Gwen and Bernie Collins are a couple who we won't be seeing much of for a while, but are very much part of our fellowship and our prayers.

Towards the end of 2013 they retired from full-time ministry in the URC and came to live in Hamble, to be near all their children. They made links with Avenue St Andrew's before leaving to spend two years in Papua New Guinea.

Gwen and Bernie CollinsBernie was born in Birkenhead and Gwen in Guernsey. They were raised in Christian homes and met at Oxford, where they were both reading Geography.

Bernie says that he was questioning his faith as a teenager and his link with church then was mainly through discussion groups. However, during the summer of his second year at university, he felt God was speaking to him through a series of coincidences and telling him to be ready to understand, not to challenge
everything in the Bible, and he came to faith and entered into church membership.

Bernie then followed a Town Planning course in London and was seeking guidance about this course and a possible marriage to Gwen. He remembers one night hearing God calling him to be a missionary, to be a minister and specifically to contact the CCWM office (which is now CWM, the Council for World Mission).

They married in 1971 and Bernie entered the ecumenical theological college at Queens' Birmingham. Gwen had a series of jobs, working as a Child Care officer for Barking Council and a Medical Social Worker before taking a PGCE course to train as a secondary school teacher. During the final year of ministerial training, they went to the Selly Oak Colleges for missionary training.

In 1974 Gwen and Bernie were sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG), where they were to remain for sixteen years. They were pleased that there would be familiar faces nearby – three fellow students they had met at Selly Oak were also stationed in the same area of the country.

The United Church in PNG appointed them to the Lai Valley in the Highlands region, which they describe as alpine. They tell how their valley of nine
thousand people had only had contact with the outside world since 1956 (which to 26 year olds Bernie and Gwen then seemed a life time ago, but was of course
fairly recent.)

They tell me PNG is a huge country with impenetrable jungles, vast rivers and jagged mountains, with long treks on foot to reach other regions. Outsiders had been
in contact with the coastal areas for over a hundred years and readers may remember hearing the names of some the early LMS missionaries – Bert Brown, Percy Chatterton and Con Fairhall.

Bernie was the only minister in the Lai Valley, with thirty five churches to care for. Groups of churches had their own local pastor and evangelist and all were first generation churches.

The church is responsible for the rural health service and for education and when they arrived the first children were just completing Primary school.

Gwen worked in adult literacy and in women's groups.

After four years they moved to Mendi town, the provincial capital, where Bernie became Principal of the Bible College. Gwen was involved in literacy work. Bernie was later the Secretary for Christian Education in the Highlands region, and then had the honour of being Bishop of that region (the size of Wales with 250 congregations!)

PNG has many languages as well as a Melanesian Pidgin although English is taught and used in the schools. When the first Christian convert, who later became the first ordained Highlander, asked for a New Testament translation, Gwen coordinated this project, working with the Bible Society. At this time she candidated for the URC ministry and did her studying there.

During their time in PNG their three children were born and the return to the UK in 1991 was for their education. Bernie was Minister of Winton URC in Bournemouth for ten years, while Gwen was ordained and took up a post as the Free Church Chaplain at Bournemouth University. When they moved north, she transferred to two universities in Leeds. Bernie became a Synod Development Officer. 2007 saw them return south to the Thames North Synod with Bernie becoming minister of Ickenham

URC in West London and the Ecumenical Officer for Churches Together North Thames. Gwen ministered at Trinity URC in High Wycombe and as Chaplain to Buckinghamshire New University. They retired from these posts last year.

In 2011 Gwen and Bernie were able to make a return visit to PNG, revisiting old friends. They recall the strong programme of Christian education training in the Highlands in the late 1970s and 1980s. Now these young men are the church leaders.

The population has more than doubled since 1990, so the need for training and higher education remains great. The vision of the Moderator Rev. Sir Samson Lowa was to extend higher education and teacher training equipping people to meet the challenges on the ground more adequately. Help is needed while college staff are studying for higher qualifications. So when an invitation came to spend the first two years of their "retirement" teaching back there, they responded positively.

Gwen and Bernie speak of the beauty of the country, the local customs, the men dancing with faces painted and adorned with bird of paradise feathers, the  hospitality and roasting of pigs over hot stones for celebrations.

On the darker side, there are issues of gender inequality, malnutrition, HIV/AIDs and violent crime, with tribal feuds in the Highlands persisting. Consortia of multi-nationals, along with Chinese and Malaysian companies seek to exploit the country's resources (timber, mining for copper, gold, oil and natural gas deposits) and there are land rights issues. Mobile phones proliferate and the internet means contact with the wider world is greater. 97% of the population claim to be Christian in the latest census. The church needs to be both informed and effective in developing the country for the benefit of all.

 

Gwen and Bernie will be living and teaching for two years in the School of Theology and Mission (part of the United Church College of Higher Education). This is located on the north coast of the island of New Britain, about 500 miles north east of the national capital, Port Moresby. During that time their children have plans for a grand reunion in the country of their childhood.

Bernie and Gwen are asking that during their stay in Papua New Guinea, we keep informed of their work and remember them in our prayers.

PNG