For nine years, ever since a lone Ni-Vanuatu man walked into their service, Kerikeri Baptist Church has had ever-strengthening ties to that Pacific nation. Brian and Stephanie Bullen tell us how God has given the church an unexpected opportunity for mission and ministry, both home and abroad—an adventure that continues to unfold in surprising ways.

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:10).

Before they moved to Kerikeri, Brian and Stephanie Bullen had lived in Katikati, another horticultural town dependent on the labour of Recognised Seasonal Employee (RSE) workers. The Bullens were aware of the workers—there were some living at the end of their road—and for a couple of years they thought they ought to do something to engage with them. However it took a move north for their good intentions to come to fruition.

A surprise visit

When the Bullens shifted to Kerikeri and found that RSE workers were there too, they determined to connect with them. Brian says he had got as far as praying about it a couple of times, and had the name of someone to ring, when a Ni-Vanuatu RSE worker came through the door one Sunday morning in 2010. After the service, Brian and Stephanie invited him home for lunch. They spent about two hours chatting to him before taking him back to his accommodation.

“The next week three of them walked in the door, and at that point I thought, ‘Yes, we better do something!’” says Brian. “One of our elders had been to Vanuatu and he knew the man who ran the RSE accommodation in Kerikeri. He talked to the guys and they said, ‘Well, you can start by doing a Bible study with us.’ So that’s where it all began.”

Short-term trips

Stephanie looked online to see what other churches in New Zealand were doing with RSE workers. They found Motueka Baptist Church was planning a building project on Lamen Island in Vanuatu, which is where a lot of the seasonal workers who were coming to Kerikeri Baptist at that time originated from. 

“We contacted Motueka Baptist and it worked out well because, while they had been fundraising all year, they didn’t have as many volunteers as previously. So we had 10 people and they had some money. We added a bit more money and they added a few people and, bingo, we were away,” says Brian.

In October 2010 they went to Lamen Island and helped build a women’s meeting house. While their team was doing that, Stephanie and Brian went and met some of the other men who they’d been doing Bible studies with in Kerikeri.

That first trip has been followed by many others. By the end of 2018 around 24 different people from Kerikeri Baptist had gone on one of their short-term trips, and some of them multiple times. They have also taken two people from the Kerikeri AOG church and one man from the Catholic church, who have gone on to develop their own projects there. 

Fifteen people from the community have also been involved in various ways. One of the stories that Stephanie says continues to impact her is of a man who joined one of their short-term trips. He was hugely involved in the local soccer club and when he went to Vanuatu he spent a couple of afternoons coaching a village soccer team. When he returned to Kerikeri he resigned from the local club and restarted the Kaikohe football club, which now has two spin-off teams in the Hokianga.

“He’s got more than 200 children involved in soccer in Kaikohe. And that is purely from his time in Vanuatu and seeing the contrast of need. He decided to go from the ‘haves’ to work with the ‘have-nots’. It’s nothing to do with the church except the church was the catalyst. We have always had the attitude that if people from the community were interested we would take them,” says Stephanie.

 “Every time we go up there it strengthens relationships, both in Kerikeri and in Vanuatu,” says Brian. “I’m used to doing short-term trips where people who don’t know each other get together, do whatever they are going to do, come home, separate, and that’s the end of it. But here, a lot of these folk keep coming back to New Zealand. Some have been here 11 years in a row, for up to six months at a time. So we have built strong connections with them and with their families and villages back in Vanuatu.” 

Projects in Vanuatu

Projects in Vanuatu that Kerikeri Baptist has organised or been involved with include: repainting a health centre and replacing its mosquito screens; training local health workers and church elders; rebuilding two kindergartens and a school/community library devastated by Cyclone Pam; collecting and delivering books for the library; and building a community kindergarten from scratch. Funds for these projects have come from the generous giving of the church, supplemented by Rotary and individuals in the community.

“A couple of years ago we also planted a new fellowship on another island,” says Brian. “Eric, the RSE guy who was the first to walk in the door of our church, had remarried after his first wife died. He had gone up to the island where his new wife’s village is. When he came back he said to me, ‘Oh, Pastor. It is dark up there. No one knows the good news. No one has got Bibles and there is witchcraft. You have to go there.’  

“It is a French-speaking area. Stephanie and I can converse at a basic level in Bislama, which is their common language across the islands, but we don’t speak any French. So in 2017 we organised for Eric to sort out a team and Stephanie and I went up with four Ni-Vanuatu people to his wife’s village. At the end of the week we had 25 folk who decided they wanted to follow Jesus. We taught them how to start meeting and gave them Bibles. The last contact we had indicated they are still going. Hopefully we can return in 2020 because there are more than 2,000 people on that island and in the nearby area, and we have an open door there.” 

Projects to improve health, education and spiritual life will continue. However, Brian says the next area they would like to see developed is economic growth, so people do not have to leave their families for months at a time to earn an income.

Mission and ministry at home

Kerikeri Baptist holds Bible studies twice a week for Ni-Vanuatu RSE workers in two different locations and, at their request, has also held leadership training with them.

“We’ve had more and more RSE workers arriving. This year we’ve got about 100 from Vanuatu alone. Two Christmases ago we had women in Kerikeri from six different Pacific Island nations. Most RSE workers stay five to six months. I think the RSE scheme is the best aid plan that New Zealand has running because the money goes back, at a grassroots level, into the communities of the people who earn it,” says Brian. 

“The horticultural industry is gearing up more and more, and we’ve got employers telling us that the number of RSE workers in New Zealand is going to double in the next three to five years. One large produce company takes about 1,000 RSE workers nationwide on their own. So there is a big opportunity for other churches to start looking at what they can do. 

“I’ll give you an example. A group of 10 guys we were working with over Christmas shifted down to Hastings to work for another employer, picking apples. While we were down in Havelock North visiting our daughter, we went to find these guys. The place where they are staying has got 200 Ni-Vanuatu workers, in purpose-built accommodation. But, as far as we could find out, there were no churches doing anything with them.” 

That’s not to say that meeting with the RSE workers and getting them involved in church activities is without challenges. If it has rained during the week, they will be working in the weekends, or they may get picked up at short notice to go wherever the work is. 

“Or you have it all organised and you forget it is the height of FIFA World Cup and they have stayed up to watch a major soccer match overnight!” says Stephanie. “We’ve discovered you try this and try that and see if it works.”

“Certainly learning the language has made a big difference to them,” adds Brian. “I still get frustrated because I don’t know it well enough to preach properly in it, but they can talk to us in Bislama. 

“This mission to RSE workers was very unexpected for us. It wasn’t what we thought we were going to in Kerikeri, but God has just dropped us into the middle of it. We just started bit by bit, developing things, finding things, and it has gone incredibly well.” 

Story: Stephanie and Brian Bullen, with Linda Grigg

Brian is a pastor at Kerikeri Baptist Church. He is passionate about making disciples who make disciples, who in turn make disciples… Stephanie is married to Brian, loves the people of Vanuatu and regards Vanuatu as a second home.

Take outs:

  1. Does your church have a similar opportunity for outreach with seasonal workers? Brian and Stephanie admit they are learning as they go about how to minister cross‑culturally to RSE workers, but they are happy to share what they know. They invite you to contact them to discuss ideas you may have for something similar in your own context. Email Stephanie.
  2. Want to build your confidence in connecting with people who are culturally different from you? Baptist Multicultural Inclusion Ministries is hosting a ‘Building Cultural Awareness’ workshop in multiple locations around the country in September and October. For more information email Steve Davis.

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.