KIRIBATI

The Reverend Thomas Scarborough who, along with his father, Reverend Dr. Charles Scarborough, the last Chief Missionary (London Missionary Society) in the Gilberts (Kiribati), have provided a long and valuable service in the work of the Protestant Church in Kiribati. 

The following report prepared by the Reverend Thomas Scarborough in May 2003, provides a detailed insight into the Kiribati Protestant Church (K.P.C.). In addition to his perceptive observations on the workings of the Church, Reverend Scarborough also comments on the ever present problem of global warming and its impact on the islands of Kiribati.

As a worthy footnote, Reverend Scarborough gives an indication as to the kind of donations that would be of great benefit to the work of the Church and the addresses to which these donations can be sent.  

           

THE KIRIBATI PROTESTANT CHURCH

This is not just a report-back. I believe it contains information that could make a significant difference to a struggling and isolated Church that spans a vast area of our globe. I want to pass on what I saw in Kiribati, mostly without comment, but specifically with a view to enabling Churches worldwide to give intelligent support to Christian brothers and sisters in this remote Republic. As far as I am aware, this is the only comprehensive report on the Church in existence.

THE KIRIBATI REPUBLIC

Kiribati Republic flag

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) comprises 33 islands, spread across about 5,000,000km2 (nearly 2,000,000mi2) of the Central Pacific. This represents about half the area of the entire U.S.A., or two-thirds of the area of Australia. It borders on the Solomon Islands in the west, and reaches further eastward than the eastern border of Hawaii. It comprises three groups of islands - the Gilbert, the Phoenix, and the Line groups.

The population of Kiribati (called the I-Kiribati) numbers about 81,000, of which about half is concentrated on South Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert group. The Kiribati Republic lies in a band of weather known as the doldrums, and thus enjoys a calm, very warm (like an oven, some would say), humid climate.

While much is known about the Churches of the South Pacific (e.g. Fiji, the Cook Islands) and the North (e.g. Micronesia, the Marshall Islands), very little is known about the Church in the Kiribati Republic. Although there are flights each week in and out of South Tarawa, Kiribati is nevertheless characterised throughout by isolation. It is my hope that this report will fill the gap for Churches which have been keen to receive some recent news.

This report is based largely on a stay of one month with the Church in Kiribati in early 2003, as a guest of the Kiribati Protestant Church - as well as previous visits in 1997 and 1994. In 1997, I led a group of six Church leaders to Kiribati, who ministered to about 20 Churches on Nauru, North Tarawa, South Tarawa, and Abaiang.

As one lands on Tarawa, one immediately notices a great many structures still built by ancient design, of materials taken from the coconut and pandanus trees. The ancient culture of Kiribati is still a living culture in many parts of the islands, and it is deeply impressive. It is hard to believe that a people so isolated, and living in such a bare environment, could develop such exquisite knowledge and skills. Some of the finest displays of Kiribati cultural artefacts are housed today in the Auckland and Berlin Museums, and are well worth a visit. They outshine almost any other such display you will see.

Youngsters on the beach on Maiana

The people of Kiribati are Micronesian, a brown and handsome people. Detailed genealogies trace their ancestry back more than 100 generations (that is, to about the time of the judges of the Old Testament)!

The I-Kiribati have a joy and energy of spirit that one seldom encounters in the West. On the outer islands especially, one hears hearty laughter from morning till evening. They have a quick wit and intelligence, and despite their leisurely manner, pack an enormous amount of energy into their work.

Curiously, the Kiribati language is written with only 15 letters (no "p", no "s", no "y", etc.). The I-Kiribati bear no surnames as such, but take the name of their father for identification. For instance, Temeeti Teiaa would mean Temeeti the son of Teiaa, and his son might well be called Teiaa Temeeti in turn. For this reason, I only mention a single name when I refer to people below.

THE CHURCH IN GENERAL

Children playing at the lagoonside at H.Q.

The K.P.C. describes itself as an "Independent Church" and a "United Church". The highest decision-making body, the General Assembly, meets every four years. All Island Church Councils are represented here by at least one man, one woman, and one youth, all of whom participate in decision-making. Second to the General Assembly is the Executive Council, which meets twice a year. In third place is the Church Officers Meeting - a meeting of senior officers at headquarters (H.Q.), which generally meets every two weeks. Under these officers in turn are the Financial Committee, the Development Committee, the Ministerial Committee, and the Education Committee.

