women keep a garden for him. Deacons are bound by their office to assist the pastor with his work. However, Iru-ale had a reputation for being hard on its pastors. One villager commented to me that ‘no sooner do they [new pastors] arrive than someone is trying to get rid of them’. This attitude is, though, consistent with local ideas of morality (Van Heekeren 2010). It is considered unwise to publicly display individual wealth in the village because not only does it invite jealousy and resentment but also the inevitable sorcery attacks that such feelings provoke.

The suggestion that the pastor was a man with enemies was realised when he and his family were thought to be targeted by local sorcerers. Sightings of suspicious men around the pastor's house were often reported during those times when sorcerers are said to be most active, between 10 pm and 4 am and when the moon is full. On occasions when the pastor was away from home his wife refused to stay in the house alone and would request the company of another woman. There seemed good reason for suspicion. Not long before my arrival a deacon had been thrown out of the Church after a public confrontation with the pastor for refusing to give up his sorcery practices. Church deacons are specifically forbidden to practice sorcery. I was also told that there were other sorcerers who ‘hid behind the Church’. The pastor's relationship with his deacons suffered from other problems. Before continuing, though, I will elaborate a little on the role of deacons in the United Church.

United Church deacons

Belshaw wrote in the 1950s that the deacons in the Motu village of Hanuabada at Port Moresby carried out a great deal of the LMS work and because many of them were iduhu lohia (clan leaders) the church had constructed a ‘highly democratic system based on the traditional social structure’ (1957: 183). He described the main functions of the deacons:

They call together members of their iduhu [descent group] for bible reading, prayers, and hymns each Sunday morning and afternoon. The prayer meetings are held in the open near the houses, and supplement the more formal Church services … A Deacon is responsible for the moral behaviour of iduhu members. He remonstrates with those whose conduct is questionable, and if wrongs are not righted, he calls the recalcitrant person before the monthly meeting of Deacons. Finally, the Deacon is responsible for certain financial collections.

(1957: 183)

Oram made similar observations to Belshaw with regard to the role of kwalu leaders in Hula. He argued that as kwalu lost their traditional functions they gained new importance in local church organisation: ‘[d]eacons were elected on a kwalu basis and church dues were collected through them’ (1968: 59). United Church members from Hula still gather in clan groups on Sunday afternoons as part of their program of informal worship. This was not the case with the smaller Iru-ale congregation where the pastor and his wife decided whether there were to be Bible study meetings in the church on Sunday afternoon. In 2001 there were eight elected deacons in Iru-ale Emmanuel United Church (Fig. 1) but they were not clan representatives such as Belshaw described for Hanuabada in the 1950s (1957: 183) and Oram for Hula village in the 1960s (1968: 259). The Iru-ale congregation was small by comparison. Their elections took place within the church body as a whole. And as most of the congregation are related in some way, there is a perception that the local church is family-based in structure.

Figure 1.

Iru-ale Emmanuel United Church, Irupara village, 2001.

Before one is eligible for election to the position of deacon certain criteria must be met. Only men are elected to the office but they must be married so, in effect, it is both the husband and wife who are elected. While it is the male who receives the official training it is expected that he will share this with his wife and that she will share her husband's moral responsibility. The most important prerequisite for deaconship is that both husband and wife are United Church Ekalesia. This term is used to refer to those who are counted as full members of the United Church as opposed to those who merely attend services. To be Ekalesia requires a second baptism—a total commitment to church principles—and it is Ekalesia members who are levied annually to provide financial support for the church. They must show a firm commitment to church authority and must be prepared to answer whatever the church asks of them. Ekalesia attend all weekly services and contribute a great deal of their time to church work.10

Whether or not one is Ekalesia matters little in terms of the intimate connection that I have already noted between village identity and the church. This is exemplified in one family where two brothers have different relationships to the United Church: the elder is unwilling to spend a great deal of his time in church so does not become Ekalesia. However, his involvement in the youth fellowship and an awareness of his obligations in the village means that he willingly gives his time to local community work that is organised through the church. The younger brother is Ekalesia. He is a leader in the youth fellowship and devotes significant time to church business and attending ‘circuit’ (the regional division of the UC) activities. Politically he is defining a future position in the church and has expressed a desire to study for the pastorate. While the brothers have chosen to pursue different avenues of village life, both are determined by the church.

