For Humanity

Religious Brother serves people of Papua New Guinea as anthropologist

Papua New Guinea is an anthropologist’s dream. The largest country in the South Pacific, it’s rich in cultural diversity. The spoken word alone presents a unique set of complexities, with more than 800 linguistic groups identified in the country.  

Perhaps that’s partly why Bro. Martin Tnines, SVD has been happy serving in Papua New Guinea as a Divine Word Missionary Brother and anthropologist for the past 23 years.

The calling

Born and raised in West Timor Island, Indonesia, Bro. Martin attended a government-run secondary school and stayed at a boarding house operated by the local diocese. He remembers seeing white men come to daily Mass by bicycle. They were part of a group that did mission work as mechanics and carpenters. After they finished their work on Sundays, the men would talk to ordinary people and students. After some time, Bro. Martin realized they were Divine Word Missionary Brothers.

“These elements: serving the mission with their hands or with their professional training, having a simple lifestyle in a community of priests, and being close to ordinary people, attracted me to choose to be a Religious Brother,” he said. “I am grateful that I made the right choice with the full support of my parents.”

Entering anthropology

“I never thought of being an anthropologist one day,” Bro. Martin admits. He entered St. Conrad Brothers formation Center in Ende, Flores Islands hoping to be directed by the formators on how to get professional training in line with the needs of Divine Word Missionaries. More importantly, he aspired to participate in the missionary work of the SVD outside of Indonesia.

After completing his fourth year of religious formation, the rector suggested that Bro. Martin pursue anthropology studies at San Carlos University (USC) in Cebu City, Philippines. The reason for this recommendation was simple: Bro. Martin had a little background in biology that was in line with anthropology and the SVDs had a need for anthropologists in the mission fields.

“In a nutshell, anthropology is about humanity that includes human evolution and cultures,” he said.

Missionary life

In April 2001, Bro. Martin got the chance to try out the overseas missionary life he dreamed about. He was assigned to Papua New Guinea, a country where Divine Word Missionaries have served for more than 100 years.

Bro. Martin said the diverse country presented its fair share of excitement and challenges. “Our lives will become challenging and stressful in PNG if we don’t study people’s cultures and the social changes that are affecting peoples’ day-to-day lives,” he said. “On the other hand, our life becomes pleasant and meaningful when we know the culture of our host community that serves as a basis for relating to them in meaningful ways. Thus, the study of anthropology is beneficial for missionaries and expatriates working in Papua New Guinea.”

A cultural center

In 1970, three groups came together to found the Melanesian Institute: the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and the Society of Mary (Societas Mariae). Together, they established the institute to create an avenue from which foreign missionaries of the Association of Clerical Religious Superiors (ACRS, which has legal custody of the institute) that were working together in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands could be sensitized to the diverse cultures of the Melanesians and to undertake socio-cultural research.

Bro. Martin got involved as a junior researcher at the Melanesian Institute in 2001. He was away for studies from 2003 to 2006 and rejoined as a missionary researcher in 2007. In 2017, he was named as the executive director of the institute, a position he still holds today.

Given shared needs, over time, the Melanesian Institute became ecumenical with participation by the Lutheran, United, and Anglican Churches in addition to the Catholic Church, to help with the financial costs and qualified staff. Bro. Martin says it serves as a place for research and a hub for cross-cultural learning. The institute is mandated to help churches speak clearly to the needs of Melanesia's people by providing evidence-based advice to churches through social research, cultural orientation courses, in-services courses, and publications that suit the needs of the churches to enhance their prophetic role in today’s world.


Bro. Martin says his role as executive director of the center has taught him a lot. “It presents challenges and lots opportunities to grow as a person, a Divine Word Missionary Brother and as a researcher in a mission land which is richly blessed with diverse cultures,” he said.

“I continue thanking the Lord for my calling as a religious brother and serving PNG communities as a religious brother,” he said.

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