Baha'is of Vanuatu celebrate fifth annual Bertha Dobbins Day

25 October 2000

PORT VILA, Vanuatu — In recognition of their contributions toward the creation of a culture of peace and the promotion of religious tolerance, five grassroots level leaders were recognized by the Baha'i community of Vanuatu in its annual Bertha Dobbins Day commemoration.

In ceremonies on 17 October 2000 at the National Baha'i Center in Port Vila, a local chief, several local ministers and a local community leader were presented awards for their "grassroots leadership" before an audience of some 200 people. Those recognized were:

-- Mr William Sumbwe, from Malo, who has helped several local families to consult together and resolve problems

-- Chief Peter Poilapa, of Mele village, who has worked tirelessly to solve disputes between families and villages on the island of Efate

-- Pastor Dorothy Regenvanu, the only practicing woman pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, who "through her patience and respect for others of different beliefs" has exemplified a "culture of peace."

Also recognized were a group of trainee pastors and their teachers from the island of Santo, who have decided to promote better understanding between different religious groups by visiting them and joining them in worship.

The occasion marked the 47th anniversary of the arrival in Vanuatu of Bertha Dobbins, who founded a well-known elementary school and played a key role in the establishment of the Baha'i community of Vanuatu.

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Baha'i youth from Erakor village dancing at the fifth annual celebration of Bertha Dobbins Day, Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Mrs. Dobbins was a 58-year-old elementary school teacher in Medindie, South Australia, when she responded to a call for volunteers to travel abroad to help spread the Baha'i teachings. She set sail for the New Hebrides, as Vanuatu was then known, arriving in Port Vila in October 1953. As the first Baha'i there, she founded an elementary school, "Nur School," in 1955 and taught there until 1971. She remained in the New Hebrides until 1977, when she was 82 and the local Baha'i community elected its first National Spiritual Assembly, the national level governing body for Baha'i communities.

In memory of her services to the people of Vanuatu, the Baha'i community here gives a series of awards each year in her name to people and organizations in the country who have rendered significant service to others.

This year, the event was hosted by the Baha'i community of Mele village, who designed the program, constructed a temporary shelter to house the guests, and issued hundreds of invitations. They prepared of large quantities of island food and an exhibit depicting the life of Bertha Dobbins and the early days of the Faith in Vanuatu.

After a brief welcome by the Master of Ceremonies, Saki Poilapa, and prayers in English, French and Bislama, Chief Willie Bongmatour, representing the chiefs of Vanuatu, expressed his gratitude to the Baha'is for recognising the role of the chiefs in fostering peace at a local level. Merelyn Tahi spoke of the advancement of women as a key element of peace-making. Payman Rowhani-Farid, representing the Baha'i community of Vanuatu, said that the peace process begins with individuals and families, and that the education of children is particularly important. Baha'i youth gave choral renderings of prayers and sacred scriptures between the presentations.

The Awards were presented by Peter Kaltoli, the one of the first Baha'is in Vanuatu, and Charles Pierce, the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Vanuatu.

Mrs. Dobbins was one of the Baha'is who, beginning in the early 1950s, responded to a call to settle in areas where no Baha'is had lived before. As a result of their efforts, more than 100 countries and territories were opened to the Faith within the span of a few years.

Following further musical selections and the closing prayers, a feast was set out for the guests in the Nur Institute Building, which formerly housed the Nur School, and the youth and children from the Baha'i communities on Efate performed a continuous stream of songs, dances and sketches.

The event received coverage on Radio Vanuatu and the national television news.