17 June 2024

Ni-Vanuatu workers sing for the love of God

Peni Naros together with his Ni-Vanuatu group and other gospel singers at the Stawell gospel concert. Picture: supplied.

Jenan Taylor

22 June 2023

Peni Naros remembers scanning the vast green and brown land on the day he arrived in Australia.

“We were travelling from Melbourne to Stawell, and I was looking everywhere for a church, where I could perhaps go and attend,” Mr Naros recalls.

A devout Christian, faith has always been important to Mr Naros and many of his fellow Ni-Vanuatu workers who participate in the federal government’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme.

Churches and organisations from a range of denominations including the Uniting Church, Seventh Day Adventist and Salvation Army, have provided the temporary workers with connections and pastoral care to help ease them into life in regional Victoria and outer Melbourne.

For Mr Naros and his friends, it has been a reciprocal relationship. They are determined to be an uplifting presence in the communities, and their churches, in which they have been placed.

More than 38,000 Pacific and Timorese workers are in Australia to work in regional areas where local labour is hard to find. These include the horticulture, aquaculture, forestry and tourism sectors.

An abattoir worker in Stawell, Mr Naros and some of his colleagues have been in Australia for three years. Many were unable to go back home to Vanuatu because of COVID.

Aside from families, friends and island home, they longed for some of their faith traditions.

“I was very involved with church in Vanuatu, and there’s a lot of music ministry in the youth group and the church choir. There’s also mixed group singing, and playing of different instruments. It kept me and many others very occupied, so music is something we love,” Mr Naros said.

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The Ni-Vanuatu workers joined a Stawell chapter of the Victorian Adventist Wantok church, and became involved with its choir to try and feel more at home.

Mr Naros said getting back into group singing enabled them to help newer work teams arriving from Vanuatu settle in, locally.  

“We knew hearing the music they loved would revive them, so after work we’d put spiritual music on in the background and then all sing together. The messages of the songs made us feel closer to God. It made us want to present that in other places, too,” he said.  

But another Ni-Vanuatu faith tradition involves helping members of the community, especially the elderly.

Mr Naros said that usually meant helping people clean up their houses or yards, and that presented the group with the chance to try music ministry as a Ni-Vanuatu ensemble.

After finishing each clean up, Mr Naros and his friends would ask their host to take a seat, then the group would assemble to sing them hymns.

He said people were moved to tears in many instances.

At other times, some would be rowdy, swigging beers, smoking and scathing.

“But then some of them go quiet as we are singing, and we know the spirit is working within them,” Mr Naros said.

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Like many other people in Stawell, the Anglican parish’s former priest in charge the Reverend Heather Scott came to know the Ni-Vanuatu workers through their community gestures.

 ”They don’t just seek out Christians. They go to whoever has a need. This is what we’re all meant to be about – caring for others around us,” Ms Scott said.

“Sometimes in a rural community, there’s a barrier, because people are different, and it can take long time to break down that barrier. But they’ve broken them very quickly because they have been so generous.”

The Vanuatu workers felt driven to try to help lift local spirits in the wake of COVID restrictions, and organised a gospel music night inviting people from multiple churches.

Since then, they been invited to sing at various churches and perform at a range of events, Mr Naros said.

That included a concert partially funded by the Northern Grampians Council and featuring Pacific Island community dancers, musicians and a jazz singer to raise funds for Vanuatu after a Category five cyclone hit the country.

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Earlier this year, the Anglican parish asked Mr Naros and his friends to participate in a fundraiser for survivors of the Turkiye and Syrian earthquakes.

Ms Scott said there was plenty of music and singing from a range of individuals and groups at the event, but the Ni-Vanuatu performance enlivened the day.

She believes their presence helped bring many people who usually wouldn’t attend the church at all to the fundraiser.

“People were relaxed, getting along. Children were running around. I loved that we used this sacred space for something that reached out to the community,” Ms Scott said.

Stawell Seventh Day Adventist treasurer Denise Sumper has a similar view.

She said when the Ni-Vanuatu men attend her church they bring their music with them and lift the service.

Mr Naros had heard of a Ni-Vanuatu group in Moe doing something similar in churches, and was pleasantly surprised to hear of the Mallacoota Anglican parish’s effort to raise funds for the Vanuatu workers in that community.

He said he expected to finish his work contract and go home in January next year.

But for now, he is delighted that many people, churches and organisations associate his Ni-Vanuatu group with music.

“We are really happy with what we are doing now for the Lord,” Mr Naros said. “It is helping us spiritually.”

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