The Kiribati Protestant Church (K.P.C.) is rooted mainly in past work of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (A.B.C.F.M.) and the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.). My own father was the last Chief Missionary of the L.M.S. in Kiribati, and left in 1968 when the L.M.S. and other missionary organisations declared a moratorium on missions. He was subsequently awarded an honorary doctorate for his role in the transition from the L.M.S. to the independent K.P.C.

The work of the early missionaries is deeply impressive. They succeeded in moving large printing presses, Church structures, vehicles, and so much more to vastly remote islands scattered across the blue. Among other things they translated and printed the entire Bible and a Church hymnbook set to music. Many missionaries died there, and their headstones still stand in old graveyards in the heat under the coconut palms - particularly at Morikao, Abaiang, and Rongorongo, Beru.

My first visit after the moratorium was in 1994 - more than 25 years later. What I found then deeply concerned me. By and large (with a few exceptions), the ministers and Churches in Kiribati had received no new materials and no fresh spiritual input since the departure of the L.M.S. After the L.M.S. had come a period of almost total isolation.

Most ministers were still working with Bibles and hymnbooks which came off the old missionary presses, and in most instances they had nothing besides these two books in their possession. In general, they had no concordance, no Bible commentary, no Bible dictionary, and no other Christian materials. They were ill-equipped for their ministries, and often seemed at a complete loss. I was concerned to see that the once-strong Churches, which I remembered from my boyhood as being filled from door to door, had dwindled to perhaps one-quarter of their size. However, the vast Church infrastructure remains intact to this day, and membership lists remain fairly full (perhaps two-thirds of their former size on paper).

Today the K.P.C. has approximately 30,000 members - that is, about 37% of the population. The K.P.C. is seen throughout the islands as the "official Protestant Church", and Protestant Churches outside of the K.P.C., even if they are mainstream in the West, are looked upon with some suspicion. Non-K.P.C. Protestant Churches report resistance to Christian fellowship and co-operation. It is my view, therefore, that one can only really work effectively in Kiribati from within the K.P.C.

The Catholic Church has increased in strength in recent decades, to just over half the population. Islam was present for a while on South Tarawa, but apparently gave up for lack of support. Christian cults are active in the islands, and this has been a special source of concern to the K.P.C. as it has seen members defect. The Mormons in particular claim about 5% of the population. The Baha'i religion claims up to 3% (more realistically 1%). I searched the K.P.C.'s libraries at Antebuka and Tangintebu for information on the cults, but found nothing of value there.

Some islands have a glut of Churches and religions - e.g. Banaba island, with a population of about 150, has five Christian denominations and two religions (most of the original Banabans were removed to Rabi, Fiji - pronounced Rambi - when the phosphate ran out).

THE CHURCH IN DETAIL

A manse or parsonage on an outer island

On my recent visit, I held conversations with many ministers in Kiribati. This included discussions with the majority of senior office-bearers of the Church, and the majority of theological college staff.

Church headquarters (H.Q.) is stationed at Antebuka, South Tarawa. This is a complex comprising more than 20 houses, and about 20 offices. Rev. Bureieta, General Secretary, said that there are about 30 direct employees of the K.P.C. at H.Q., besides many further "sub-employees" of departments or projects. The K.P.C. thus employs many times more full-time administrative staff than any denomination with which I am familiar.

This burgeoned from a handful of staff at H.Q. at the end of the missionary era. According to Rev. Bureieta, the enlargement of H.Q. was "needed" to cope with the increasing burden of administration. Budget figures reflect this trend. The annual budget of H.Q. in 1978 was Aus$70,000. By 1984 it had increased to Aus$240,000, and in 2002 it stood at Aus$500,000. In earlier years, the majority of income came through phosphate mining, but this has since had to be replaced with other sources, thus placing a far greater burden on the local Churches. 129 member Churches support the budget at H.Q., and this with a meagre per capita income in Kiribati.

The K.P.C. in some aspects gives the impression of being a state within a state, having its own transport infrastructure, its own communications infrastructure, its own Department of Education and so on, all spanning a vast Republic. It also has its own press, its own industries or projects, and even its own national public holiday.

Church membership and attendances would seem a good departure point to paint a picture of the local Churches.

I asked Rev. Namoto of South Tarawa (one of the larger Churches in Kiribati) how many members he had. 2,000 members, he said. How many were active? I asked. "Perhaps 200?" he said doubtfully, "or 100." I asked Rev. Takaria of South Tarawa. He said he had about 200 members, of whom 50 or 60 were active. "And we have 100 children in the Sunday School," he said.

