When Jesus exhorted his disciples to go to “the ends of the earth,” he may very well have been referring to Vanuatu, the South Pacific island chain that was recently struck by a massive cyclone.
More than 1,000 miles east of Australia and 750 miles west of Fiji, Vanuatu is a tiny nation of 83 small islands, nine active volcanoes, and over a quarter million people, the majority of whom are Christian. One of the planet’s newer countries, Vanuatu achieved independence from the British and French in 1980.
Though most Americans would have trouble finding Vanuatu on a map, the locals there are very familiar with us. A division of US soldiers spent time there during World War II and made a significant impression. Some historians credit the Americans’ presence with the rise of nationalism that led to Vanuatu’s independence. A local cargo cult called John Frum, which 5 percent of the population ascribes to, mimics the marches, uniforms, and music of the US Army from a couple generations ago.
A week and a half ago, Vanuatu suffered one of the most devastating cyclones to hit the region in years. Cyclone Pam tore through the archipelago on March 13, with sustained winds topping 155 miles per hour. The number of casualties, while initially low, remains unknown; communication between the islands is still down. Current aerial and ground views show that in some areas, including the capital city of Port Vila, 90 percent of buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed. Before and after photos illustrate how the lush greenery on Vanuatu’s islands has been obliterated, leaving behind barren, desert-like landscapes that look barely inhabitable.
Natural disasters at such a scale are always hard to process; disasters that take place in a faraway, mostly unknown corner of the globe are even harder to grasp. These days we are hit with so many news stories each day—most of them tragic—that we may be tempted to resist opening our hearts to new communities with seemingly no connection to us. But this moment in time is no ordinary moment for Vanuatu, if we could only, as the Good Samaritan does, first stop and see the suffering that is occurring.
To our family, Vanuatu is a real place with real people. A few years ago, my husband traveled there for business. He worked closely with a man named David, an American who served in Vanuatu through the Peace Corps, then relocated to bring technology resources to the isolated population. My husband also partnered with John, a local who served 25,000 entrepreneurial families through his microfinance organization. He met Jimmy, a resident from Tanna—one of the islands hardest hit by Cyclone Pam—who was the first in his village to go to university, only to return to establish a rural education center for his community.
After his trip, my husband returned home bursting with stories of the Vanuatuans’ hospitality, perseverance, and gumption despite the limitations of their isolated subsistence living. He marveled at their understanding of global politics and environmental science, given the life-threatening risk rising ocean levels pose to their island home. Over the years, his affection for the people grew through ongoing communications, his business relationships blossoming into long-distance friendships.
I found myself loving its people through my husband’s stories and photos. I experienced the beautiful truth that when we allow ourselves to know—even indirectly—individuals from other places and cultures and backgrounds, God grows our hearts. He enlarges our capacity to feel kinship with and compassion for those who seem far from us in nearly every way. When we take the risk to step into an unfamiliar neighborhood or country, Jesus meets us anew, showing how he is at work in every remote, obscure corner of the globe. We are privileged to see the wide expanse of God’s kingdom, and the immense diversity and richness of his creation.
Whatever distance we may feel from the people of Vanuatu, they are part of our spiritual family. They are our brothers and sisters, and today they are suffering immensely. Since the cyclone hit, we have not been able to get in touch with anyone in Vanuatu. We do not know if our friends survived, whether their families, homes, or villages made it through the storm.
Despite the 7,000 miles of ocean between us, we share faith in the same God. The vast majority of the population in Vanuatu is Christian, thanks to the work of Protestant and Catholic missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. About one-third of the people are Presbyterian. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Seventh-day Adventist adherents each comprise more than 10 percent of the population. The Vanuatuans’ faith today is self-sustaining: approximately 90 percent of the clergy of established churches are indigenous.
Aid agencies are now warning that the destruction of the cyclone could only be the beginning of a long line of humanitarian disasters for the island nation. Most of the residents live off of their own crops, but these have been almost entirely wiped out. Fresh water is scarce, with reports of Vanuatuans forced to drink saltwater to attempt to quench their thirst. Flooding and unsanitary conditions are creating ideal conditions for diseases like dengue fever and malaria to flourish. In the longer term, the loss of so much infrastructure—homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and roads—will have a shattering impact on a nation that was just beginning to see a rise in economic development. Despite the scope of the devastation, Vanuatu’s limited size, stature, and influence on the global stage has led to minimal international coverage and attention compared to disasters in better-known locales.
Vanuatu president Baldwin Lonsdale, who happened to be in Japan for a UN conference when Cyclone Pam hit, has called it a “monster.” “It's a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu,” he said. “After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.” He doesn’t even know if his own family is safe or not.
It’s hard to imagine an entire nation that has lost nearly everything in the span of a day, but such is the case for Vanuatu. The need for food, fresh water, shelter, and rescue and recovery efforts is dire. International aid agencies including the Red Cross and World Vision are appealing for donations to support relief efforts for a nation and a people that are fighting for survival.
I think of David, John, Jimmy, and their families, and my heart breaks. I think of what the Good Samaritan does after he stops and sees: he feels compassion and acts. Even to the ends of the earth, may God grow our hearts and make known the name of Jesus through our prayers and generosity. Let us love the people of Vanuatu in their darkest hour.