Marriage Ceremony, Vanuatu-style

The old saying goes, “one thing leads to another.” This was certainly the case for me on Saturday November 19th 2005. Back on October 25th -27th a friend Paul Vuhu brought some men for Bible studies at my house and one of these men was named Patrick Tasso from the island of Tanna. He is a man of little schooling and little religion. He had some background with the Catholic and Baptist denominations but never was taught the Bible. He was immediately affected by the teaching and the influence of Paul. After the studies he came to my house with a question and a request. He wanted to get married here on Efate and wanted to know if I could do it. I said that I would have to check with the city to see if it was possible. He wanted to get a certificate which is filed with the government.

I went to speak with the city Municipality about the matter and found out that only ministers approved by the government could conduct weddings and give certificates. Actually there are three kinds of marriages recognized by the government, custom, church and civil. Custom marriage is very common but a lot of denominations demand church marriages. A civil marriage is done by the mayor or other government official.

I saw Patrick the next day and told him the news. He still wanted me to do it because he wanted someone from the Lord’s true church to be involved. I said that I had looked into the ability to get approved to give certificates but the information was hard to come by. He stated that he only wanted a small custom ceremony and wanted me to say a “blessing” and a prayer. He wanted to study so we sat down and talked about the church. His real question though was about marriage. He wanted to know if he would be married in God’s eyes if he didn’t have a certificate. I talked with him for quite a while about marriage in the Bible and he was happy about the answers I gave. He still wanted be to come a be a part of the ceremony and I said that I would do it and he left. A few minutes later he came back saying that he had spoken with a family member and they wanted him to find a minister who could give a certificate. I said it’s your wedding and he could certainly do whatever he wants. As he was leaving again he asked me what I thought about having someone from a denomination say the blessing. I said that he knows that there is only one church but it is his decision. He thought about it and said that he wanted me to do it even if his family gets upset. The ceremony was to be on the 19th of November and he wanted me to come at 8:00am.

Saturday was Patrick’s wedding and I had Aaron take me out to Rendabau (Ren-da-bow) Bridge area at 8am. I knew the ceremony wouldn’t start anytime close to that but he asked me to come at this time. I used the time to write a sermon outline and prepare for the ceremony. Patrick showed up at about 9am with a bunch of people and stuff for the wedding. This would be a custom ceremony and I would say a “blessing” and prayer. As I wrote about before, his family wanted him to have a marriage certificate from the government but I couldn’t give him one. I explained that he could have the ceremony and be married in the eyes of God without it and he wanted me to preach about that. There was a lot of going back and forth between me and his family members but they eventually agreed. I felt bad as though he was alienating his family for my sake. He really didn’t know anything outside of what I told him so he was putting his eggs in my basket.

The ceremony started at about 12 noon which was a lot sooner than I expected. All the participants go down to the river and swim (bathe) to start. Women first and then later the guys. The family and participants all dress in custom clothes and walk to the place where the ceremony takes place. There is singing all the way and when everyone arrived it was a lot of singing and dancing. This is basically the ceremony. I was waiting to see what was going to happen when a young man who was kind of the best man, taking care of the arrangements, asked what to do next. I was stunned and said I didn’t know. I was just going to make a small talk and prayer. He lined the whole group up in front of me and told me to start talking. So I spoke for about 7 or 8 minutes on marriage and said a prayer that I had already written out. I said that God is the one who joins people together not churches of governments or certificates and that he uses custom, civil and church marriages. It was nerve-racking to say the least since I was the person who was saying the marriage was good and everyone else wasn’t sure. One thing that I brought up was that their grandparents and earlier descendants didn’t have government certificates, only custom ceremonies and their marriages were good because the two left their families to become one and create their own family. As it turns out I essentially married them in their eyes. In my eyes and God’s, they were married when the custom ceremony was finished.

After I was finished they cut a lap-lap cake and ate a piece. I don’t know if they stole that from white men or we stole it from them but I was surprised to see it. It was later given to everyone and it wasn’t too bad. There was a lot of food cooked including a cow which was hanging out behind the happenings. Next started a procession of guests and well-wishers which go to the couple who are now seated and they greet and give a small gift to the new couple. Just a handshake and short pleasantry. They must have received at least a hundred plastic bowls and a hundred plates. (I have no idea what they will do with all of those bowls). Those seemed to be the gifts of choice along with soap. I ate a good meal and spent the day with an older man from the brides family. He talked and talked all day about the customs of Tanna and what things meant as they happened.

The groom’s family gave a big pile of gifts to the bride’s family including bananas, manioc, yams, mats, half a cooked cow, kava, rice, clothes and calico. It was hauled off and the eating began. A man brought me a plate since I was the “minister” which means I didn’t have to stand in line. We sta on a mat and talked all afternoon until it was time for the men to go and drink kava. This is a custom thing which is abused in Port Vila for the purpose of getting “kava drunk.” For many in Vanuatu it is a sign of respect to drink a shell (half of a coconut shell) at a time like this. While waiting for the kava to be prepared I had the opportunity to answer many Bible question including some from a Member of Parliament. He was influential with the group and a follower of the John Frum cult. I was given the opportunity to be the first to drink along with the oldest chief there, the man everyone defers to out of respect. I had my kava which tastes like muddy water and sat down.

The time was about 5:30 and it was time to go. I talked with Patrick and he wanted to study about becoming a Christian and we would catch up later. I enjoyed the time and the honor given to me and hope that this will yield something great for the future.

MO

Editors note: Both Patrick and his wife Ruth have since been baptized into Christ and plan on moving back to Tanna to start the church on that island.

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Every ceremony in Vanuatu is accompanied with custom dancing.

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This is the couple seated during the all-day affair.

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Patrick, in his traditional wedding garb.

Ruth, in her traditional wedding garb.

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A pile of gifts presented to the couple by Patrick's family.

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Arrival of the wedding party.

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