By Rev SEIK PITOI
They were a bunch of boisterous and daring young men who channelled their youthful energies into causing trouble and mayhem for their neighbouring villagers.
Everything from stealing smoked fish from fireplaces of neighbouring village women-folk busy preparing fish for marketing the next day, to slaughtering someone’s pig in the garden and enjoying a free mumu while the owners looked high and low for their prized animal!
No rapes and murders, and no holding up of a major supermarket but just plain silliness from mischievous young pranksters with too much spare time on their hands. But if such a trend was allowed to continue unchallenged, who knows what may have eventuated. Thankfully though, God intervened at the right time. Lives were changed and destinies altered when Christ came on board – and the neighbouring villagers breathed a sigh of relief!
The above bunch were not from a cowboy town or crime infested district somewhere in PNG. They were young men from the coastal village of Keapara, about 126km east of Port Moresby, along the Magi Highway. Keapara is one of three main villages in the Hood Lagoon basin, in an area called “Kak”, with the other 2 villages, Alukuni and Karawa, contributing to the acronym. The ‘gangsters’ were members of one of four clans in Keapara called Vanuagaraka – for short, Viraks!
It was 1985 and Keapara villagers were preparing to celebrate the opening of their new church building, Bethel 2. As is common in United Church villages, all the clans participate in catering for the guests as well as provide entertainment such as singing perovetas (prophet songs), dances etc.
The Viraks clansmen were also scheduled to do their bit in the programme. Around this time, though, there had been a phase of ‘spiritual awakening’ in the village, and the pranksters had slowed down their mischief somewhat, with many of them beginning to show an interest in the things of God.
In preparation for their participation, a leader of their group, late Vili Maha (onetime Port Moresby City Manager), obtained copies of Cook Islands music, particularly the peroveta style songs, and started to write out the lyrics as he heard them. He then taught his clan boys and their wives the respective vocal parts so they could perform them as items at the church opening.
Insurance broker and another prominent Viraks leader, Raka Taviri Sr, remembered how excited they were about singing Rarotongan songs.
“We didn’t know what we were singing about. It could have been about anything. We didn’t care, we were just showing off and trying to impress people by singing in Rarotongan,” he recalled.
During the church opening, the group did their catering part but did not do any public performances.
“We just took the food in, sang our Rarotongan songs on the periphery of the programme area and came home again,” Taviri Sr added. In fact, it was quite disheartening after all the preparation they had made. But through it all, God began to speak to them.
Men like late Maha, Taviri Sr, and late former Chief Justice, Sir Mari Kapi, were challenged by the Lord.
“Why do you sing in a language not your own? Why not take those lovely tunes and put in words from your own language,” the Lord seemed to be saying.
Sensing that to be the direction to take, the men began to write songs. Taviri Sr wrote the first peroveta to a Rarotongan tune, while Maha churned out even more songs, with Sir Mari and his wife, Lady Tegana Kapi throwing in their lot as well.
They wrote perovetas, guitar Gospel songs, Gospel “ute”, a popular local lament that has Rarotongan roots, and even the Rigo traditional Kitoro – all were vehicles to bring forth the Word of God to the people. The change in tack proved successful. While people were attracted to the unique Rarotongan catchy style of singing, this time they could understand the words. The people were now receiving the word of God in their language, through song.
It was not long before the late Vili Maha had a dramatic conversion experience. He wrote about it in a song. At the same time, others too began to place personal faith in Christ and become ‘born again’. They were not ‘religious’ UC followers any more but men who had life-changing encounters with Jesus Christ.
This change was enhanced largely by a Bible study programme initiated by late Sir Mari and Taviri Sr. It was launched in 1993 by former moderator, Rt Rev Albert ToBurua. This is its 25th year!
The Bible study programme the group used was the Purpose Driven Life (PDL) series developed by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, USA. An excellent discipleship programme, PDL was taught in the Viraks fellowship group, plus in their local church, the North Waigani United Church, and in various other UC congregations as well.
The changes it brought about were enormous.
“We would study the Bible each week and take the verses from the study to write a new song to a Rarotongan tune. We would look forward to who would write the next song for us to sing”, Taviri Sr added. “That way, we remembered the lessons in the study”!
The former Viraks gang is now the Viraks ministry. They have been invited over the years to sing in numerous church and secular programmes in their unique Rarotongan peroveta style. It has been said that, for whatever reason, when only a handful of them turn up to sing, they still sound as if there are a hundred of them!
The Viraks have truly mastered the art of singing peroveta the Rarotongan way!
The ministry has conducted many outreach programmes and have a complement of excellent communicators of the Gospel among them. One time, they even had a Viraks ministry retreat in Cairns where they flew down with their families to enjoy fellowship time away from home in another country.
All these activities have added to the growth of the members’ spiritual lives. To this day, Viraks have released five albums of peroveta songs, totalling well over 60 songs composed so far.
Members who once gave a hard time to people living around them are now evangelists for God through song. Their families have also been touched by the Gospel message. God has blessed the clan abundantly for from it has emerged outstanding sportsmen and university academics like mathematician and insurance broker Raka Taviri Sr, former city manager late Vili Maha, former Chief Justice late Sir Mari Kapi, diplomat John Kali, and other senior bureaucrats like Raka Taviri Jr, Api Kali and others.
On the spiritual front, Viraks members have contributed nationally to United Church congregations and circuits in leadership roles such as chairmen, church executives, deacons and evangelists. Not to mention other clansmen who are pastors and ordained ministers of the church.
Recently, Viraks members, together with prominent folk from the other clans in Keapara village, led the way in raising over K2 million to build their new church, Bethel 3. This was a massive exercise with all of Keapara pulling tother to get it done. With the huge impact Viraks has had in the village by evangelising through song, it was only right that the church building be enlarged to cater for the new members, plus a booming village population.
The Viraks story is an encouraging story of how God can intervene at a crucial point in young people’s lives and turn them around.
The adage, “Idle hands are the tools of the devil” is true. Young people who are idle and bored can resort to doing anything to get a kick out of life. For many, the youthful prankster in them fails to grow up and they realise too late that the path they are treading is leading them astray.
Thankfully for the Viraks, that was not the case. God moved in at the right time.
Moreover, being children of God-fearing Keapara village folk, a godly legacy and powerful high priestly prayers from concerned parents saw this batch of boys turn their lives around to follow Christ and become key leaders in the United Church and useful citizens of our country, here and abroad.
Their example is a good one for the youth of today to follow!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.