Sunday, November 28, 2010

Declaration from Solomon Islands Social Justice Conference


Tabalia, West Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, November 21-28, 2010

Beloved in Christ:

From November 21 through 28, 2010, we, 152 members of the four religious communities of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, have met together at Tabalia, West Guadalcanal, the headquarters of the Melanesian Brotherhood, for prayer, biblical reflection, discussion and planning on issues of social justice, human rights and advocacy in Solomon Islands and beyond.

We are members of the Community of the Sisters of Melanesia, the Society of St. Francis, the Community of the Sisters of the Church and the Melanesian Brotherhood. It is the first time in the history of the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACOM) that the four religious communities have met together for such an event. We rejoice in the new friendship and cooperation that has emerged among us, breaking down old barriers and misunderstandings. We are also happy to be joined by some of our community members from Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

We thank the initiator and a facilitator of the event, Br. Clark Berge, SSF, Minister General of the Society of St. Francis; four facilitators provided by Franciscans International, Mateusz Tuniewicz, Sr. Odile Coirier, FMM, Morse Flores and Sanjay V. Gathia; and local facilitators Lanieta Leo and Bishop Terry Brown. We thank the 27 facilitators from the four religious communities trained the week before by the same facilitators. We also thank the Society of St. Francis Legacy Fund for financial support for the event.

In the context of the daily Eucharist and offices, we have reflected upon the biblical and theological roots of social justice and human rights; gained an understanding of the variety of United Nations human rights declarations, covenants and conventions; gained skills in advocacy; examined our local social, cultural, economic and political contexts; and tried to discern our future work in promoting justice and human rights in Solomon Islands and beyond. Particular themes for discussion were women, gender and children; respect for the environment; and good governance, transparency and rule of law. These themes were chosen in light of the country's high rate of family violence, ever increasing environmental degradation and widespread corruption.

We affirm the world as God's good creation in Christ, restored by Jesus Christ's death and resurrection (Genesis 1:1-25, Colossians 1:15-20). We affirm the equality of women and men as created in God's image and companions for one another (Genesis 1:18, 26-27). We affirm God's covenant with Noah, blessing and protecting the environment (Genesis 9:1-17). We affirm righteousness and justice as put forward in the Jewish Law and prophets. We affirm Jesus' loving solidarity with the poor and suffering, leading to his death on the Cross. We affirm the Cross as offering forgiveness for our sinful ways, and life in Christ as a new way forward (Ephesians 2:1-10, 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21). We affirm our faith in the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who leads us to advocacy for truth and justice (John 15: 26-27, 16:13). We affirm that the whole Church, the Body of Christ, is called to advocacy for justice and righteousness both within itself and in the world at large.

In light of these affirmations and our work together this week, we discern the following:

1. Family violence, particularly violence against women and children, remains a widespread practice in Solomon Islands. We reject any cultural defence of this practice. We believe that the root causes of family violence (cultural beliefs, poverty, forced and/or very early marriages, lack of Christian teaching about marriage, poor communication in marriage, misuse of alcohol, etc.) must be addressed. We, both women's and men's communities, pledge to continue to support the work of the Christian Care Centre as a shelter for women and children who are victims of abuse and as an educational centre on this issue. Within each of our communities we also promise to address this issue, for example, with direct intervention in situations of family violence, inclusion of teaching against family violence in mission programmes that go out to the dioceses and the development of training programmes on family counselling within our novitiates.

2. We note widespread complaints about how the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) deal with alleged situations of family violence, often ignoring them as "domestic disputes" and refusing to intervene. Some police even side with the perpetrator, especially if he is a relative or friend, blaming the victim. We urge better training of the police on this issue and more frequent deployment of women police officers. We are willing to assist in this training. We urge that the rule of law be observed rather than ignored in these cases. Where police refuse to act, they should be reported to higher authorities.

3. We are concerned that there is widespread abuse of the human rights of children, especially girls, in Solomon Islands. Despite the government's programme of free and universal primary education, many girls are not allowed to go to school but are kept home to work. Adopted children are especially vulnerable. Many children and young persons are subject to sexual and physical abuse in the home, usually by close relatives. The country's shortage of secondary schools and tertiary education further disadvantages children wishing to pursue education at higher levels. We promise to encourage parents to send their girls to school. We also promise not to let our households become refuges for children who should be in school.

4. We are deeply troubled by parents who allow their under-aged daughters and young daughters to become "wives" of foreign logging crews (usually from Asia) for payment of goods and/or money. These relationships are often forced, not permanent and are really a form of child prostitution and slavery. Children born out of such relationships are very vulnerable. Especially where our community houses are near such logging camps, we pledge to counsel the parents and children concerned and place pressure upon logging camp managers to halt this illegal practice, publicly exposing it where necessary. We urge dioceses, parish committees and clergy to do the same and not to accept gifts from the logging companies concerned. We support the recommendations of the Christian Care Centre's 2007 report, "Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in a Remote Region of the Solomon Islands". The same practice is also emerging in the fishing and mining industries. We also note with concern increasing urban prostitution employing local young women and the trafficking of women brought from Asia. We are also concerned about allegations that girls are earning their school fees through sex. We pledge to work against these practices and to minister to those involved. We urge the police to act in all situations where the law is being broken, particularly in remote rural areas.

