Papua New Guinea: Mission Possible

Priest Stanislav Rasputin is an experienced missionary and the rector of the Church of the Holy Royal Martyrs in the Karelian village of Novaya Vilga (Northern Russia near the Finnish border). In November 2023, with the blessing of Metropolitan Sergei (Chashin) of Singapore and South-East Asia, Fr. Stanislav made a missionary trip to Papua New Guinea. What do we know about this country? Some Russians will think of the diaries of the Russian scientist, traveler, naturalist and explorer Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846–1888), who made successful expeditions to New Guinea. This Oceanian island country, occupying the eastern part of New Guinea, is unique by its geographical location, culture and particularly by the number of dialects spoken by its population. It is the twenty-first century now, and naturally since the time of the nineteenth-century pioneers, the life of its inhabitants has changed in many ways. Recently, churches in Papua New Guinea came under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Fr. Stanislav talks about his missionary trip and answered questions about missionary work.


Father Stanislav, you recently made a trip to Papua New Guinea. How did end up there, and what was the purpose of your trip?

Papua New Guinea became part of our Southeast Asia Exarchate just a few years ago. But due to restrictions related to the recent pandemic it was impossible for missionaries to go there. Only one of our priests recently traveled to this country privately. And now the need has appeared for a priest to go there officially in order to understand how to develop the mission in that region and evaluate the missionary field. Metropolitan Sergei (Chashin), the Exarch of Southeast Asia, suggested that I go for this purpose. I immediately agreed because I had already had experience of missionary trips to other Southeast Asian countries: the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. The goal was to evaluate the missionary field.

You celebrated the Liturgy there. How did it take place? Where did you do it? Who sang the service? Did many people receive Communion?

—We celebrated the Liturgy twice. To begin with, there are only a handful of Orthodox there now. An assistant from Indonesia, Reader Sergius, traveled with me. He both helped me and sang. Currently there are only a few baptized people there, five at the most, so there were few communicants. The first time we served in a hotel in the city of Port Moresby, the country’s capital, and the second time, literally in an open field under a canopy. There were local people interested in Orthodoxy there, but only four people took Communion.

The second time we served in a village. We chose a place near a building made of blocks under a polythene canopy. We made a Communion table out of the same blocks, built a table of oblation out of them, covered it all with fabrics and served like that.

What language did your assistant sing in?

—Part of the service has already been translated into one of their national languages—Tok Pisin. So, often repeated pieces such as, “Lord, have mercy”, or “To Thee, O Lord”—that is, the litany responses, were sung together in their local language. Other hymns are in English. The Creed and “Our Father” were read in two languages: their local language and English.


Were many people present at these services?

—No. It was not our goal to gather a lot of people at once. This is the very beginning of the mission. We didn’t even intend to baptize many, because they first need to be a long preparation for this, so that their choice to be baptized would be conscious. In our situation, it is normal to have only a few people in attendance.

Did you hold catechetical talks after the Liturgy?

—Yes, I did. Then we had tea together. We talked, and I answered various questions. For the most part, I didn’t speak with locals during and after the Liturgy, but rather between services when we went to different remote settlements and communicated with rural communities there.

How do villagers live there? How do they differ from Europeans, from Westerners, from what we are used to?

—This is a completely different race. They even differ greatly from Asians in their way of life, traditions, and culture. In Papua New Guinea there are some very primitive tribes that live like in the Stone Age. We did not go to such places, but instead visited more developed areas. They live simply, without water and electricity. They eat what grows nearby and live by hunting and gathering. We went to several places where such people live. These are tribal communities of several hundred members each, and we had big meetings in these communities. During one of them almost 100 people were present, if not more. We discussed with them various topics on Church history and teachings. I told them what makes us different from the Catholics and the Protestants, how we understand the Holy Scriptures, what Church Tradition is, and so on. They asked many questions.


How did they respond to your preaching of Christ?

—Very favorably. Actually, they have already been partially Christianized; that is, according to statistics, there are quite a few Christians there. But their knowledge is rather superficial, so most of them do not have a solid foundation in their faith. Different kinds of “new” Protestant denominations flourish there as well; there are a considerable number of Adventists, Pentecostals, Baptists and others there. Of course, there are also pagans.

When we say that they are Christians, we should take into account that their Christianity is intertwined with a huge number of their local beliefs and traditions of a pagan nature. They have plenty of pagan elements and different superstitions in their culture at the moment, such as tattoos, dances, and songs.

When we arrived in one or another village, we first contacted one of the tribal elders, who acted as our guides, and organized these meetings. Locals are sincerely interested in the Orthodox faith and have the desire to study the faith. When you tell them that Orthodoxy was the very Church that appeared on the day of Pentecost, it really surprises people, because they have never studied Church history at all. They live in isolation. For example, we brought them a Bible, but they don’t know what it is or where it came from. Once they find out, they get interested. There I also chrismated and received into Orthodoxy a local who had been planning to become Orthodox for a long time.

