by Amber Leberman, first published in The Lutheran (2 /2009)

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman inspires Lutherans to challenge their cultures

Zau Rapa calls them “dynamite women.”

Rapa, acting head bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea, was referring to the 1,500 women who gathered Sept. 13-19, 2008, at the Baitabag Lutheran girls’ school outside the northern village of Madang.

Rapa saw God’s power as “dynamite” within them, which they took back to their villages after six days of worship, Bible study, singing and drama under the theme “Jesus Liberates Women in Papua New Guinea from Male-dominated Cultures.”

Bonnie Arua and other women from the
Bonnie Arua and other women from the Papua District lead those attending a September conference of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea in song and dance at the closing night’s worship service.

Yes, that’s “cultures.” Plural. A Papua New Guinea folk saying puts it this way: “For each village, a different culture.” In a country the size of California, more than 850 languages are spoken.

Many of its coastal and island villages are only accessible by boat, and many highlands villages only reachable by plane. Such a diversity of cultures has bred a long history of intertribal conflict and violence.

Some of the women traveled three days by cargo ship to join their Lutheran sisters. They ran out of food when the journey took longer than expected. Others traveled days by truck on overland roads full of potholes. They represented 16 church districts and hundreds of traditional cultural practices. They united as Lutherans to confront a common challenge: the status of women in Papua New Guinea.

Rapa believes they’ll be the dynamite to ignite change in their villages—their cultures—of which the U.S. State Department says “women generally are considered and treated as inferiors” and “gender violence is endemic.”

The justification for violence against women begins with the bride-price, said Rose Pisae, secretary of the Papua District women’s organization.

Across Papua New Guinea, a new bride’s family is compensated for the loss of her agricultural and household labor. Pisae said a bride-price in her district (which includes the capital, Port Moresby) can bring the woman’s family as much as $20,000.

After paying so much in a country where the average per capita income is $900, Pisae said the husband’s family feels like they own the bride and can place demands on her, such as how many children she should bear.

Ibarias Yabon of the Madang District
Ibarias Yabon of the Madang District consults her Bible for further insight into the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea spent two hours each day of its convention studying John 4:4-42 for parallels to their own lives.

Pisae has two daughters—16 and 5. She also has a 12-year-old son. She admits she’s strict with her daughters, expecting them to cook, clean and mind the house.

“Now that I’ve come here,” she said, “I’m thinking that I should have my son do a little work too.

“I tell my two girls: ‘I will not accept the bride-price and I’ll make sure your husbands are good to you.’ I think a lot of women are beginning to understand, to say ‘no’ to the bride-price and to report any violence to the police or the community counselor.”

On Friday, March 6, women worldwide will unite in prayer for Papua New Guinea as part of World Day of Prayer. Women of the ELCA is a denominational representative on the World Day of Prayer USA committee.

Other dynamite women include Jane Henry, director of a Lutheran vocational center in Mount Hagen that trains women in music, theology, church administration, agriculture, nutrition, counseling and computing. Part of the training includes a six-week practicum in which the women share the skills they’ve learned with other women.

“I think the ladies who are here will go back and teach other ladies to speak out,” Henry said. “We can pray to God that it will happen in God’s way.”

Michael Wan Rupulga, a recipient of
Michael Wan Rupulga, a recipient of an ELCA international scholarship and lecturer at Martin Luther Seminary in Lae, Papua New Guinea, led a two-hour daily Bible study based on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42).

Another is Seba Benag, a midwife in Biliau who is training men to be present at childbirth and participate in early child care, despite taboos to the contrary.

Such taboos are something familiar to Bible study leader Michael Wan Rupulga. “I struggled along with my mother my whole life,” he said. “I know how it feels.”

The son of the second wife of a village “big man,” Rupulga refused to follow traditional highlands practices regarding the separation of sons from mothers at age 6, when boys become susceptible to the perceived uncleanliness of their mothers.

He was mocked by other men in his village for refusing to avoid contact with menstruating women. They would ask him: “Do you have your period too?”

He’s gone against his culture, he said, but asks: “What’s more important? God’s word or the culture? If there is a barrier, God’s word will break it down. It is like dynamite.”

Rupulga’s mother died in 1997, but she was the inspiration for him to do his master’s thesis at Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji, on Jesus’ reaction to the Samaritan woman. Rupulga received an ELCA Global Mission international scholarship to pursue his degree.

“If there’s anything in a culture that suppresses women, that hurts women, that makes women suffer their whole lives, it doesn’t come from God,” Rupulga said. “It comes from the devil.”

At the end of the week, Rapa told the women he was proud of them. “Go home and talk to your husbands about what you deserve and expect in your relationships,” he said.

Will their husbands be receptive?

“If their husbands are involved in church activities, it will be easy to relate what they’ve learned about here,” Pisae said.