The outer islands present a different picture, with a tendency to far smaller congregations. Rev. Iote of Kuria said he had 50 members, of whom about 30 were active. There were about 50 children in the Sunday School. Rev. Temakau of Maiana said he had "11 families" in his Church. This translated to 7 adults and 9 children when I attended Church on a Sunday. Rev. Taateti of Maiana said he had "30 families" in his Church, of whom 15 were active. He said that seven or eight families attended Church on a Sunday, and about 30 youth.

A larger Church on Tarawa

All in all, I would estimate that 20% of K.P.C. members attend Church on a Sunday. Non-active members were clearly a topic of concern in the Church, from the local Churches up to H.Q. Non-attenders included members of H.Q. A retired minister on Tarawa expressed concern that "with the exception of a few", members of H.Q. did not attend Church on a Sunday, although it was their contractual duty.

Church buildings vary tremendously. A few Churches and meeting houses are concrete structures which will seat many hundreds of people. Others are simple palm and pandanus structures. Church manses or parsonages also vary a great deal, from spacious concrete buildings (especially on Tarawa) to simple "platform" huts. Rev. Temakau of Maiana vacated his hut for my recent visit to his Church (see the picture on the previous page). Without having any walls, I had a direct view into seven other such huts, and they into mine.

In general, ministers and Churches are very poorly equipped. Beginning with the provision of Bibles for ordinary Church members, General Secretary Rev. Bureieta estimated that 50% of the Church are supplied with Bibles. This should probably read 50% of Church families. I asked Rev. Berebere of Maiana (one of many women ministers in the K.P.C.) how many of her members had their own Bible. "Fifty percent?" I asked. "Less, less!" she said. Rev. Taateti of Maiana said that "some" members had Bibles or hymn books. Rev. Teeruro, the K.P.C.'s Secretary for Education, told me that there was an acute need for Bibles in K.P.C. schools, both in the Kiribati language and in English (the Good News version).

Ministers are poorly equipped. In the West, we would not imagine functioning with such a lack of basic tools. I asked Rev. Namoto of South Tarawa (one of the largest Churches in Kiribati) which "tools" he had. He had a one-volume Bible commentary, he said, but no Bible dictionary or concordance. Rev. Takaria of South Tarawa had all three of these books, although all were printed in the 1960's - he had inherited them from an uncle who was a minister. Pastor Iote of Kuria said he had none of these books. Pastor Temakau of Maiana had a Bible commentary, a Bible dictionary, and even a theological dictionary and Study Bible. This was the result of a good year at Bible college, when donated books arrived from overseas. Taking into account my previous visits to several islands in Kiribati, many ministers have no Christian books or materials besides their Bible and hymn book.

I made inquiries about Bible teaching and Bible study materials. I did not find a single Church which conducted Bible studies, nor did I find a single minister who had Bible study materials, either in English or Kiribati - although there may well be some. A retired minister on Tarawa said he felt that the deepest need of the K.P.C. was teaching. He said, "Ministers say they aren't qualified. But they don't need to be. They just need to share the Word - and everyone may share." He commented that weekday activities were very few in the K.P.C.

A past officer at H.Q. told me that the Churches were in dire need of teaching. The same was expressed by some Church members and deacons.

Sunday Schools and Youth Groups presented a better picture. Some Sunday Schools are larger than their Churches. However, there was almost universally a need for Sunday School materials, and many Churches had none. A few Sunday Schools and Youth Groups were not functioning in Churches where young people were present. I attended one Church, for instance, where the children, who outnumbered the adults, sat in the service getting up to quiet pranks for an hour.

Fish - and so many varieties!

The average Christian in Kiribati has no personal devotional materials. Teachers at the William Goward Memorial College on South Tarawa told me that one of them had managed to obtain a Bible study booklet, and had photocopied it for ten other teachers. Could I please obtain additional devotional materials for them? I passed on a daily devotional booklet by Selwyn Hughes to Pre-school Secretary Titau, who came back to me and said that she greatly appreciated the booklet. "It encourages me every day," she said.

The spiritual atmosphere of the Church is pervaded by formalism. Sermons are frequently (but not always) read in a monotone with a grave expression. Some ministers and members have a clear understanding of grace, many clearly do not. There is an obvious lack of understanding of the importance of the "priesthood of believers".

