I wanted to write this blog post because, despite the fear that many people may skip it, or that it may hurt to write, I know it’s important.
I was most confronted by the things I didn’t see coming.
Growing up with an Indonesian mother, I’ve been to her hometown and the capital, Jakarta, a few times. I’m unfortunately not a stranger to poverty, so going to people’s houses in slums was frustrating, not confronting. No, the problem was in the problem- I was struck by how little I felt I could do about the problems I was facing. Kids getting sick by perfectly preventable and curable things like leaving sores on their legs uncovered and a lack of education about nutrition leading to people buying food that is cheap rather than useful. I was angry that I felt helpless.
During debrief one night, we were asked by what had confronted us and what we could do about it. My answer was that, even if I dedicated my life to medicine and tried to heal as many people as I could, I wouldn’t get to all of them. I wouldn’t get to enough. When I talked to people, whether for hours or minutes, I was aware that I could be speaking to a hard heart, with words going in one ear and out the other. When I slaved for hours in the sun painting what was to be a food hall for a women’s refuge, a voice in my head asked if anyone would even notice- we were mocked by the builders straight away for being women when they wanted us to move the building garbage outside first. I looked into the eyes of a little girl on the bus with a scab covering half of her face and I wondered how she would get it and how long it would last, my little first aid kit pointless. I was confronted by my own weakness, a drop in the ocean.
Then there was the reaction of the people around me.
I was scared I would judge the Fijians, and I found myself instead judging my own friends. There’s this part in “Tomorrow When The War Began”, a great series of novels by John Marsden, where the main character, Ellie, thinks about an ice block she threw away. She describes how it’s burning hot and all she can think about is this ice block she threw away before leaving home because it had too many little icicles on it and what she would do to have it back. However, she reflects, given enough time back at home, she would probably throw it away again. We had just emerged from the slums and all around me was chatter about how the cordial was probably diseased and complaints that we had tuna curry for lunch. Some people outright threw it away. That was scary, the feeling of anger bubbling up inside of me and trying to hold my tongue in case something regrettable was said. I was rapidly remembering every time I hadn’t finished a meal, hadn’t put in offering at church, had gotten distracted during a video or presentation by missionaries trying to help these people because now I was one. I was feeling these emotions, raw and hard, and the scary thing is, the people around me were probably so frustrating because they were reflecting who I had been.
I’m not sure if confronted is the right word, but I was surprised by the easy attitude. Three quick examples are religion, time and use of things.
In Australia, it is perfectly okay to be an atheist. However, if you were to be some religion or of no religion, you are usually ready to defend your beliefs because into any conversation could slip a dangerous “why?” The amount of times people have questioned my religious beliefs at home, not out of curiosity but so they could tell me I’m wrong, means I’ve developed a nice little speech to use as a shield. In Fiji, there is no such thing. While it was easy to ask people what religion they were [pretty much the only answers being Christian or Hindu], and to enter into light-hearted conversations about God, there was no sense of having to be wary. It was hard to actually challenge people on their beliefs because I didn’t want to break this sense of assumed okayness- when people gave theologically wrong sermons, when Hindus told me Jesus was “one of their gods” and when people listened to my beliefs, it was all done with a smile and a nod. Almost bred to be trying to prove myself right, I found it both relaxing and frustrating to talk to people who were just happy to accept anything. I think this is a reason behind a lot of “nominalism” or being whatever religion because your parents were- it’s just easy. Cool beans, sure I’m a Christian.
Time! FIJI TIME!!! I love organising, plans, and being on time. But, when we woke up at five a.m. on our first Sunday in Naimalavau to be ready for a church service and there were only people from Year 13 there for the first 45 minutes, it was clear planning wasn’t going to be a priority for us. It was frustrating when people were late or just didn’t show up. On one hand, it’s a privilege and a great opportunity to be asked to put together a youth service with five minutes notice because there just happen to be a bunch of teens in the community hall. On the other hand, it’s remarkably stressful. However, I was truly challenged by this ease of attitude around time when one day, a rugby match which we had been excited for all week and prepared signs for with the kids was cancelled. We were literally walking to it, when Ma [homestay mum] noticed some people walking back and, in a casual tone, asked “is it on?”
“No,” they replied.
“Okay,” she said.
And we turned around and went home. She didn’t shrug, she didn’t appear mad or disappointed and I realised just how much it is a part of Australian culture to get righteously angry over things. If a rugby match was cancelled like that in Sydney [because some kids were playing cricket on the field and the school had forgotten the match was on], there would be a riot, letters written, angry rants on Facebook. But the Fijians were perfectly fine with it. After all, what could they do? It would probably be rescheduled and they’d post photos on Facebook of the kids with our signs. Then we decided to go to town to get the ingredients for Ma to teach us to make roti. Okie doke. Why spend the energy?
The use of things, though, and the ease of those attitudes stung. In Australia we are constantly being bombarded through advertising on television, bill boards and packaging to change. This is bad for the environment, they’ll be bad leaders of the country, your dog food isn’t good enough. And we’re taught to think critically and we’re convinced by reasoning. In Fiji, you just do things the way you do them. On one level this looks like burning your rubbish in a fire [including plastic], and using a machete to cut the grass. You have a problem, and a solution. On the other hand, this looks like feeding the chickens because you’re going to eat them and their eggs but neglecting the dogs because they don’t need to be fat to protect the house. We were followed around by a young dog we affectionately named Alfred, who enjoyed our company because we did the odd thing of patting him. However, one day he followed us to the house in which we had our meetings and a lady walked out with a wooden plank and beat him as a group of teenagers listened horrified. Things are used for what they are needed for. Dogs protect the house. Fire destroys the rubbish. Machetes cut things. And I know I’m not completely off in my understanding of this mentality due to the advertising in Fiji. Apart from the fact that there’s barely any, the government is clearly trying hard to change things because there is no polite reasoning- it’s blunt.
Seatbelts: “the belt your child actually needs.”
Speeding: “breadwinner dead to speeding.”
Pepsi: “Stop staring, start drinking.”
McDonalds: “Big Night? Big Mac.”
Australians, I feel, would be positively offended at being communicated to like that.
So, there were a lot of things that confronted me in Fiji. A lot of things I wanted to hide from, or attack or at least feel like I was making a dent on. However, when I wanted to shut off I realised that it would be cutting off a lot of change- I was here for a purpose, and that was to be used by God. I had no idea what to do in a lot of those situations, but I did realise I could do something in some situation. One story emerged of a woman who was heavily pregnant- it cost $20 Fijian to give birth in a hospital and we spent that on an average Macca’s run. When some people from Year 13 gave her that money, she broke down. I’ve been challenged by how I spend my money and time, and I am set on changing and challenging those around me. I reckon, in a way, I caught a glimpse of what God feels every day- an overwhelming compassion to love and fix. While he has the power to do what he wants, our pastor Luther who gave a lot of talks on mission while we were over there, reminded us he is always with us and giving us that power as well. As helpless as we feel the reality is that we can and have the heart to fix things. In Fiji, it was generously giving and accepting the white teenagers. In Australia, it might be putting in more effort at Sunday School, upping my offering, supporting more organisations with my money or even one day dedicating my life to mission now that I’ve seen what it does and how it feels. No, things won’t be perfect until heaven and we live in a broken world. However, until then, I can only do what I can do, and, with His help, trust that it’s enough.
“18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”