5. While women are well represented in the civil service, including at the level of Permanent Secretary, only one woman has been elected to Parliament since Solomon Islands independence in 1978. We strongly believe we should have women Members of Parliament in Solomon Islands. Reasons for the absence of women in Parliament are largely cultural and economic, resulting in well-qualified women (of whom there are many) unable to get elected. We believe serious consideration should be given to 30 percent reserved seats for women in Parliament. We are pleased to see this development taking place in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea. We also pledge to encourage well-qualified women to run in national and provincial elections and, while not endorsing specific candidates, urge voters to give serious consideration to voting for women candidates. Men do not have the right to control women's votes. Each woman has the right to vote for the candidate of her choice.

6. We are pleased that Solomon Islands Government has become a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). However, we are concerned that Solomon Islands government has not met its international obligations in both implementing and reporting back to the United Nations on the two conventions. We urge Solomon Islands government to make the required reports to the United Nations on CEDAW and CRC immediately. We also urge Solomon Islands government to be transparent in developing public awareness programmes to show the steps it has taken to implement these two conventions.

7. We are deeply concerned at the widespread degradation of the environment in Solomon Islands, particularly through unsustainable logging and fishing, often by foreign companies in collusion with local politicians. Despite years of warnings, the Solomon Islands government has refused to reduce the level of these activities. We urge Solomon Islands government to reduce logging and fishing to sustainable levels. We urge a complete ban on logging in Guadalcanal, Isabel, Makira and Malaita and other islands, where we have especially experienced its negative effects (land degradation, flooding, destruction of water supplies, rivers and reefs, land disputes and prostitution). As members of religious communities, we shall discourage local communities from entering into contracts with logging companies.

8. We are concerned about the environmental and social impact of gold mining about to begin again on Guadalcanal, proposed nickel mining on Isabel and other mining projects planned around the country. Some of us have witnessed major environmental destruction caused by the current nickel prospecting on Isabel and urge that prospecting not take place without an environmental impact study. Aware of the disastrous environmental and social effects of mining in Papua New Guinea, we urge Solomon Islands government to move cautiously in this area and maintain maximum transparency with all parties about proposed projects. As members of religious communities, we shall urge local landowners to proceed with the greatest caution.

9. We are also aware that there are local environmental practices that need to be challenged and resisted: over-harvesting of marine and land resources, dynamiting of reefs for fish, destruction of endangered species and their habitats, careless use of land and sea for disposal of rubbish, destruction of mangroves, fruit and nut trees; and lack of rubbish collection in urban areas. We confess that we have sometimes failed as religious communities in these areas and pledge to try to make our households good examples of respect for the environment. We also pledge to assist village people to address these issues through change of practice and advocacy. We are also aware that for some islands rising sea levels and over-population are major environmental issues. We have met as island and national groups and prepared appropriate action plans. We shall be implementing these.

10. We have discussed issues of good governance within our own religious communities. We recognize we have sometimes failed and pledge the greatest possible good governance, transparency and faithfulness to our Rules in the future. The governance of large religious communities is not easy and further training is needed, for example, in looking after money and assets.

11. We have discussed the corruption and violence that frequently accompany national and provincial elections in Solomon Islands. We believe we can exercise leadership in areas of developing accurate voters' lists, encouraging well qualified women candidates, discouraging bribery, monitoring elections for fraud and preventing violence at polling stations. We also recognize the urgent need for reform of the nation's electoral laws by Parliament.

12. We intend to take the concerns expressed in this Declaration back to our four religious communities and the Anglican Church of Melanesia for consideration and endorsement. We also wish to continue to meet together as religious communities on issues of social justice and human rights. We recommend that the ACOM Religious Life Advisory Council appoint a social justice committee comprised of representatives of our four religious communities. We pledge to work with the ACOM, other churches, the Solomon Islands Government, non-government organizations and all other organizations working on social justice issues. We also ask for the solidarity of church partners overseas, especially in countries from which our exploiters come.

For us, this has been an exciting week, full of new learning and new friendships. Sent out on Advent Sunday, we make a new beginning, incorporating and moving beyond the peace and reconciliation work we have done in the past and will continue to do. We shall continue to "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light ... the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 13:12-14, Collect for Advent Sunday) and actively seek justice for all.

Agreed to by the consensus of all the participants and signed on their behalf by:

Sister Mary Lulo, CSM
Head Sister, Community of the Sisters of Melanesia

Sister Phyllis Margaret Sau, CSC
Sister Provincial, Solomon Islands Province, Community of the Sisters of the Church

Brother Clifton Henry, SSF
Representing the Province of the Solomon Islands, Society of St. Francis

Brother Leonard Yanga, MBH
Regional Head Brother, Solomon Islands Region, Melanesian Brotherhood.