A few anecdotes will give an impression of the spiritual condition of the Church. When my wife Mirjam arrived to join me in Kiribati, General Secretary Rev. Bureieta stood up in front of the officers and staff, and wished her (in the vernacular) "blessings in the name of the great god Nareau" (the pagan god). A stir and some laughter went round the meeting house. To balance this, he told me (in English) that the mission of the K.P.C. is to "lead people to the living Christ". A member of faculty at the theological college, in a sermon, said that St. Mark had "completely missed the point" with his selection of insertions into the text. On the other hand, Rev. Dr. Pepine and Rev. Neemia, also members of faculty, gave upbuilding sermons. I asked a senior officer of the K.P.C. whether the Church believed in tithing. "Oh yes!" he said, "We deduct the tithe before we pay staff salaries."

During our seminars with local Churches in 1997, I wrote down many questions which were asked of us. The largest percentage concerned Church finances. Many questions concerned prayer, and whether God answers prayer. Several people asked how unordained people (as there were on our team) could minister in the Church. Many questions expressed concern about a lack of interest or response to the Church. Some concerned power-plays within the local Churches.

 "It is sad to say that the Church is declining in membership, many are joining other sects due to the high demand from the Headquarters for their financial contribution for the general running of the whole Church. Pray, that the present Church members and members of partner Churches, Missions and Organizations abroad be strengthened in their faith and partnership to face the reality of financial crisis in the Church, and that God in His own way and time enable the Church to overcome the crisis. Pray that members be more committed in evangelism and in their servanthood ministry to all people."

(Official brochure of the K.P.C., 1997)

PROBLEMS OF THE MINISTRY

The central offices at H.Q. (I lived in this house as a boy)

The ministers of the K.P.C. need to be admired for their determination in ministering alone in remote villages year after year. I have also found some heartening examples of solidarity among ministers on the islands. K.P.C. ministers are a class apart - not being "resident", yet continually moving on - not having the traditional authority of the elders, yet possessing a special authority of their own.

Certain problems of the ministry repeatedly received mention. Ministers were frequently accused of "laziness". Secretary for Missions, Rev. Toreiti, who is charged with the task of ministers' well-being, mentioned this as one of the chief problems of the ministry. Some hold no weekday activities, or they simply do not arrive for appointments (e.g. religious instruction). On the other hand, ministers may sometimes be at a complete loss in their ministry, or deeply discouraged. A minister on Maiana told me that when he arrived in his new pastorate, "I looked this way. I looked that way. I didn't know what to do."

Rev. Toreiti said that one of her unique problems, as Secretary for Missions, was to inform ministers of their new postings on behalf of the Ministerial Committee. Ministers often objected to being posted to small or remote villages. Rev. Dr. Pepine (former General Secretary, and presently theological college principal) told me that it was the custom of the K.P.C. for the first to be last, and the last to be first. It was not unusual to place a prominent minister in a remote village, or a village minister in a major Church.

Another problem mentioned was pre-marital sex. This is something which was tabu one generation ago, and in the past it sometimes meant death.

Some ministers experienced traditional pressures, and K.P.C. Moderator Rev. Baiteke spoke of this as a special problem. Kiribati society was traditionally ruled by the elders, who held enormous power. Both the elders and the old-generation ministers were sometimes angrily opposed to new ways, such as musical instruments in Church, or changing the frequency of Holy Communion, or changing the colour of the minister's clothing (for instance from black to blue)! A strange dichotomy exists in Kiribati, in that society is filled with exuberance, emotion, and energy on the one hand, yet deep conservatism on the other. The Church reflects the conservatism in many parts of the islands, which is undoubtedly also a legacy of early missionaries.

Local Churches, in some cases, also had little or no idea of income and expenditure. A minister on Maiana told me that he had no idea what his Church's income was. I said surely he would have some approximate idea. No, he said, no idea at all.

A continual concern of ministers was how to activate inactive members. It was generally admissible in the K.P.C. for completely inactive members to remain in membership.

CHURCH FINANCES

The one dominant issue of the Church is finance. It has caused deep concern in the K.P.C. since at least the early 1990's - but while in the 90's there was keen debate around the issue, by this year there seemed resignation, perplexity, or anger. There had been a debate, said Rev. Bureieta: "Are we a Church or are we a business?"

Large sums of money flow from the island Churches into H.Q. in Antebuka, South Tarawa. On the basis of numerous discussions, I estimate that 60-70% of the total annual income of the local Churches flows into H.Q., and that local Church members give up 30-40% of their total annual income to sustain this. In one Church, members gave 50% of their personal income, in another 75%, and in a few cases 100% (many I-Kiribati only earn money for the benefit of the Church - their everyday existence requires no money at all).

Inside the Church press at H.Q.