As I have said, deacons are generally highly respected members of the community and often hold authority in areas of village life outside of church activities. Some men who have leadership potential are, though, excluded from office on the basis of their particular circumstances. For instance, a man without a wife may hold a senior position within the men's fellowship but cannot become a deacon, and a man who is Ekalesia but whose wife is not is also deemed ineligible. As well as determining who makes financial contributions to the church, there are moral implications. Some practices (those related to magical traditions for instance) that are tolerated by non-Ekalesia are not considered acceptable for Ekalesia, especially deacons. Once elected, deacons are allocated portfolios such as Public Works, Sunday School Co-ordinator and Treasurer. Elections are held every three to four years with some men being continually re-elected until they are considered too old to continue and are retired. An important part of a deacon's role is to assist the pastor in whatever way he may require. The church community is responsible for providing the pastor and his family with food and firewood and for the maintenance of his house and the church. The women keep a garden for the pastor but people are also expected to contribute from their own provisions. It is up to the deacons to ensure that this occurs.

The pastor's expectations of his deacons are high, and early in 2001 this resulted in a confrontation that led to a deacons' strike. More usually when tensions surface in the church they are related to financial issues.11 As it happened, though, the deacons' strike was initiated by other matters. The people of Babaka, the pastor's previous station, had reputedly treated him well—better than his present congregation. This was exemplified when, as a gesture of thanks, the Babaka congregation built him a house next to his father's at Hula on his transfer to Irupara. The Iru-ale congregation considered the gesture overly generous for a pastor who had given only two years of service to his community. Their reluctance to receive the new pastor was partly due to the reputation for sorcery that he shared with his father, a fact that was also thought to have had a bearing on his influence at Babaka. The pastor also had a reputation for being ‘unbending’ in the way he managed church affairs.

The events leading up to the strike were initially related to me as stori (a commonly used Tok-Pisin term that, in this context, refers to gossip) about ‘the public humiliation of the deacons’: on entering the church one Sunday the pastor instructed his deacons to sit on the floor with the rest of the congregation, effectively stripping them of the special status which is symbolised by their elevated position on the bench. The pastor claimed that the deacons were not doing their jobs properly and did not deserve their positions. This criticism arose out of the unfulfilled expectation that the deacons should be paying visits to the pastor and his wife and bringing them food. The deacons felt unjustly accused. Some of them argued with the pastor and the situation became quite heated before the service eventually got under way. The following Sunday the deacons expressed their sense of injustice by not turning up at all. A week later it appeared that things had returned to normal but the underlying tensions had not been resolved. These were related to me in another stori that circulated as the ‘Mormon incident’.

While the coexistence of two Christian denominations in Irupara village is managed very well, it is not without its problems. The underlying tension that it creates contributed to what might aptly be described as a state of crisis in Irupara and Alewai villages during 2001, when the Mormon Church tried to gain a foothold in Alewai. In essence what I am about to relate is the story of a threat to village harmony, to the tenuous relationship between Christian allegiance, family, and village life that results from the existence of competing Christianities. The ‘Mormon incident’ was disturbing because it had the potential to further divide families who were already sensitive to the fact that Christianity, in its various forms, was competing for the loyalty of their brothers and sisters and, more worryingly, their children. It was the finale in a series of local frictions that ultimately resulted in the division of Iru-ale Emmanuel into separate village-based congregations.

