I grew up most of my life in the lush green mountains of Papua New Guinea- a place of beauty and adventure. I lived on a mission base with hundreds of other missionaries from around the world. The majority of families were from America and in many ways it felt like a mini-America. There was a smattering of Papua New Guineans who attended the international school for missionary children, but they were the outliers in our mostly white missionary bubble.
Almost all of the missionaries hired Papua New Guineans to help around the house. We had a wonderful woman named Jonah who cleaned for us, and Iyah who mowed the grass and did other odd jobs around the yard. The narrative I grew up with was that we were helping them, providing them with steady income in a world where most Papua New Guineans were subsistence farmers on their ancestral lands and couldn’t find paying jobs. To work for a white missionary family was a coveted position. I never thought twice about this arrangement growing up.
About 10 years after I graduated I returned to Papua New Guinea and the mission base where I grew up. I returned to be the speaker at the high school’s annual spiritual retreat. I brought my good friend Nick Peterson with me. I told him so many of my stories about growing up in PNG, and was excited to show him the amazing place in the flesh. I couldn’t wait for him to get a window into my childhood, so he could better understand me.
48 hours after hopping on our first plane we arrived at Ukarumpa. Being back, it felt like nothing had changed. All the same houses and trees were still there, some of them still with the same missionaries. The clay was as red as I remembered, and mountainous landscape was even more breath-taking.
As Nick and I walked around the mission base on our first afternoon, I was jabbering away pointing out all the places of importance from my youth. I was caught up in that invigorating yet surreal feeling of being back in an old familiar place that you have been away from for too long. While I was seeing everything through old eyes, Nick was seeing it all through fresh eyes. Eyes that were very different than mine, African-American eyes that were attuned to issues of race and privilege that I was clueless about. Eyes that had seen and witnessed racial injustice in ways that my naïve sheltered eyes couldn’t even imagine. My privilege afforded me the opportunity to be ignorant and blind to the very race and power dynamics at play all around me growing up.
But Nick walked into my missionary bubble, a safe haven of whiteness, and within hours he burst the bubble. Nick began to point out things I’d looked at my whole life but had never seen. He began to ask questions that I’d never known to ask. When I saw Ukarumpa through Nick’s eyes, eyes that were never afforded the option of naivete, my world was forever changed.
Nick immediately recognized the gaping disparity between whites and blacks. The white community had better jobs, houses, transportation, clothing, access to material goods, medical care. The list could go on. The Papua New Guineans all worked FOR the missionaries. Never the other way around. The balance of power was greatly weighted towards the white missionaries. Nick commented that it felt like he was in a time warp going back to the Southern United States from a former era. We always laughed at Ukarumpa that we were behind the times, but the truth of his observation about our little community was sadly no laughing matter.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about the differences between blacks and whites in PNG, because the emphasis of the community was unity and togetherness. This message of unity lacked the necessary nuance to navigate the discrepancies in privilege and opportunity that existed. Hidden within the message of unity was an unspoken message of sameness that was sadly not true. My existence at Ukarumpa as a white missionary kid was NOT the same as the Papua New Guinean kids who I grew up with, from the food that I ate, to the vacations that we took, to the bed that I slept in. Our lives were profoundly different. A difference that I was vaguely aware of on the periphery of my thinking, but not one that was openly discussed and explored within the public life of the broader missionary community.
When I think back to all the hours I spent in church, and Sunday school and in youth group and school chapels I cannot recall any teaching or seminars or sermons focused on racism or injustice. Public conversations about the inequity of our community were generally absent. (It’s possible these conversations were happening among adults but kids and youth were not invited to participate).
There was a fixed focus on the mission at hand- Bible translation. We were taught to have great compassion for the Papua New Guineans because they didn’t have access to the Bible in their own language. We were greatly concerned for their souls, but the same level of compassion was not cultivated for the physical state of the people we had come to reach and their access to medical care, clean water, safe housing, jobs, quality education. The message that the Bible is a sacred book and tool to save the souls of the unreached came through loud and clear. Jesus’ message of justice and equality for the poor and the marginalized was but a whisper in comparison. The focus on souls and the future allowed for a type of blindness to physical bodies and the present.
I don’t want to live blindly anymore, which is why I’m sharing this reflection in hopes that it might help you see a little more clearly as well. I’m profoundly grateful for Nick and his willingness and ability to help me see and learn and grow. I recognize that I still have much to learn. Speaking up is part of me trying to foster conversation so that we can continue to learn and grow together.
Are you happy for me to share with Wycliffe UK? I would like to engage them in a conversation on the topic. Thanks, Elise.
Hi Elise. You are welcome to send to Wycliffe UK, and I would be happy to talk with them if they have questions or concerns about what I wrote.
Thanks – I will let you know if they respond.