Do you have Baptisms planned for the future?

—We could have baptized 200 people right then, but this is not yet our aim. Suppose we baptize them. What next? The priest has left, and it is still unclear when he will come next. True, there will be missionary work, but it is still unclear in what format. These people are without books, without a priest and everything else. From a spiritual point of view, it is wrong to do this. We must first prepare the ground so that we can leave them with someone—at least lay catechists with some literature, with whom we will be in permanent contact. And only then can we baptize them, so that later they can have spiritual guidance.

They have no Orthodox literature in their local languages at all?

—Orthodox literature is now being translated into Tok Pisin. There is already a translation of a short prayer book. God willing, a catechism and the Liturgy will be translated as well. The main things are being actively prepared, but it’s a long process. Many locals understand English there, especially young people and those who live in cities; because although this country is independent, Australian influence of is still very strong, so English is often used there.


Do you plan to translate prayers and the catechism into some dialects of the country, as is the case in other remote parts of the world with an Orthodox presence?

—Papua New Guinea is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the island with the largest number of languages. There are around 700 of them there! Naturally, there is no point in translating something into their dialects right now, because the dialect of one tribe may be incomprehensible for a neighboring one, and the amount of effort put into it can be very great. It makes sense to translate first into Tok Pisin, and then, if there is a need and there is a good translator from a local tribe, it will make sense to do other translations.

What struck you the most there?

—I can’t say that something really struck me, since it’s not the first time I have traveled abroad. But it was a new experience for me, because this country is absolutely unique and it is very different from the whole of Asia. It is very unusual that this country has one foot in the twenty-first century and the other in the nineteenth, while some remote areas are still in the Stone Age—that is, there is a very large gap. Half of the population live outside the country’s economy and eat what they have grown themselves.

It is quite dangerous there, although I personally did not feel any danger. But locals said that I shouldn’t go anywhere alone. It is a poor country, but that’s not to say that people live in unbearable conditions. I’ve seen how people live in other countries and I have not seen such poverty anywhere as in India—terrible poverty when people live in boxes on the street. True, in Papua New Guinea people live simply and modestly, but they are not dying of hunger.

Do they know anything about Russia?

—Some people do, because they had already been in contact with people from Russia. But the vast majority did not. When we were in one village, there were about forty people sitting there. During our talk I asked them if they had heard anything about Russia. Most of them had no idea what Russia was or where it was located. It seems to us that we are so great, the largest country in the world and everyone knows us, but many people in other countries do not care about us at all. They live quietly on their island, eat mangoes, bask in the sunshine and walk around barefoot.


What is the probability that an Orthodox church will appear there?

—Very high. Work will be done there, and I am certain that Orthodox communities will definitely appear in some places. If there is an Orthodox community, then an Orthodox church will surely appear as well, but when and where we cannot guess now. It’s still very early to speak about that. But I am sure that local inhabitants will be given spiritual guidance. Let’s hope that priests from our Church will continue to visit there.

You have extensive experience in missionary work in different countries. What do you think is the most important thing in a mission, in order to make it successful? After all, there are examples of unsuccessful missions, such as that of Archimandrite Andronicus (Elpidinsky) in India.

—There is no recipe and no exact answer to this question, because it depends on a huge number of circumstances. I will give a few points.

Firstly: Of course, a missionary must act with the blessing of the Church hierarchy, because he is not a “freelance artist” looking for a place on the map to fly to. Any mission is the work of the Church.

Secondly: A missionary should not set himself exaggerated and unrealistic goals. He must do what he can and not chase after any illusions.

Thirdly: A missionary must study the culture, environment, language, and traditions of the people to whom he intends to preach. After all, the holy Apostle Paul said: Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law (1 Cor. 9:20). Otherwise, mission is impossible. What works very well and is accepted in Russia does not work at all and is not accepted in the Philippines or in Papua New Guinea.

We are not talking about doctrinal issues now. We are talking about the external form of transmitting the same information. This must be taken into account. In general, you need to have a certain set of tools, and during the process see what to do and how.


How can a lay person be a missionary in his daily life?

—It is possible in a wide range of situations. Firstly, every lay person has a social environment that is unique to him. He has relatives, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. And at least for them he can be someone through whom people will learn about God, the Church and salvation.

Secondly, a lay person can often redirect other people. Even if he himself does not have a specific answer to some question, if he himself cannot help, he can always advise someone else where to go, to which priest to turn with his request or situation.

Thirdly, a lay person can always help one of the priests in his parish. This is also an important point.

And fourthly, a layman can become a missionary himself. For example, in his spare time at his parish. Everyone is called to this. Every Orthodox Christian is called to fulfill Christ’s commandment about preaching: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations (Matt. 28:19), and preach the Gospel.

Alexandra Kalinovskaya
spoke with Priest Stanislav Rasputin
Translation by Dmitry Lapa

Sretensky Monastery


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