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Is there a role for spirituality in development?

Is there a role for spirituality in development?

Religion in development often evokes destructive ideas of conversion, breaking down traditional culture and evangelical missions. However, our recent trip to PNG challenged these stereotypes, and showed us that religion can be a strong and foundational element of successful development projects.

In PNG, 98% of the population are Christian and the Church plays a key role in providing basic services where the government cannot. Oaktree is not a religious organisation, however when working in this context, we have formed partnerships with organisations that have religious affiliations as they are the best placed to implement education programs. None of our partners are evangelical and their primary motivation is to provide education for some of PNG’s most disadvantaged young people.

Many of the people we met during our time in PNG were motivated by their religious beliefs to be development workers. Although the majority of the staff at our partner City Mission are local Papua New Guineans, two American couples are currently overseeing the organisation. They are some of the most committed and inspiring people I have ever met – they have left their comfortable homes and families in the US to live an extremely challenging lifestyle. Life in Port Moresby comes with many risks and limitations on freedom, and the demands of supporting 190 young men are physically, mentally and emotionally draining. For these City Mission staff members, as for many of the most committed development workers in PNG, it is their strong faith that has created in them a deep sense of purpose and motivation that inspires them to overcome these challenges and commit to working with some of the most disadvantaged people in our world. For these people, religion provides them with the motivation, humility and hope they need to persevere in such a challenging context.

Religion is also included as an element in the project we support with City Mission. The motivation for this is not to convert the participants but to help them find a reason for hope. One of the staff members told us that ‘we don’t want the boys to find our God, a Baptist God, but to find their own God that means something to them’. Most of these boys come from extremely challenging backgrounds, with many lacking any support network outside of the criminal gangs they became involved in to survive. In the settlements of Port Moresby they lived from day to day. As there are often no opportunities for education or employment, there is little reason for these young men to have any hope for the future. They had little concern for their own well-being and no reason to create goals.

For many of the boys we spoke to at The Farm, their connection to God was the most significant benefit of the program – more so than literacy, numeracy or vocational training. Spirituality provides them with a sense of purpose, of being a part of something bigger than themselves, and of having somebody who cares about what they do and what becomes of them. It provides them with hope that even in their struggles there is a chance that something may change, and a reason to try. Many of the boys told us that it was their belief in God that, when they left The Farm and returned to the settlements, would stop them from reverting to their old ways. This sense of spirituality, this belief in God, can be the foundation of a program like The Farm. Without it, there is little reason for the boys to engage with the program. It provides them with self-respect, a sense of hope and is the most significant motivation for change in their lives.

Religious beliefs also tie these men together, across clan groups and conflicting gangs. On our last night at City Mission, we joined the men in their weekly church service. Most of our Oaktree team had not been to a church service since we were in school, however our time in that hall was a profoundly moving experience. The church services at City Mission are run by local staff members and the participants themselves – at the service we attended the preacher was a past participant and many of the current men formed a church band. The service was combined with celebrations of the participants’ achievements – they received certificates when they progressed to a new phase of the program, welcomed new participants and congratulated those who had completed the program. Sometimes past participants also return to tell the boys about life after The Farm. In this way, Christianity and its values provide a framework for community that is founded on respect, love and support. The strength of this community was reflected in the harmonious voices of these 190 young men as they sang songs of hope and joy in a sweltering hall.

The role of religion, especially Christianity, in development is often debated and critiqued. Our time at City Mission showed us that religion not only has a place in development programs but can also be a necessary and foundational factor for social change. Religion can provide motivation and a reason to persevere in the face of challenges and can provide a sense of hope and self-worth that inspires people to strive for change and a better future. 

Image: A gathering of young men at City Mission for a church service