The K.P.C. places an annual "quota" on each local Church, which the Church is obliged to raise. This is no small undertaking for the local Churches, and their thinking in many cases revolved chiefly around the finances. K.P.C. Moderator Rev. Baiteke commented that the local Deacons had become slack, therefore ministers were being encouraged to take the lead with fund-raising. My experience was that events that should have been spiritually centred were often dominated by fund-raising. For instance, a Youth Group might meet for the purpose of raising money, or a Church choir might sing to elicit donations. I asked a minister on Maiana why he had an unusually high active membership. He replied, "Because they are expected to pull their weight with fund-raising." A Church elder on Maiana told me, "The strength of the Church is money," and this seemed a common perception. There seemed little understanding for the notion that the Holy Spirit is the strength of the Church, or the Holy Scriptures.

I asked the Churches what benefit they derived from H.Q. in return. A minister on Maiana looked perplexed by my question, obviously searching for an answer. She said, "Nothing. Nothing." Another minister on Maiana replied that he had been granted a loan to build a Church meeting house (like a hall) and a manse, which his congregation needed to repay in full. I asked one of the most influential ministers of Kiribati, on South Tarawa, what benefit his Church derived from H.Q. He replied angrily, "We get nothing! Nothing!" I said, "What about the resources they are working on at H.Q.?" He said, "We don't need them!" A number of times I heard the comment that a more Congregational system might be the answer for the K.P.C., and this included comments from the General Secretary.

Having said this, Churches and ministers do derive some important benefits from H.Q. H.Q. pays the pensions of retired ministers, and pays transport costs every four years when ministers are routinely relocated. H.Q. also subsidises the theological college, pays teachers' salaries, rents land, and is involved in activities such as printing hymnbooks or preparing Sunday School materials. However, the perception throughout the Churches is that they receive little or no benefit from H.Q.

I asked General Secretary Rev. Bureieta what the purpose of H.Q. is. He said, "To control. To co-ordinate, firstly."

The K.P.C. H.Q. is a large enterprise, which receives major funding from overseas for (among other things) computer equipment, "industrial art workshops", the "empowering of women", a new meeting house, school classrooms, a poultry farm, the building of a jetty, and so on. I viewed a list of donations amounting to Aus$1,682,457, and of these 0.5% directly benefited the Church spiritually. This was for a "refresher course for pastors".

The Secretary for Development, Rev. Terikiai, who has the major responsibility for funding, told me that "donors avoid certain areas, such as private housing, building Churches, equipping Churches." He added, "Even the C.W.M. (Council for World Mission). They say that is the Churches' service to God."

The Council for World Mission is the leading donor, and their commitment to the K.P.C. is impressive and ongoing. In the words of S. Andrew Morton of the C.W.M., the purpose of its support is "to give Churches an enduring cash base for their mission... to aid the Churches' income-generating capacity".

It is obvious, however, that by far the biggest part of donations from various organisations and governments does not immediately benefit the local Churches. In fact it increases their financial burden, and that of individual families within the Churches. Much of the money received from the local Churches is expended on salaries at H.Q., while officers at H.Q. invest much of their time managing projects or positions enabled through funding. I myself had the sense that the Church operated in two separate and sealed departments - the local Churches "out there", and H.Q. in Antebuka, South Tarawa.

I encountered some doubts, mostly within H.Q., as to the efficiency of H.Q.'s operations. An officer at H.Q. commented that officers existed without budgets, equipment without operators, and that some officers did not have a clue as to what to do. He said that H.Q. kept track of its annual income, but not expenditure. One officer told me that she received a salary from H.Q., but had received no budget. She was doing her best to function without one, but found it difficult, and at times disheartening. Another officer said that he had an Aus$40,000 budget, but he could not tell me how the largest part of this was being allocated during the financial year. The K.P.C.'s theological college had a budget, but they were completely crippled at the beginning of the first semester because the budgeted amounts had not been released by H.Q. (the beginning of semester had been delayed a fortnight as I left - the previous year it was one month).

Commenting more broadly, a foreign financial adviser to the K.P.C. said that he had never seen a K.P.C. budget, and doubted very much that one existed. He said that the C.W.M. had recently carried out an audit or analysis of the Church's projects. My interpretation of what he told me was that this was a "business audit" as opposed to a "social audit" as it is sometimes referred to (or perhaps a "spiritual audit"). For instance, projects might be operating relatively satisfactorily within themselves, but at what cost to the local Churches, or to the average Church member? The social or spiritual cost is not as easy to ascertain without conversations with local Churches, and arduous journeys to the islands.