No place for Mormons

It needs to be said at the outset that the views of the Mormon Church presented below are those of the Vula'a themselves. My personal experience in Australia, and available ethnographic evidence (Cannell 2005; Knowlton 2007) suggests a general lack of understanding of this Christian denomination that goes well beyond PNG. While it is not my intention to reinforce the negative stereotypes that commonly circulate about members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), my ethnography is a fair representation of Vula'a attitudes. According to Gibbs (2007: 80), the Mormon Church in PNG is spreading rapidly, with more than 10,000 members in five provinces. The establishment of Mormonism in PNG is linked to Australia (Gibbs 2007) but, as we will see, for the Vula'a the Mormons represent American wealth.

One Wednesday, shortly after my arrival in Irupara, a number of residents left early in the morning for Alewai. Although there was no church building at Alewai and the Alewais usually attended the Irupara services, it was not unusual for the Irupara section of Iru-ale United Church to make the trip to Alewai for a mid-week service. These were held in the open air at the Alewai village meeting place, a flat open area of ground shaded by an old mango tree. It was unusual that the service was to be followed by a meeting to address the issue of the Mormons' attempt to establish themselves in Alewai. It was not only the United Church that was concerned about the Mormon presence; Irupara Adventist Church also sent representatives to the meeting at Alewai. At that time there had been only one conversion, a person described as ‘a senile old man who lived at the edge of the village’. The main concern was for a group of young people (members of four different families) who, it was said, had ‘fallen under the Mormon influence’. While it is not always the case in practice, the belief that parents and children should share the same religion is a firmly held local ideal.

Mormon ‘officials’ were expected to attend the meeting but they arrived very late and the planned negotiations were cancelled. It was then decided that the Iru-ale pastor would take a petition to the Council of Churches in Port Moresby. It was also decided that the young people involved should be sent away from the village until they had time to ‘forget about the Mormons’. One of the most interesting questions to emerge around this time was how the Mormons would acquire the land for their Alewai church. To date they had been holding fellowship meetings at the house of the ‘senile old man’. Before the week was over the pastor made his trip into Port Moresby. His meeting had been protracted but apparently successful and an announcement was to be made at the Sunday service. By Sunday people were still gossiping energetically about the Mormons. I heard that they were due ‘to set up some type of office’ at Alewai during the following week but the plan had been abandoned (apparently due to local resistance).12 In the view of Iru-ale people the Mormons or Latter Day Saints (some were not really sure who they were) were ‘a wealthy American church with the means to buy people’, a particularly significant characteristic for United Church members who constantly struggle to find enough money to meet levies. It was said that the Mormons had offered an Alewai woman a large sum of money for a piece of land to which, locals argued, she had no legitimate right.

A few weeks later I was told the story of how the Mormons came to be in Alewai. Again, it was related in terms that emphasised the idea of ‘buying people’. My interlocutor (whom I will call Alice) was a United Church Sunday School teacher with whom I was well-acquainted, and who happened to be distantly related to the senile old man of Alewai. She was twenty-one years of age at the time and had been educated at a Central Province boarding school. Like many young women she gave up her education after finishing high school to fulfil family obligations, but was hoping to take up tertiary education in the future. Since returning to the village Alice had been increasingly drawn into church work. Her account of Alewai's introduction to a new form of Christianity began in Port Moresby when some of her relatives were visited by Mormons. There was a son in this family who had lost the lower part of one of his legs in a boating accident off Daugo Island. The Mormons came with the promise of a trip to America and an artificial limb. What they wanted in return was access to the village. At the time when the village was mobilising to keep the Mormons out the boy was said to be in the US being fitted for his new leg. The Mormon presence had certainly entered the social consciousness of the village youth. I stopped at the netball area one afternoon where some young women were trying to organise a game but were short of numbers. To the amusement of all those present one hopeful player suggested, in full voice, that they should ‘go find some Mormons’.

At first the Mormons went every few days to Alewai to hold a fellowship meeting in the home of relatives of the Moresby family. When they began to have an influence on the village youth there was an outcry. The Alewai VDC saw the arrival of the Mormons as an indictment of its own inability to provide religious services for the village youth. Council members responded by deciding to hold their services at home rather than going to Iru-ale church as they had always done. Initially services were conducted at 5 pm on the designated United Church days—Wednesday, Friday and Sunday—so as not to conflict with the morning services at Iru-ale. These services became known as the Alewai fellowship.13 Loyal members of the Iru-ale congregation living at Alewai struggled to attend the morning service at Irupara as well as the 5 pm service at Alewai, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. Others opted solely for the local church and stopped attending morning services and fellowship meetings at Irupara.

