by Stuart Pike
St. Luke’s, Burlington
Friday, 6 March 2009
It’s about weaving tonight: different kinds of weaving: weaving together cotton threads, weaving together reeds, weaving together string, and weaving together stories.
I have never been to Papua New Guinea, though I have spent a month on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines which, as the crow flies, is only about 1200 miles away, which is less than the distance it is from this, my third parish, to my first parish in Gaspé, Quebec.
There are many similar characteristics between Mindanao and Papua New Guinea. They are island nations. They have a plethora of tribal groups and many different languages. They are both very close to the equator and are therefore, mostly very hot and humid. They have many people who live in remote villages.
I’m going to tell you some stories tonight which are about weaving and they are also a weaving together of my own factual story and some facts which I have learned about Papua New Guinea. So, while some of my story tonight is not factual in the sense that I witnessed it, I think that we can say they are true stories in the sense that they contain truth.
A woman sits on the uneven floor of her hut. She is barefoot and she is poor, but she is industrious. She works many hours each day with her backstrap loom which, like the floor, is made with pieces of bamboo.
Working the loom means that you have no support for your back because you open and close the loom by moving your back forward and back again. She works with thin, bright cotton threads. Today she is working on holy things: making two stoles at once – a red one and a green one. When they are done they will be worn by priests to symbolize their ordination. When they wear the stole which she makes, they will be doing holy things: bringing people together around a holy meal of bread and wine, just as Jesus did.
Her work is hard, but she is used to it. Her children play in the dust outside her hut, the oldest ones looking after the youngest. Her husband is nowhere near, but is looking for work in the city. She does not know how he is doing. With the work of her hands, she supports her family, and her work supports holy things.
Another woman, much like her, sits on a low stool in the shade outside of her hut. She too is weaving. She is using the dried reeds which were collected just at the right season in a marshy area many miles away. She and her children collected them together. She loves collecting these reeds with her children, because it is something which they can all do together. Since her husband was killed in tribal fighting six months ago, she knows that working together as a family is the only way that they can keep together.
Each reed is just the perfect width for her work. Some of the reeds have been died a brilliant red colour. She works quietly and expertly to produce a beautiful woven bag called a Bilum, which will be strong and will carry many things. Everyone uses these bags. The men use the long handled one to carry over their shoulder. The women and children use the shorter handled ones which they wear slung over their foreheads with the load behind their backs.
Tomorrow the whole village will be carrying their bilums full of food for a feast. It will be a great celebration – a holy feast because tomorrow, their own church, the first in their isolated village, will be consecrated by their bishop. Although they built the Church two years ago, the Bishop has been unable to get there for all this time because of the remoteness of their village.
The woman looks up from her weaving to see her seven year old daughter carrying her infant sister in a bilum slung over her forhead. This infant, who was born after her husband’s death gives her hope for the future. And she smiles: the work of her children and herself made this simple container which will carry food for a holy feast and now carries the holiness of life itself. Yes, her work is holy work.
We leave the security of the old dirt highway and are met by young men from the village with poor skinny ponies each with a grain sack tied to their back to use as a saddle. It is as hard as a rock and with no stirrups to support my weight, I wonder how long a trip it will be. It will be long.
We travel uphill all the way through the jungle for hours. These ponies are the only way that vegetables from their village make their way to be traded at the highway for kerosene and other goods. The young man whose pony I ride walks in front on the muddy path only a foot wide. He is barefoot, but the soles of his feet are tough like shoe leather. There’s no conversation because of the narrowness of the path: I would have to shout to the bishop ahead of me to be heard, and the young men on foot cannot speak English.
After hours, I think I’m hallucinating when I momentarily see the face of a young boy in the foliage ahead of me, but the image disappears more quickly than it appeared in the first place. But I am not wrong – he must have been sent to be a spotter and raced on ahead of us to tell the village that we are finally arriving.
We turn a few more corners and we are met with the sound of many small gongs to welcome us into the village. The village chief is there to meet us but I need to be helped down from my trusty pony and held up while the feeling returns to my legs and the young men laugh at me.
It is late and the dusk is approaching so we are given a quick meal and then retire to sleep on straw mats for the night.
The next day I see the village more clearly. The earth floor of my hut is the same earth which brings forth all the food which gives life to the village, and it is the same earth which forms the mud floor of their beautiful Church which we will bless today.
It is my task to preach at the service. I put robes on and place the holy stole around my neck and the Bishop and I walk into a Church filled with singing.