Set against this, the K.P.C. was obviously making good progress with some of its projects, and capable officers stood behind them. For instance, a new land reclamation in Tarawa lagoon made astonishing progress during the time that I was there. It was the intention to build a jetty off the reclaimed land, and to expand H.Q. onto the land.

A pastors' luncheon on Maiana - with traditional choir

It is interesting to note that much of the donated technology is soon junked by the Church. I saw a very great many electronic items - fax machines, printers, copiers, and even a few vehicles - "junked" (but mostly stored) in apparently good condition. The explanation for this is that equipment may fail very quickly in the extreme climate, or be destroyed due to transients on the national grid. Even if a relatively minor fault should arise, there are often no repair technicians to call on, unless one is willing to pay for their passage from Fiji or Australia. The theological college had only one functioning computer left since an error by a technician on the Bikenibeu transformer had destroyed all the rest of their equipment. Curiously, much of the old L.M.S. equipment still functions.

Several of my own items of electronic equipment have either been destroyed or malfunctioned within a few days or weeks of arrival in Kiribati.

THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE AND SCHOOLS

The theological college (Tangintebu Theological College) is situated at Tangintebu on South Tarawa, and views itself as a regional theological college. Besides students from Kiribati, it takes in a few students from the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and so on. However, it serves mainly the K.P.C.

The desire of principal Rev. Dr. Pepine is to upgrade the college to degree level. I asked him what the reason for this is. He said that the Pacific Theological College in Fiji would henceforth be offering only post-graduate courses, whereas previously they had offered degree courses. Tangintebu Theological College wanted to take up the slack, which would also save a great deal of travelling expenses, as well as enhancing its claim to be a regional college.

Certain criteria needed to be met before the college would receive accreditation through the S.P.A.T.S. (South Pacific Association of Theological Schools). The library currently holds some 3,000 books. It requires 10,000 for accreditation. The college also needs 8 full-time lecturers, but now has only 6. However, it could already take on a small number of degree candidates if it could obtain a further 7,000 books. I browsed through the college library. Many of the books are dated (many dating back to the missionary era), and there were not many that I would have considered to be truly useful on such everyday subjects as eg. apologetics, the gifts of the Spirit, cults, or Church management.

Members of the faculty said that the college was lacking, in particular, lectures on Old Testament, leadership, practical ministry, accounting, and English. Visiting lecturers had occasionally stayed at the college for a month, they said, or even longer - but ideally, to be of real usefulness to the college, they would need to stay a minimum of three months at a time. One-month stints, they said, had not worked in practice.

Turning to the K.P.C.'s schools, the K.P.C. recently reduced its direct investment in the schools system, with the schools now being funded in large part from school fees. The K.P.C.'s schools budget recently stood at Aus$700,000 (in addition to H.Q.'s budget), but was reduced this year to Aus$300,000. The K.P.C. presently contributes to the payment of teachers' salaries and the rental of land in particular.

General Secretary Rev. Bureieta is the former Secretary for Education. He said that the Roman Catholic schools system had overtaken that of the K.P.C., with the result that the Catholic Church had been placing its members in top positions throughout Kiribati, especially in government departments. The K.P.C., however, had recently been regaining ground. He said that K.P.C. Churches had been in decline, and that a strengthened schooling system was a way to counteract this. "Strong schools are a strong Church," he said. A particular problem, said Rev. Bureieta, was that the K.P.C. trained teachers for their tasks, then these teachers jumped ship and accepted posts in government or elsewhere. This troubled him, and angered him, since they had broken their pledge to the Church.

Recently the K.P.C. has also sought to establish Pre-Schools, under the direction of Pre-Schools Secretary Titau. Titau was seeking direction, and in fact was hesitant to act at all without guidance as to how she should commence with what seemed a daunting task. However, both materials and guidance were hard to find in Kiribati.

I had three direct experiences of the schools system on my visit this year. The first was a good one, where Mirjam and I were invited by Secretary for Missions Rev. Toreiti to lead school devotions one evening. A large number of scholars came, on time, and listened very attentively, and showed us great courtesy. They appointed one of their own to thank us afterwards, in English.

A well to access the freshwater "lens"

The second experience was at the William Goward Memorial College on South Tarawa, when a foreign teacher, one evening, went beserk. He trashed his classroom, and tried several times to set it alight. A large crowd of scholars gathered in the darkness. Moderator Rev. Baiteke called on me to help. I drove along the lagoonside road to the school, and after an hour succeeded in calming the teacher (I ended up with some scrapes and bruises) - but eventually he was injected and hospitalised. His chief complaint was the indiscipline in the school, which I would characterise as a good-natured variety compared with what is sometimes encountered in cities in the West. His conditions of service were also trying. For instance, he and his family had not yet been allocated a home of their own.