It seems that my own arrival in Irupara was timely. The decreasing attendance had been noted with concern and my presence at—and eventual participation in—the Sunday service was used as a drawcard to bring about a return to Iru-ale and a consolidation of the congregation. In an attempt to compete with the afternoon meeting at Alewai and push people to decide their allegiance, the pastor and his wife at Iru-ale increased the frequency of the Bible study meetings that were held between 3 and 5 pm on Sunday afternoons. The Iru-ale youth fellowship continued to have strong support but this was held on a Thursday when there was no competition from Alewai.

The Alewai VDC, which included two deacons from Iru-ale, had not sought permission from the pastor to hold the fellowship at Alewai. The deacons found themselves in a difficult situation; having been elected by the combined church they had a duty to serve at Iru-ale. Their position in respect of the ‘Alewai break-away’, as it had become known, was a matter for public discussion at an Iru-ale United Church meeting I attended. These meetings were held regularly after the morning service on the last Friday of the month. I discovered that the proposal for an independent church had first been made fourteen years earlier, in 1987, long before recent events had re-ignited the issue. The desire for the break-away was explained in very practical terms: the population in Alewai had increased considerably and the constant trips, which often entailed a ‘swim’ across the tidal creek which separated the two villages, were becoming too great a burden for many Alewai residents. In 1987 the proposal for a separate village church was deferred because there had been no available land on which to build. The proposal was put forward again in 1997 but, for the same reason, ‘no progress was made’. The Mormon intrusion was not related directly to the fact that Alewai wanted to build a new church, but there was certainly renewed determination to build a United Church in the centre of Alewai village.

Alewai village gets a church

After protracted and highly emotional discussion at the Iru-ale meeting, the pastor formally gave the Alewai deacons permission to conduct services in their village. He granted this on the basis that they had no other trained leaders, but it seemed that the split was inevitable and he really had no option other than to present an attitude of support. Chances were, argued the pastor, that Alewai may never have their church built, and the difficulties of getting such a project approved by the United Church Council were highlighted in his address. In reality Alewai United Church had already been established. They had a bell, a meeting place and scheduled services that were well attended. The Irupara congregation argued passionately against the split: ‘We are Iru-ale. We are Iru-ale, not Irupara’. And it was true. They had been Iru-ale for longer than anyone could remember.

The feeling of betrayal experienced by Irupara United Church is understandable in practical as well as emotional terms. Without the support of their neighbours from Alewai, Irupara was a much-reduced congregation. Not only was the work of maintaining the church, their pastor and his family now the responsibility of a smaller group, there was also the prospect of being a little more vulnerable to the evangelising of the Adventist Church. While friendly relations exist between the two Christian denominations in Irupara, there is also an underlying sense of rivalry evident, for example, in the regular reference to the possibility of conversion through marriage heard among young adults. The practices of one denomination serve to highlight those of the other and while publicly the relationship is harmonious, there remains a private awareness of the vulnerability of church allegiances. It was this vulnerability that was exposed by the appearance of the Mormons.

The matter of the Alewai break-away overshadowed the Mormon threat for a few weeks until I received a report that came with the urgency of a news flash: the Mormons were seen baptising people at Valu, near Wainapuna on the outskirts of Irupara. The converts were the senile old man from Alewai and his wife. Wainapuna is a popular picnic and camping spot for outsiders visiting the area and most suitable for the lavish barbecue that reportedly followed the baptisms. That it is on the outskirts of the village—out of public view—is noteworthy. The Irupara population is nowadays located in relation to the Adventist and United Church buildings. In the past Vula'a people were oriented to the sea. As Christianity has been incorporated into their identity, village politics, and sociality (Van Heekeren 2012), the symbolic importance of having a village church building is great. If the reports of the baptisms were correct (I have no reason to doubt that they were) then Alewai, a village without a church in the year 2000, had spawned two local churches in 2001. It was, though, the United Church that stood on Alewai ground at the centre of the village. This was supremely important because it gave Alewai the same symbolic Christian identity as the other Vula'a villages.

