Papua New Guinea: Participating in God's Mission as a LWF Youth Volunteer at ELCPNG

Photo: LWF/M. Renaux
Photo: LWF/M. Renaux

By Carlos Hidalgo

Someone once wrote that "There's nothing stronger than a heart of a volunteer." I don't know who penned this statement but it’s a part of who I’ve turned out to be today. It all started a year ago in July 2013. I was surfing on the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Youth Facebook page and saw an incentive saying, "Be the 2,500th person to 'Like Us' and be rewarded with a Youth Toolkit." All I knew was that the toolkit would be a package containing helpful literature for training young people in my congregation. But I had no clue beyond this as to what its actual contents would be; no idea what ecological, economic and climate justice was, and also no idea that this concept and theological response stems from the Lutheran affirmation of being set free by God's grace. I did not know then that this would require my expertise as a farmers training officer working in the Pacific's largest smallholder oil palm project. Whether it was by coincidence or a call from God, I said, "Here I am."

During the same period, I was nominated by my employer to devise and implement, as recommended by the "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil" (RSPO) certification scheme, two new training handbooks for farmers on "Financial Literacy" and "Environmental Safeguards," which shared the same eco-justice message as the LWF Youth Toolkit. What I thought would just be reading material to simply pass the time enjoying and sharing with others, turned out to be a part of me practically − my career as well as my Christian duty. As a result, I found a place for myself in the global communion of Lutheran churches by heeding God's call for good stewardship of His creation. But being a volunteer−advocate for the LWF is not that simple in this part of the world when faced with a major challenge.

Papua New Guinea's (PNG) oil palm industry is the country's largest employer in the agriculture sector as well as the number one agricultural export-income earner. However, although the industry has been certified sustainable by the RSPO, the reality of rapid population and economic growth, increasing competition for land and mounting pressures on eco-systems still represents an ongoing challenge in maintaining the balance between the three pillars of sustainability – People (society), Planet (environment) and Prosperity (economy) within the industry. It is essential, therefore, that agricultural extension officers like myself try to improve the capacity of farmers to be resilient to those changes whilst making sure they stick to the required environment−friendly standards.

Due to the increasing number of young people having a greater influence over running their farms, this particular generation are not only more exposed to the negative effects of the cash economy, but are also easily swayed away from church and communion life. This holds true especially among young Lutherans in my community, many of whom lack financial and budgeting skills. Anti−social behavior – a critical situation prevalent in a culturally diverse society like PNG - is rife and tends to undermine good household financial management, leading to conflict and violence. There is also proven evidence of developing food security threats.

At the same time, senior members of my congregation are struggling to find new methods to tackle the threat of a decline in tomorrow's Church. However, there is still hope. Amazingly, receiving the LWF Youth toolkit as a third resource was an added blessing. It not only drew similarities but when integrated into my other two training handbooks concluded with a spiritual message by way of linking both with the Eco−justice agendas − Economical and Ecological Justice. The LWF Youth Toolkit helped in achieving the ultimate aim of enriching and improving awareness in campaigning for sustainability. Since there were a greater number of youth and women participants in last year's program, I see the toolkit as having the potential to attract even more young people. I now see a way and a crucial role that I can play in helping to rescue the future of my church through increased youth participation.

This year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea (ELCPNG) Palm Youth, a group I initiated specifically to partner with government agents and private stakeholders, has taken a new direction in its strategic commitment. This time by seeking to ensure that young people have a place and a voice in all aspects of church and communion life, including decision−making and leadership. How? I have learnt that today's "Generation Y" prefers digital literacy and, especially where I am, every kid wants to be in a video documentary clip. Be it cultural, political or religious- orientated, they love playing around with gadgets and uploading onto online social platforms. Moreover, the use of digital platforms has been proven to enhance farmers’ learning and the adoption of sustainable farming practices in other developing countries.

Likewise in practice, producing and disseminating educational videos of youth participating in sustainable development can be a way of promoting peer−to−peer empowerment in church youth activities. This method, I believe, can provide extra leverage; an avenue for encouraging more youth participation in church and communion life and further, influence better decision-making and leadership. Therefore, my group and I are determined to tap into this area.

Participating in God’s Mission

From what has happened so far and in what is still to come to light, I can only say God works in extraordinary ways (and even online). I am so thankful to the LWF Youth Desk because the Eco−justice training toolkit did more than just providing a wonderful read. It became so much a part of me when put into practice, and not only added tremendous value to my work experience and career, but the experience is also continuously helping to change my own life as well as shaping others that I serve.

My aim for this year is to involve more young people in my church in sharing this experience of being an LWF volunteer and promoting sustainable development in its economic, environmental and social aspects. And I believe that in my context, a great opportunity lies in the use of modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT). If this project rolls out well, it would greatly support the implementation of youth participation in my church today as well as securing a better tomorrow. I thank God for giving me a place and a role in participating in His communion.

Fast for the Climate

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.