The indiscipline was confirmed to me when I was asked to lead morning devotions at the same school. Most of the scholars arrived close to an hour late, and so did several teachers. One teacher commented tiredly that this was common. The devotions I came for never took place. Another invited guest arrived, and wandered around aimlessly. Rubbish was strewn around the grounds, and the main connection to the national grid was capped with a plastic bottle on the ground.

It needs to be added, however, that there are many teachers who are very dedicated, and view their task as a calling from God. The difference seems to lie largely in the individual teacher - at least at William Goward Memorial College.

Education Secretary Rev. Teeruro told me that there was an acute shortage of teachers in the schools, and there had been for many years. In 1994, in fact, I recruited 200 potential teachers for K.P.C. schools in Kiribati, at the request of the K.P.C. However, none of these were eventually appointed - the reason for which I do not know.

THE RISING SEAS

A question I am frequently asked is whether, as one of the world's lowest-lying countries, Kiribati is affected by the rising seas - and it is indeed, to some degree. Apart from Banaba (Ocean Island), the islands are little higher than the level of the ocean at spring tide. In fact foreign visitors are often "spooked" by the towering breakers, which are sometimes much higher than the level of the islands themselves. These crash onto the reef, then peter out gently onto the shore.

Tangintebu Theological College library

The ocean would not need to rise very much higher to cause widespread devastation - in particular because many parts of Kiribati are dependent on a freshwater "lens" under the surface, which can easily be destroyed. On Maiana I was taken to the original site of Hiram Bingham's mission station. The area was completely abandoned, because the freshwater lens had been destroyed. The tops of the trees were yellowed - a sure sign of the degradation of the freshwater supply. Rev. Temakau, in whose home I stayed on Maiana, said that since the year 2000 the ocean had from time to time been pouring over the lagoonside of the island, and they would soon be relocating their Church buildings. I previously saw the destruction of a large breadfruit forest on Abaiang, which was due to flooding from the lagoonside.

A member of the K.P.C. has written a moving hymn that expresses trust in God, even if the islands should sink under the sea.

OUR CALL FROM THE K.P.C.

Some will know that Mirjam and I received an official call from the K.P.C. In brief, I was called to serve as chaplain to the theological college and to expatriates, and both of us would have lectured to the students. We had found it very difficult, over the space of more than a year, to establish two-way communications concerning the call, and decided therefore to discuss it with the K.P.C. face to face.

We now feel settled that now is not the time, and that we could be more effective for the K.P.C. from here, in our home Church in Cape Town. The reasons for declining are twofold. Firstly, Mirjam in particular suffered under the extreme climate, although I did also - and secondly, we felt that the financial pressures on the local K.P.C. Churches dominated Church life to such an extent that any other input might be rendered ineffective. My own ministry in Kiribati would have been subject to the K.P.C. "quotas" mentioned above. Therefore, while the K.P.C. were still hoping that we might accept the call, it is with some regret that we have declined.

ADDRESSES OF THE K.P.C.

The address of the Kiribati Protestant Church H.Q. is: Antebuka, South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati - or P.O. Box 80, Bairiki, South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati. The address of the theological college is: Tangintebu Theological College, Tangintebu, South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati - or P.O. Box 264, Bikenibeu, South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati.

The most important e-mail addresses of the K.P.C. are: KPC@tskl.net.ki (for H.Q.) or Tangintebu@tskl.net.ki (the theological college). These e-mail addresses are, however, not always functional.

The chapel at Tangintebu Theological College

The most important telephone numbers of the K.P.C. are: 21-195 (H.Q.), 21-453 (H.Q. fax), or 28-077 (the theological college). These numbers are also not always functional. Beyond Tarawa, telephone connections are often made through C.B. radio, with an operator calling e.g. "Come in, Beru, come in..."

ISLANDS WITH K.P.C. CHURCHES

Every inhabited island in the Kiribati Republic has a K.P.C. Church or Churches. These are the names of islands with K.P.C. Churches, and mail may be addressed simply to the Island Church Council or "The K.P.C. Ministers" on each island:

Banaba (previously Ocean Island), Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, South Tarawa, North Tarawa, Maiana, Abemama, Aranuka, Kuria, Nonouti, North Tabiteuea, South Tabiteuea, Onotoa, Beru, Nikunau, Tamana, Arorae, Canton, Rawekai, Orona, Washington, Fanning, Kiritimati (formerly Christmas Island), Vostok, Flint, Rabi (pronounced Rambi, in the Republic of Fiji), and Nukumanu (in the eastern Solomon Islands).