When I returned in 2005 I was advised by my Irupara hosts to present some of the small gifts I had brought for the women's fellowship to the women of the Alewai United Church (Fig. 2). I made a visit to the new church at Alewai, where I met with the women and the church chairman who, it was explained, had an important job in Port Moresby but came back to the village on weekends to manage church affairs. Although it felt strange to encounter the women whom I had first met as a single group as two separate entities, things seemed to have worked out well for all concerned. The church in Irupara village had undergone some minor renovations. The name had been changed to Irupara Emmanuel United Church and it had a fresh coat of paint—Iru-ale was no more. The United Church was doing well in both villages where ‘Alewais were Alewais and Iruparas were Iruparas’. A small number of Alewai people have remained loyal to their first church and continue to make the journey to Irupara. It bears reflection, though, that these events of such consequence for the people of Irupara and Alewai at the very beginning of the twenty-first century had their origins in the period at the end of the nineteenth century, when the LMS neglected to build—as they did in the other villages in the area—a church at Alewai.

Figure 2.

Alewai United Church women's fellowship, 2005.


The experience of more than a century of Christianity has placed church-building, in both its literal and ideological sense, at the existential centre of Vula'a village life. Contrary to the arguments that have brought attention to Robbins' (2004, 2007) work, the processes of continuity and adaptation are exemplified here (Cannell 2006) in the transformation of social life in which (among other things) male prestige and power are expressed through participation in the church. The traces of continuity are everywhere. In 2010, after a spate of drunkenness among village youth, it was commented at a village meeting that as well as the boys' fathers there were two churches in the village to discipline them. The moral responsibility that comes with the exigencies of kinship is reproduced in the organisational structure and philosophy of the local church. It is not always clear, though, who has the authority to penalise or discipline such transgressions and this creates some anxiety. There is occasionally a lack of fit between the sociality of the past, wherein responsibility for the group's welfare was locally contained, and the fragmenting of authority experienced as part of the post-colonial condition.

While the putative separation between Church and State is a given in Western society, traditionally in Melanesia this was not the case. In the Vula'a villages the Christian churches are imbued with a local politics that is essentially concerned with the moral order, which is also a social order. The village church is the place where people seek status and where projects are initiated for the benefit of the congregation, but projects beyond fund-raising for the church rarely come to fruition. This is because the ritualised activity that is central to church-life is valued over and above concrete outcomes. More importantly, though, the village church is where people come together for the feasting and singing that is central to their existential concerns. The churches serve the needs of their village congregations, but only insofar as they provide the structure through which the village represents itself to itself. I have heard Vula'a people express dissatisfaction with the United Church but this is constructed in terms of the same discourse that is directed towards external authority more generally, for instance, local politicians who are accused of ignoring the needs of village people. It is lamented of money that ‘everything goes up, nothing comes down’.

Yet villagers work hard for their churches and contribute significant resources because they have come to embody a communal ethos in the face of the collapse of the collective activities of an earlier time: ‘Now it's modern [fishing] so you are on your own because you have your own motor and dinghy’. The churches have been refashioned in the form of the village, and it is the village which remains at the very core of Vula'a identity (Van Heekeren 2011b). Competition for church membership can place stress on social relationships, but at the same time local churches galvanise what are now perceived as ‘traditional’ organisational structures. The history of differentiation and fragmentation that is a feature of Western Christianity is not yet evident in PNG. This would require first, the development of an indigenous theology and second, that this resemble other Christian theologies. If the split between the Irupara and Alewai congregations appears as a natural outcome of Protestantism, then there is cause to look again at the local in the face of the global. In the Vula'a area such fragmentation requires a culturally specific explanation for what is a locally unique event. On the other hand, moving from church to church remains a viable alternative.


