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Joel Erkkila and his son-in-law, Josh Pitman, walk along the reef that borders Redlands College's campus in Vanuatu.
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No phones allowed, but machetes OK: Global program aims to build teens’ faith

Immersive learning experience on a South Pacific island stretches Australian ninth graders physically and spiritually.

PORT VILA, Vanuatu — The journey begins 1,200 miles — and a world — away.

Ninth graders at an affluent Christian school in Australia leave their smartphones at home and fly to this developing island nation in the South Pacific.

Students cram in the back of Kia K2700 trucks and gaze at houses with thatched roofs as they head to Narpow Point Education Centre, about 12 miles southeast of Port Vila’s airport.

Ni-Vanuatu women walk down a dirt road on the way to Port Villa.

Ni-Vanuatu women trek down a dirt road near Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.

The MV Betsy Ross FS 313, a decommissioned World War II ship, rusts on the Teouma Bay beach in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

The MV Betsy Ross FS 313, a decommissioned World War II ship, rusts on the Teouma Bay beach in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

A dirt road filled with twists and bumps leads to the international satellite campus of Redlands College, a K-12 school. The remote acreage overlooks Teouma Bay — known to locals as Shark Bay — and brims with banana, coconut and papaya trees. 

“Really, what hit me is to be grateful because I am so privileged for everything I have,” said Daniel Berry, one of about 150 Redlands students who completed the mandatory, two-week program this past year. 

“Even people in the lower class of Australia have it so much better than the people of Vanuatu,” the 14-year-old added, “yet they are 10 times happier than anyone in Australia.”

Indeed, Vanuatu — an archipelago of 83 islands that served as a base of operations for U.S. forces during World War II — consistently ranks among the top five countries internationally in the Happy Planet Index.

“It’s crazy,” Berry said. “The way that they look at life is completely different. And it’s definitely a great opportunity to see this with my own eyes and really understand what else is happening in the world.”

The Aussie teens sleep in bunk beds in dormitories, swim in the ocean and prepare meals such as laplap — a national dish of Vanuatu made with grated root vegetables, bananas and coconut milk.

Daniel Berry, junior Middle School vice captain, speaks during the yearly award ceremony for Redlands College.

Daniel Berry, a ninth grade student leader, speaks during a Redlands College awards ceremony in Brisbane, Australia.

Joel Erkkila and his son, Josh Pitman, inspect the fire pit where students make laplap, a traditional Vanuatu dish, on the Project Vila campus.

Joel Erkkila and his son-in-law, Josh Pitman, inspect the fire pit where students make laplap, a traditional Vanuatu dish, on Redlands College’s international satellite campus.

Students chop elephant grass with machetes and help teach native children who speak Bislama. The English-based Creole tongue is one of Vanuatu’s three official languages, along with English and French.

“I actually really enjoyed it,” Eloise Window, 15, said of the immersive learning experience. 

“It was hard not having devices, but it was still pretty good,” she added. “Like, our days were pretty packed, and it was nice meeting the children there. The little they had, they were so happy and so cheerful. I just couldn’t imagine myself in that situation being that happy.”

A teacher at the SCHOOL NAME watches Ni-Vanuatu students collect their assignments on the last day of school in 2023.

A teacher at a school operated by Youth for a Mission watches Ni-Vanuatu students collect their assignments.

Leah Bridges, 15, a member of the Holland Park Church of Christ, said she appreciated the trust placed in students.

“I hit someone with the machete while I was there — thankfully the blunt end. No blood. No injuries,” she said with a chuckle. “But the fact that they gave us these massive machetes and were like, ‘All right, we’re going to show you how to use them’ … you felt really grown up. You felt really independent.”

On a deeper level, the experience motivated Bridges to be baptized not long after returning home.

“I had already thought about it, but I really got time there to think about it,” she said of the spiritual decision.

Leah Bridges, left, and Lucinda Gabb, right, perform at Redlands College end of year awards.

Leah Bridges, left, and Lucinda Gabb, right, perform at Redlands College’s annual awards assembly in Brisbane, Australia.

Outsized influence in the Outback

In 1988, members of Churches of Christ opened Redlands College in a leafy bayside suburb of Brisbane, Australia — a city of 2.5 million that will host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

As the name indicates, people in the Land Down Under refer to private primary and secondary schools as “colleges.”

The Brisbane skyline alongside the Brisbane River, which runs through the city of about 2.5 million people.

The Brisbane skyline alongside the Brisbane River, which runs through the Australian city of about 2.5 million people.

Redlands’ founders “had the vision for a Christian school deeply rooted in the Restoration heritage — in the Church of Christ heritage — serving not only children from Christian homes but other families who wanted a Christian education,” Principal Andrew Johnson said.