I also have the names of individual towns and villages on most of these islands, and could provide them if needed.

K.P.C. SCHOOLS IN KIRIBATI

Here follow the addresses of all the K.P.C. schools:

Itoin Mainiku High School, Tabakea, Kiritimati

George Eastman High School, Rotima, Nonouti

Stephen Whitmee High School, Morikao, Abaiang

Christian Institute for Community Development, Tannakoroa, Abemama

William Goward Memorial College, Numaona, South Tarawa

Hiram Bingham High School, Rongorongo, Beru

AIRLINES

There are weekly flights to Kiribati from Fiji, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands. In the past, the route from Fiji took up to ten hours in a turbo-prop aircraft. This changed in recent years with the arrival of Air Nauru - but the future of this airline is in serious doubt at the time of writing. International airlines which service South Tarawa are:

Air Kiribati, Air Nauru (based in Nauru), Sun Air (based in Fiji), and Air Marshall (based in the Marshall Islands)

A visa is required for most nationals, except British, Canadian, Danish, Fijian, Indian, Malaysian, Norwegian, Philippine, Samoan, Singaporean, Spanish, Swedish, and Swiss. A visa may be awkward to obtain, and I could advise.

SPECIFIC NEEDS AND SUGGESTIONS

The usefulness of donations to the Church in Kiribati should not be underestimated. They are received with gladness, and are frequently put to good use. Most parcels and letters reach their destination, although not all. Acknowledgements, however, may be few and far between. Do not take this as a sign of unapprectiaveness. When I visited Maiana recently, I asked one of the pastors there, "Do you have any materials besides your Bible and hymnbook?" He said, "I do have this, and it has been very useful" - and he pulled out of his rafters a Bible dictionary donated by our own Church!

If materials can possibly be translated, this would be advised. While all ministers did much of their theological training in English, this was of course a foreign language to them, and was in some cases done twenty or forty years ago. A few years ago, when our Church needed translators, five persons responded to our plea through Internet newsgroups, including a past president of the Kiribati Republic, Ieremia Tabai!

Churches in Kiribati are very isolated, and any encouragement from outside will undoubtedly be greatly appreciated. When we visited Abaiang in 1997, as a team, one of the Women's Association leaders said to us in parting, in a speech: "Our island is not a good island, and still you want to help us. Thank you for all the troubles you have gone through to come so far from home" (this included a seven-metre swell when travelling over the ocean)! Most of the islanders who came to see us off on the beach on Abaiang cried when we left.

Here are some of the known needs in the K.P.C.:

7,000 books for Tangintebu Theological College

A full-time Old Testament lecturer for Tangintebu Theological College

Occasional three-month lecture series at Tangintebu Theological College

"Tools" for ministers, e.g. Bible commentaries, dictionaries, Study Bibles

Bibles in the vernacular for Church members in Kiribati

Bibles in the vernacular and the Good News version for K.P.C. schools

Bible study materials for local K.P.C. Churches

Devotional booklets for K.P.C. office-bearers, ministers, and teachers

Sheet music and accompanying words for translation, for adults and children

Evangelical sermon materials for ministers

Materials dealing with specific concerns of the Church, e.g. apologetics, cults, finances, prayer, Church growth

Sunday School materials

Christian pre-school materials, and guidance for teachers

Committed Christian teachers for K.P.C. schools

"Teach and lead by example" individuals and teams to visit local Churches and K.P.C. departments (I could advise on preparations for Kiribati - no ordinary destination)!

Letters of encouragement for ministers and congregations

Due to the isolation of the K.P.C., discussion, interaction, and correspondence over vital spiritual issues

I would strongly advise that any donations of materials be addressed directly to the recipients, and not sent through H.Q. There is many a potential slip between H.Q. and other locations.

MY CHURCH

Yours truly (the author) at Tarawa lagoon

My own Church is Sea Point Evangelical Congregational Church in Cape Town, South Africa. I am now in my tenth year of ministry here. Our addess is: Rev. Thomas and Rev. Mirjam Scarborough, 6 St. Patrick's Road, Fresnaye, Cape Town 8005, Republic of South Africa. Tel. (Cape Town 021) 439-3209. E-mail scarboro@iafrica.com. The text and photos in this report exist in electronic form, and could be e-mailed to you for inclusion in your own reports or website. This report may be quoted freely.

May 2003.

 

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