When I returned to Irupara in 2010 I was surprised to find that a small Mormon fellowship was meeting regularly in a neighbouring house (located in United Church heartland). It was comprised of a single family, formerly prominent members of the United Church—a deacon and his wife who had been the chair of the women's fellowship for many years—who converted after a disagreement with the pastor. It was a rather large family, though, and on fellowship nights their singing could be heard for hours by all in proximity. No-one was particularly bothered by this new Mormon presence, and somewhat ironically the newly appointed chair of the Irupara United Church Women's Fellowship (Fig. 3) had previously been a member of the Mormon Church. It seemed a fair exchange.

Figure 3.

Irupara United Church women's fellowship, 2005.


This article began as a presentation for a workshop organised by SSGM in 2008 on Governance at the Local Level, at the Australian National University. It was developed during two months with the Religious Studies and Anthropology Departments at Radboud University, Nijmegen in 2012 and I am grateful to Frans Wijsen, Eric Venbrux and Toon Van Meijl for their generous hospitality and support. I am especially grateful to Gima Rupa Crowdy whose local knowledge helped me to make sense of the events that took place in 2001, and to Michael Goddard for his patient reading.


  1. 1

    I note that the anthropological interest in the upsurge of these forms of Christianity is happening at a time when American membership in neo-Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches has increased dramatically (Lurhmann 2012).

  2. 2

    In 1890, seeking to avoid the problem of rivalry and possible conflict between competing denominations, MacGregor called a meeting of representatives from the LMS, the Methodists and the Anglicans that resulted in a ‘gentleman's agreement’ to not compete in the same areas (Trompf 1991: 148–9). In what became known as the ‘spheres of influence’ policy it was decided that the LMS would take the south coast except for those areas already taken by the Roman Catholics (Trompf 1991: 149).

  3. 3

    See Langmore's (1989: 218) map of the mission spheres of influence in Papua before 1914.

  4. 4

    See Van Heekeren (2011b) and note 7 below.

  5. 5

    In fact, by 1940 the Adventists had established over a hundred stations (Trompf 1991: 45).

  6. 6

    It is through naming practices that the Vula'a inscribe history (Van Heekeren 2012).

  7. 7

    The situation described here is interestingly contrasted to that which Knauft has described for the Gebusi where the Catholic pastors are viewed as outsiders ‘who are linked to an all-important larger world’ (2002: 137).

  8. 8

    Oram noted that in 1964 each descent group at Hula village took responsibility for providing the pastor's house with different items of furniture and fittings (1971: 125).

  9. 9

    The units are similar to those of other coastal groups such as the Motu iduhu. Anthropologists have been cautious about applying the term ‘clan’ to iduhu (Groves 1963; Goddard 2001). This caution, which I share in respect of kwalu, is generated by anomalies concerning principles of descent, land-holding, and exogamy (Van Heekeren 2012).

  10. 10

    Where there are a number of Ekalesia in one family contributions can be a matter of great expense, although in practice payments are made according to individual circumstances.

  11. 11

    Financial matters take up substantial amounts of time and energy and are often the cause of friction or, at least, are the point where related problems surface. If group levies are not met sanctions are imposed by the circuit. For instance, if the youth fellowship cannot raise enough to cover its levy it is punished by not being allowed to participate in circuit activities such as rallies and competitions. This had never happened in Iru-ale but were it ever to occur it would be a matter of the greatest embarrassment.

  12. 12

    Even though the Mormons had been prevented from opening their ‘office’ in the village, they had continued to hold fellowships in the house of the baptised man.

  13. 13

    Membership in the Christian community is rendered meaningful to Vula'a villagers in the idea of ‘fellowship’ which is theologically derived from the Greek word koinonia. Unlike the translation of many Hula language terms into the language of Christianity, there is no localised form of the English word ‘fellowship’, which has now been included somewhat inelegantly in the vernacular.