From its humble beginning 36 years ago, the school in the Australian state of Queensland has grown to 1,440 pupils in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Johnson, the son and grandson of preachers and a member of the Holland Park church.


Related: Australian teen who lost her mom to cancer dreams of leading her country


“The school is both owned and governed by members of the Churches of Christ,” the 51-year-old father of three explained. “But the school has a very clear perspective of providing a Christian education from a broad evangelical Protestant perspective.”

With an estimated 45 congregations and 2,000 total members in all of Australia — a nation of 26 million people — Churches of Christ comprise a tiny fraction of the population.

“Redlands College is an anomaly in terms of the size and the influence that it has. It goes well beyond the faith-based community that supports it.”

“Redlands College is an anomaly in terms of the size and the influence that it has,” Johnson said. “It goes well beyond the faith-based community that supports it.”

While Redlands employs only believers among its 216 permanent teachers and staff, the student body reflects Christianity’s decreasing sway in Australia — as in the United States. 

In the past 50 years, the proportion of Australians reporting a Christian affiliation has declined to 44 percent — down from 86 percent in 1971, according to the national census. 

The number of “nones,” those reporting no religion, has climbed to 39 percent — up from 7 percent a half-century ago.

Redlands draws children whose families appreciate its academic quality and Christian values, even if they don’t actually attend church themselves, school leaders said.

“About a third of our students would have a practicing, acting faith,” Johnson said. “About a third would have a nostalgic connection to faith through grandparents. And for about a third, faith would be entirely foreign to them.”

Andrew Johnson, principal of Redlands College, addresses students and parents attending the annual award ceremony.

Andrew Johnson, principal of Redlands College, addresses students and parents at an annual awards assembly in Brisbane, Australia.

Global experience promotes faith formation

Despite the challenges, Redlands exposes every student to Christianity through its Bible classes and chapel assemblies.

Developing faith is a goal, too, of Project Vila — as the Vanuatu global learning program is dubbed.


Related: In a post-Christian landscape, school chaplain nurtures young faith


“Every student, during their two weeks in Vanuatu, has a deep, authentic conversation about faith,” Johnson said, citing the training teachers receive to engage such discussions. “And for us, that’s one of the most significant reasons for doing it.”

The required capstone experience for ninth graders has a threefold goal of promoting global citizenship, Christian formation and personal reflection.

Joel Erkkila describes the landscape and biodiversity at Narpow Point Education Centre in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Joel Erkkila describes the landscape and biodiversity at Narpow Point Education Centre in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Joel Erkkila, a longtime Redlands teacher who was born into a missionary family in Papua New Guinea and served as a missionary in India and West Africa, helped develop Project Vila. 

“For me, working with young people in an intense situation like a camp … is really, really important to challenge them and to certainly move them along in their faith,” Erkkila said. “So we discussed maybe getting a campsite in Australia. I suggested that it was cheaper to do it overseas.

“And Andrew, the principal, said, ‘Well, I don’t want it to be too far away. And I want it to be safe. And I want it to be reasonably priced.’ So Vanuatu ticked them all.”

Redlands incorporates the trip into the school’s normal tuition structure, so students do not pay extra for the experience.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a pilot project took Redlands students to Vanuatu to work alongside Youth With A Mission. That interdenominational training organization operates schools on the island of Efate, where Port Vila is located.

Mike Shepherd, a former youth minister for the Cross Point Church of Christ in Florence, Ala., served as Redlands’ director of formation and mission before a recent promotion to special assistant to the principal.

Besides his work with the school, Shepherd — a dual U.S.-Australian citizen — leads a ministry called the Shepherd Fund. The nonprofit organizes short-term missions and disaster relief projects on South Pacific islands such as Fiji.

Shepherd’s connections led to Redlands buying the Narpow Point Education Centre site from missionaries Eric and Shawnda Brandell, who served in Vanuatu from 2005 to 2020.

Mike Shepherd and Braiden Jackson talk in the Redlands College sports centre.

Mike Shepherd and Braiden Jackson talk in the Redlands College sports center in Brisbane, Australia.

The international campus is situated in an agricultural area where French plantation owners once routinely dumped butchered cattle parts into the ocean. The discarded meat attracted sharks, inspiring the bay’s nickname.

The Brandells used the property to host youth and adult camps for Christians from more than a dozen Churches of Christ on five islands.

Flexon Robbie, a 43-year-old mechanic, maintains a Port Vila church property where about 18 Christians worship each Sunday. 

Eric Brandell taught Robbie the Gospel.

Flexon Robbie, a 43-year-old mechanic, leads the Church of Christ in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Flexon Robbie, a 43-year-old mechanic, leads a Church of Christ in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

A rooster wanders the property of a Church of Christ in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

A rooster wanders the property of a Church of Christ in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

“At first, I knew nothing about the truth,” Robbie said. “Then we started going through a lot of studies. And now I have a hope that I did not have before.”