Advent Sunday, 2010
Tabalia, West Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Back in the Solomon Islands

I have come full circle, back to the Solomon Islands. It is good to be sitting in the brother’s semi-air conditioned office again. I can hear the sounds of people laughing and talking outside. The friary is surrounded by people all day long; the sounds of laughter and conversation wake me up in the morning and are the last things I hear at night.

The brothers try to limit the crowds, and there are signs posted that say: “We discourage you from sitting around…” but it is hopeless. The brothers are all sitting around with at least two dozen visitors as I write. Everyone is busily chewing betel nut, telling stories. It is a kind of never ending reunion. I have learned that it is not wasting time. These meetings are the way social life (and a lot of business) happens, and a tremendous amount of information is processed. Of course some of it is not true. It is, in the memorable words of Dr. Shriver penned at the bottom of one of my seminary exams: “a jumble of things true, untrue, half true and almost true.” To get at the truth of a situation you need to talk to lots of people over a long period of time. But I think the most important thing for them is the connection that the never ending threads of conversation provide. It is a powerful web.

I am getting more and more Melanesian. My life is all about talking with people, and trying to keep up the conversation by email and phone calls. When I don’t hear from somebody for a long time, I suddenly have an urgent desire to re-connect.

The past few months have been full of travel, and I have seen some of the most beautiful sites: animals, the stars at night, mountains and rivers, incredible flowers in the strangest shapes and colors. Travel can be tiring, yet I feel very encouraged and inspired as well. Thomas Berry in “The Sacred Universe” writes: “To lessen the grandeur of the outer world is to limit the fulfillment available to our inner world. For the stars in the night sky over our cities to be blocked from view by particle and light pollution is not simply the loss of a passing visual experience. It is a loss of soul. This is especially a loss for children, for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests and woodland creatures of Earth that some of their most profound inner experiences originate. To devastate any aspect of the natural world is to distort the sublime experiences that provide fulfillment to the human mode of being.”
Right now everybody wants to know about Africa. I tell them about the little round mud houses with thatched roofs, lions and rhinoceros, swimming in the deep pool at the base of the waterfall in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. I conducted a retreat for about 10 folks, members of the Third Order, some friends, and the Brothers. At night I told them: look at the stars!! We put chairs on the lawn, and gazed in wonder at the night sky of Zimbabwe, reminding ourselves that god is great, the world is a beautiful place and we have been given a precious vocation not to forget these things in the midst of political turmoil. The weather was gorgeous, but of course everybody was praying for rain!

Returning to South Africa, a Third Order member and friend took me to several amazing sites: Freedom Park in Pretoria and Maropeng, the “Cradle of Humanity.” The Freedom Park was very moving as it is a tribute and memorial to all the men and women who worked and gave their lives for freedom in South Africa. Black and white. The whole complex is beautifully crafted out of stone; it is all curving lines and gentle slopes. Looking around the veldt surrounding the enormous exhibits about the birth of humanity it was easy to imagine the first humans and to think about them discovering fire and hunting techniques. It is incredible to think how quickly we humans developed and learned how to live and protect ourselves. I found myself wondering if we are capable of a new consciousness, of discovering a new way to be human on the earth today.

From South Africa I flew to Hong Kong: what a treat! I met with many people: bishops, seminarians, clergy and social workers. I met with women in a safe house and talked with AIDS activists. I was struck by the incredible vitality of Hong Kong and Macau. And it appears the relationship with China is not so scary, the people I spoke to in Hong Kong had a sense of hope and confidence. “Everything is changing, really fast,” I was told when I asked about the relationship with China and what the future might be like. Economic forces are driving the change. But another statistic I learned, the Chinese have printed over 8 million copies of the Bible; or is 80 million? People are discovering the Bible and there is interest. It is still illegal to proselytize, but still people go to and fro, contacts are made, there is much to celebrate, think about and work with as we ponder God’s call to us.

By the time I got to Korea, I was pretty wired: lots of information, lots of conversations and a sense of fullness. I went there to share in the celebrations of the Life professions of two brothers, Lawrence and Stephen. The Profession service was pretty much all in Korean except for a few parts that required the English speaking brothers to know what was going on. So I was able to let my mind roam and think about our vocation as SSF brothers and to marvel at how we are adapting to different cultures, learning new ways of sharing the Gospel life that Francis loved so much. We have definitely been given the challenge of learning to live differently on earth, to recapture the primal connections with Earth and the stars, the animals and plants, to work for healing and wholeness for all creatures, a fundamental commitment to justice.

Much of the rest of my time in Korea was spent trying to get the training books and information pulled together for the social justice training we are holding herein the Solomon Islands. I invited Franciscans International to come and work with the four Anglican religious orders. The four facilitators are either here or on their way! Starting Saturday 30 brothers and sisters will meet at the Melanesian Brotherhood headquarters, Tabalia, to get intensive training on how to develop social justice ministries around three issues that the brothers and sisters identified as most urgent: violence against women and children, government greed and corruption and the environment, especially logging. Logging in Melanesia actually encompasses all three areas of concern. More on that later…