The first rays of sunrise are tinting the rising jungle mists with gold. I’ve joined a group of 14 college students as they trot along a muddy track. We pass elephant ears of wild taro, brush under the delicate aerial roots of a fig tree and navigate through a forest of tall, pale trunks. After about 20 minutes we sight the first huts of a village—kunai grass thatching and rusty sheets of tin; hard-packed earth underfoot. A family sits on logs and upturned tins near a contentedly snuffling black and white pig and a small smoky fire—an old man, some women and assorted children. They’re not surprised to see us as they gravely shake hands—the visitors have come to conduct the regular branch Sabbath School, one of four such outreach programs in villages within walking distance of Sonoma Adventist College in East New Britain.
“It’s the culture of Sonoma,” explains Jerry Ibia, a final year business student who leads the group. New students are mentored by their senior peers as they participate in various church and mission activities and take on more responsible roles. By the time they reach their final year, they’re in leadership positions and are actively passing their knowledge on to their successors.
This is an historic year for Sonoma College—we have almost 500 students this year and we’re seeing 100 per cent worship attendance.
This emphasis on active engagement and student empowerment is no accident, I discover. I sit in Pastor Julius Divu’s cluttered chaplain’s office while he recalls his concern at the dropping chapel attendance in 2011.
“One of the major factors was that we had very few youth completing Master Guide level in Pathfinders,” he says. “Because of that they didn’t feel confident in taking leadership roles.” Pastor Divu recounts how he put together a strategic plan and began rejuvenating the Master Guide program and laying out a structure of student groups.
In a land of tribal tension, Pastor Divu has taken the risk of establishing some of the groups along ethnic lines, representing PNG’s different provinces. But both he and the students I spoke to deny that this has caused any difficulty; rather, they say it promotes identity and confidence.
Pastor Divu also ensures that students with particular needs are nurtured. An enrolling student who confesses they’ve been struggling with alcohol or drug addictions is placed in a support group. Similarly, the 30 per cent of students who come from non-Adventist backgrounds participate in a special Sabbath School class. “We come from a position of respect—to learn more about the students’ spiritual backgrounds,” Pastor Divu says. “But we also ask students to compare their church’s teachings with clear Bible teaching. So far this year, we haven’t got to discussing Adventist teaching yet, but 10 students have already been baptised as Adventists.
“We give opportunity for young people to become elders, deacons and deaconesses,” says Pastor Divu, becoming more animated. “Last year we increased the numbers of people in these roles. First and second years as deacons; final year students as elders.”
During my Sabbath at Sonoma I witnessed Pastor Divu’s plan in action. The students were clearly and confidently in charge of the Friday night vespers program, Sabbath School, the church service and the afternoon AY program. Sometimes staff members were involved in preaching and teaching. There was an emphasis on broad participation, with numerous students speaking from the platform and performing music.
I ask Pastor Divu if he’s had any criticism for his change of direction; a fairly radical move for Melanesia’s hierarchical culture. “The principal, Dr Samson Kuku, has a pastor’s heart,” he says. “He has supported me all the way. The one per cent of people who originally questioned these changes are no longer critical—they’ve seen the results.
“We’ve seen an increase in the spirituality of staff and students. This is an historic year for Sonoma College—we have almost 500 students this year and we’re seeing 100 per cent worship attendance.”