As the bus traverses the Col des rousettes – a pass through New Caledonia’s central mountain chain – the guitars come out. Heading towards the east coast town of Waa wi Lûû (Houaïlou), the bus resonates to Kanak hymns, ‘Isa Lei Lia’ and ‘Three Little Birds.’
Music, song and poetry unite youth delegates from around the Pacific as they travel to a preparatory meeting in Waa wi Lûû, before the 12th General Assembly of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC).
Young people from the PCC Regional Ecumenical Youth Council are joining church elders at this week’s Assembly. The meeting of the ecumenical organisation, held every five years, is hosted by the Église Protestante de Kanaky Nouvelle-Calédonie (EPKNC), the major Protestant denomination in New Caledonia.
Arriving in Noumea on a charter flight, it’s an early start the next morning for the PCC membership. While church elders fly to the island of Lifou and women hold a pre-Assembly session in Canala, the youth delegates cross the mountains to the east coast of New Caledonia’s main island, Grande Terre. They travel for hours by bus from the capital Noumea to the Lycée Agricole de Dö-Névâ, near Waa Wi Lûû.
The youth delegation is welcomed by local Kanak elders, Waa wi Lûû mayor Pascal Sawa and Thomas Carlen, director of Dö-Névâ. The vocational and agricultural college, established by the Protestant church, commemorated its 40th anniversary in September.
As the international delegations present a customary offering to local Kanak authorities, there are welcoming speeches in English, French and the regional language Ajië-Arö. Then the flags of Oceania are raised to symbolise the coming together of the region.
This week’s PCC Assembly includes delegates from 12 National Councils of Churches and 35 churches. Young people are represented from host nation Kanaky-New Caledonia, as well as Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Mā’ohi Nui / French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Cook Islands, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia.
Sitting under mango trees and flamboyants at Dö-Névâ, the youth delegates discuss self-determination, faith and leadership, and the decolonisation of the church. Over the weekend, they prepare cultural performances and resolutions to take to the full PCC General Assembly in Noumea.
PNG’s Shane Ailu is completing his term as Youth Representative on the PCC Executive Committee which began after the 2018 PCC Assembly. Ailu, representing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea, said: “We have journeyed across the oceans, the rivers, the skies to be here, but you have responded to the call.”
For many young people, it’s their first time at a PCC Assembly, but they’re eager to build bridges across language and distance. Despite diverse roots, they share common concerns around the importance of land, culture, spirituality and the environment.
Olivia Baro is Ecumenical Youth Enabler at the PCC Secretariat in Suva. Since 2021, she has co-ordinated the PCC Regional Ecumenical Youth Council (REYC).
“It’s a structure created to better link young people of faith across the region,’ she said. “We had a slow start during the COVID pandemic, so it’s wonderful to come together this week to share our vision and work together. It’s a journey of learning, a journey of leadership and an opportunity for mentoring.”
In the lead up to this week’s Assembly, there was a series of regional webinars for young people, to investigate issues like deep sea mining, climate change, nuclear testing and other environmental threats to Pacific communities.
The rights of colonised peoples are also a shared concern, recognising the challenge facing the Kanak people, Mā’ohi, CHamoru, Bougainvilleans, West Papuans and indigenous peoples in Pacific Rim nations.
Kanaky New Caledonia’s REYC co-ordinator Viro Xulue says this meeting is a great opportunity for people in the French Pacific dependency to meet their counterparts from independent island states: “As Kanak, we’re proud to share our history and struggles with other Pacific peoples.”
The Kanak delegation outlined key dates in their quest for independence, and described the problems facing many young people (substance abuse, lack of employment for qualified graduates, social media distraction and a lack of confidence). They flagged, however, a vision for Kanaky 2050, built around international relations, culture, training, environment, health and religion.
At Dö-Névâ, a thematic presentation on self-determination by Murray Isimeli highlighted the need to look at all aspects of decolonisation.
“The political aspect of self-determination is definitely important,” he said. “But over the years at PCC, we’ve seen that our struggles had to look beyond the political to include the social part, the economic part, the spiritual part and the decolonisation of the church. It all becomes part of self-determination.”
The spirit of Do Kamo
Another central theme of the youth meeting is Do Kamo – described as “a force of resilience for social balance and ecological protection.”
For Pastor Emile Iwane of Kanaky-New Caledonia: “Do Kamo is defined through its roots in the language of the Ajië-Arö customary region, with ‘Do’ meaning ‘sacred’ and ‘Kamo’ meaning ‘the authentic, living person.’ It talks of transformation through reciprocity and mutual respect.”
After shocking cases of rape and sexual violence against women and children in the churches, the PCC initiated a program on child protection after its last Assembly in 2018. Since then, a pilot program has rolled out in Fiji, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands, and campaigners will seek endorsement at this General Assembly for further child protection initiatives around the region. For Liku Saratibau: “As Christians, we have a moral obligation to protect each other, and especially our children.”
As the youth delegates met in small groups to share reflections, the climate emergency overshadowed many discussions. As one delegate lamented: “Climate is eating our land, our cultures, our future.”
Bedi Racule of the Marshall Islands is the PCC Ecumenical Enabler for Climate Justice. Coming from a nation where the United States conducted 67 atmospheric nuclear tests, she is also a leading voice for nuclear justice across the region.
“Young people in the Pacific have banded together before in the past to protect our ocean and our people,” Racule said. “If we join together and take action today, we can continue to be protectors and defenders of our island homes.”
Returning to the capital for Sunday’s official opening of the PCC General Assembly at the University of New Caledonia (UNC), the next generation are in full flight. They want a greater role in decision making in their churches, and for elders to take up their priorities and concerns. They carry the spirit of Do Kamo, taking individual responsibility for collective self-determination.