Eric Brandell thanks God that his family’s former home will maintain its missional focus.

“Frankly, it was a blessing selling property in a country that was shut down due to COVID — no international travel whatsoever,” said Eric Brandell, now a program manager for the Westview Boys Home in Hollis, Okla., and an associate minister for the Perkins Church of Christ. 

“Hopefully, it’s a blessing to Redlands that they were able to acquire a property that will suit their needs,” he added. “So it really was kind of a match made in heaven.”

Faith conversations — in and out of church

Because of the pandemic, the full implementation of Project Vila did not happen until this past year.

Six groups of ninth graders came to Vanuatu in the warmer months, accompanied by teachers and adult volunteers. Because the South Pacific is in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are reversed from those in the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States. Summer in Australia starts in December.


Related: ‘We who are many are one body’


During each two-week cycle, Redlands students visit churches in and around Port Vila, the nation’s capital.

“One church that we went to, they had a recent cyclone, and the church was pretty destroyed,” said Montana Slatter, 15, who attends a Baptist church at home. “So I just thought that it was awesome that they were still willing to meet to worship in ruins.

The Church of Christ in central Port Vila, Vanuatu, is beside the city's airport.

A Church of Christ in central Port Vila, Vanuatu, is beside the city’s airport.

“Sometimes,” the ninth grader added, “it’s nice to go where people have little because they do really rely on God.”

Another ninth grader, Lucinda Gabb, 15, said it was “literally an eye-opening experience to see a church take the whole day” to worship.

“Like on Sunday, I go to church, but then I go, go, go,” said Gabb, who is Catholic. “But these people, they have nowhere else they need to be — the most important thing to them is their community. So that was really transformative.”

But some of the most formative faith conversations occur outside of formal worship settings, students stressed.

“The people I haven’t seen show much interest actually spoke up about ‘What is Christianity?’ and questioned stuff that was happening,” said Berry, the teen who praised Vanuatu’s happiness. “Especially in the mornings, when everything’s quiet, people just want to talk, and questions come up. And I definitely saw seeds being planted in some people.”

Still, Christianity remains a touchy subject.

“The teachers are Christian, and they’re teaching the Christian ethos, and you can definitely see the impact it’s having on just how the school works,” said ninth grader Joshua Ingram, 15, who is Presbyterian. “But I can definitely say that the majority of our grade specifically is not, like, Christian.”

“The teachers are Christian, and they’re teaching the Christian ethos, and you can definitely see the impact it’s having on just how the school works. But I can definitely say that the majority of our grade specifically is not, like, Christian.”

The possibility of identifying as a person of faith scares many students, suggested Berry, who has a Pentecostal background.

“A lot of people are fearful of being judged by others,” he said. “Or they wonder, ‘If I’m a Christian, do I have to cut all these things out of my life that I actually enjoy?’ … They feel like being a Christian is all rules and no bad things.”

Another ninth grader, Kirra McIlroy, 15, said she sometimes prays and asks God to fix a problem.

“But I’m not ‘Christian’ Christian,” McIlroy emphasized. “I don’t go to church every day.”

A girl talks with her friends before chapel at Redlands College in Brisbane, Australia.

A girl talks with her friends before chapel at Redlands College in Brisbane, Australia.

Window, the teen who missed her devices while in Vanuatu, echoed her friend: “I feel like I haven’t read the whole Bible. Like, I’ve read some passages in it. But I don’t know all the stories.”

She doesn’t necessarily have a problem with Christianity, she said.

But to her, the faith choice just feels forced.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Window said. “I just haven’t had time to go down that path and really think about it.”

From rebellious teen to grown-up mentor

Josh and Tiahney Pitman, program founder Erkkila’s son-in-law and daughter, recently joined Redlands as co-directors of the Narpow Point Education Centre. They have a 5-month-old son, Isaiah. 

The facility is open for outside guests — such as Christian universities, mission groups and medical teams — to rent. They can run their own programs or enlist the Redlands team. 

Josh Pitman, 28, grew up in a Christian household but said he resisted giving his life to Jesus until age 17.

Joel Erkkila and his son, Josh Pitman, walk along the reef that borders Redlands College's campus in Vanuatu.

Joel Erkkila and his son-in-law, Josh Pitman, walk along the reef that borders Redlands College’s campus in Vanuatu.

His own rebellious teen years inform his desire to connect spiritually with Redlands students.

“They may know about God but not know him,” Pitman said. “So not necessarily with words, but maybe we show students Christ in how we act and how our family operates. Now, we’ve only got about two weeks to do it, but that’s what I’m excited about.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He traveled to Vanuatu and Australia to report this story. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Australia Christian education Christian trends developing nations global experience global learning International K-12 Christian schools News Partners Redlands College service projects South Pacific Top Stories Vanuatu

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