The People of Papua New Guinea

by Reggie Howard

Reggie (USA) and his wife Susan work with assembly leaders and Bible schools, developing teaching materials in PNG.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a nation of stunning natural beauty, with forested mountains reaching above 4,000m, fast-flowing rivers, breathtaking waterfalls, pristine beaches, living reefs and countless islands. But the greatest riches of this nation are not its natural beauty. The people of PNG’s tribes (nations), of which there are over 800, are its greatest, most beautiful resource: loved by the Father, died for by the Son and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. We seek to lead you to a better understanding of these people and encourage you to pray with clarity by relating three true events.

Cain & Abel Through Yuna Eyes

Barely two months into my missionary service, I was the one foreigner among thousands of Yuna people. My assignment was to learn their language in order to facilitate the translation of the Old Testament. The only English spoken was at the nearby school. I was asked to give a Bible lesson to the children on Cain and Abel. I related the story and asked, ‘Why was Cain angry with his brother?’ They discussed it and came back with what to them was the obvious answer. ‘Cain was the older brother but he was poor. His younger brother had all the wealth, so Cain was jealous and killed him.’ The well-educated church leader who brought me there agreed and defended their answer. I was confused.

In the early days, Papua New Guineans’ knowledge was limited by how far their feet could take them. They only knew their own world. So, biblical events were interpreted through their own world view. To the Yuna people, Cain was obviously poor because he had to grow food and did not have livestock, which for the Yuna people means pigs. Abel had lots of ‘pigs’, so he was clearly wealthy! This disparity of wealth and status stands out for every Yuna person who hears the story.

Each day people would gather in a house and I told Bible stories through an interpreter.

Did Jesus Come to Our Earth or Some Other Planet?

A couple of years later, I was involved in the early evangelism of three small tribes who lived three days’ walk over a rugged mountain range to the south. Each day people would gather in a house and I told Bible stories through an interpreter. For the first few days people listened politely but without much response. One day I related the story of the woman at the well. I explained what a well is, something they knew nothing of as they have never been short of water. When I finished the story, lively debate erupted and I waited until there was a pause to ask the interpreter what was going on. He explained, ‘We are of two different opinions and we don’t know what to think. Did Jesus come to our planet or did he go to the moon or somewhere else?’ Confused, I asked for clarification. He said, ‘Where Jesus lived, they had to dig in the ground to get water. That doesn’t sound like our earth, so it must be somewhere else, maybe one of the lights we see in the sky.’

I spent the next hour trying to convince them that indeed Jesus came to our world to save all of us. I explained that Israel was in a different part of our world and that people can travel there by aeroplane. They were not impressed. I said I had seen pictures of Israel and knew people who had travelled there and seen it with their own eyes. More discussion. Still not convinced. I prayed silently, asking the Lord for help. I remembered an Israeli student from the Bible school, Naphtali, who was from Bethlehem. When this was relayed to the people, I could see a change. The interpreter said, ‘Now we know that Jesus really did come to our earth in order to save us.’ Why? ‘Because we know you, and you personally know someone from Jesus’ clan. So, he could not have gone to another planet, he must have come here.’ This was a major breakthrough that so easily could have been missed.

Why Did This Take so Long to Come?

This next event took place ten years later, in another part of the country among different people. Brethren missionaries started their work in the Lumi area of what is now Sandaun Province in the early 1950s; the gospel was well received and 40 years later there were now over 50 assemblies in the district. My wife, Susan, and I were there to serve these assemblies. An obvious need was to improve the reading ability and study skills of the leaders. People in PNG work hard outside all day and enjoy it, but they find reading tough work.

About 30 elders had come to Lumi for two weeks to improve their reading and Bible study skills. I led them through the basic steps of inductive Bible study: observation, interpretation and application. Starting with observation, I had them find and write down every person and group of people, including divine and angelic beings, mentioned in the passage. This was a tough assignment for most of them but with practice we added more as the days progressed.

‘Now we know that Jesus really did come to our earth in order to save us.’

One morning a man asked if he could address the group as he had something he needed to say. He was well-respected, perhaps the oldest in the group and had worked with the early missionaries, so I agreed. He told us he needed to apologise to everyone, including me. I had no idea where he was coming from. He continued, ‘Yesterday you could probably see I was very upset and I need to confess to all of you. I wasn’t angry with any of you, I was angry with God. You see, I have been with you every day and what we are learning is so very important. But I am complaining to God as to why it took 40 years for this training to come. You are all young enough to learn, but I am an old man now and it seems it is too late for me.’ I prayed silently, ‘Lord, help me. What am I going to say?’

I said, ‘Thank you, papa Afu, for being honest with us. I am not sure what to say but let usconsider a couple of things together. Things were different when the early missionaries were here. No one knew how to read and write so they focused on that. Look how many people read now! Perhaps they tried and people just weren’t ready for it back then.’ There were nods of agreement. ‘It looks like this is God’s time for these things to be learned. I want to encourage you, papa Afu, not to give up. We still have a few more days together. Let’s pray that the Lord will help you and I know that everyone in this group will be glad to help you along. Let’s see what the Lord does.’ Everyone seemed pleased with this answer and we prayed together as a group.

In Western countries we take so much for granted. Reading, writing, analytical skills and objective reasoning are things we learn early and use throughout our lives. This is not true everywhere. It is of the utmost importance to communicate the gospel in the forms and expressions that help people to understand it properly. For believers, like these men in Lumi, to grow and develop into ministry leaders,we may need to assist them with basic skills.

An Ongoing Testimony

What the Lord has done among these remote tribes is wonderful to behold. Nothing can hold the Lord back when people open their hearts to Him. The Yuna assemblies have continued visiting them and families have opened up their homes so that the young people can attend school. Among these tribes, there are assemblies in each little village. They have their own Bible school to train ministry leaders, and hold Sunday schools and young people’s groups. Praise the Lord!

The Yuna people have about 40 active assemblies and four Bible schools in operation. One of their men is translating the Old Testament into Yuna. We will soon have oral recordings of 11 Old Testament books available to anyone with a smartphone. Pray that having the Scriptures in their own heart-language will revive an interest in the gospel.

The Lumi district assemblies and so many other places in PNG are calling out for help. There are around 450 assemblies and each has needs for development of skills, leadership and training. Please pray for the people of PNG.

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