Before I even left Mendi, the trip to Wajane, a village and outstation of Saint Rose of Lima pastoral area of Hulia, the trip was in doubt. Word reached us that Joseph, a young man of the village - a husband and father of six - had been murdered by an 'enemy'.
That tragically sad, yet not uncommon occurrance in Hela, would usually set into motion many responses conditioned by culture and custom, chief among them REVENGE. Someone of the enemy clan must die in order to avenge the blood of Joseph. Strategies would be debated. Weapons would be readied. Women would chant war-songs to incite the warriors to be brave and ruthless as they exacted punishment from their enemies. In other ways, the entire life of the village would be affected: there would be no killing of pigs, no playing of games or sports, no sing-sing, no dressing in traditional attire, no drumming traditional drums, no joy - until Joseph was buried (which could usually take many days)... and for some time afterward as well.
When I heard of the death of this young husband and father, I just assumed that the celebrations planned for Wajane would be postponed or cancelled. I shuddered to imagine what horrendous fratricide would follow in the wake of this tragic killing.
But I was wrong! Something was radically different this time. This was not going to be what always had been. This wasn't going to be the bloodied business as usual. Something other than the customary spiral of violence and death was going to guide the response to this tragedy. Some other rule or law would guide those giving the cues as to the appropriate way to respond to the death of Joseph, husband of Miram and father of six young children.
It would be the teaching of Jesus, not the Law of the Talon that would prevail this day. Against the almost inexorable weight of culture and custom, an old man named Andrew and his aged wife, Elena would stand up an say, "Enough!" Andrew and Elena are the parents of the late Joseph. They had lived their lives guided by the teachings of Jesus and had brought up their children in the same Catholic faith. They each had served, and even in their old age continue to serve, as Church committee and Eucharistic Minister in the small but vibrant outstation of Wajane. They were not going to turn their backs on long lives dedicated to the gospel, even in the face of the senseless and brutal murder of their beloved son.
With an uncontestable moral authority, and with the agreement of the grieving widow and the late Joseph's brothers and uncles, they declared that their son would be respectfully buried without delay, and that the planned celebrations of the Sacrament of Confirmation and the blessing of the Sacred Heart Prayer group would go forward as planned.
And so it came to pass... the sing-sing, the pig-killing, the drumming, the traditional bilas and real joy - contrasted to be sure with the real grief and sorrow of Miriam and her six fatherless children. Miriam was respectfully present at the margins, though completely covered in black. Her children, old enough to know what was happening, seemed lost without their father. Yet, they received a lesson in those days that might, just might, make it so that their children would not need to deal with the pain of widows and fatherless children caused by senseless and murderous violence.
Among these faith-filled people it was as if the joy was even more real and more profound than usual. I could sense something in the assembly of people that appeared to be relief. It was as though some ancient, pent-up flood gates had been flung open.... like some invisible, though back-breaking burden had been removed. There was a sense of freedom, yes freedom!
Some in Hela place their hope in the LNG project or in politics. To date these have proven somewhat ineffectual and in some cases, some might say, even counterproductive to the integral human development of the people.
When the elders recount the history of the great Huli people, they are sure to sing forth the names of Joseph and Miriam as those courageous, enlighteded and faith-filled souls who shone a new light and opened a new horizon for their people to enter into a new future.... a future based on forgiveness, respect for life, justice, community, love and peace.
And in this there is indeed hope for Hela.
(Names have been changed in this article.)