All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 NRSV) As we work among people from two cultures that differ from ours, we are reminded that our aim as Christians is to be conformed to Christ as revealed in the Bible.
Back in Australia, the Judeo-Christian ethic is being eroded, but vestiges remain as the average person believes in some of the ten commandments. They frown on murder (except of the unborn), stealing, lying in court, or cheating on your partner, and perhaps believe that children should obey their parents. But we still can meet with like-minded Christians in church who have the same basic values as we do, and we are able to fellowship in English.
Our fellow workers overseas have grown up in cultures built on other religions, and even in the church our values do not always mesh. Individual responsibility is a concept that the Scriptures teach and we hold high, but when I read Daniel’s and Nehemiah’s prayers, I am challenged as they confess the sins of their people using ‘we’: “We have sinned. We have not listened to Your prophets.” In Western cultures, I think we could improve our unity as the body of Christ. The Asians we work with are very gregarious and we have been asked if we weren’t lonely, when there were only three of us in a small house! As an introvert, being alone or in a small group is a welcome relief! Sometimes having 27 people crowded into our small lounge feels like too much.
The Papuan culture values one’s clan above everyone else and people will defend their clansman even if he is obviously in the wrong. Murder and adultery usually require payment or payback, and the clan loses or benefits depending on whether their person offended or was the victim. This practice gets our hackles up as they often take advantage of the powerless, for example poor widows’ pigs get used to pay people who are wealthier and exorbitant prices are demanded. Injustice is hard to live with. Financially, people feel obligated to help any of their clan who asks for money, even when it means handing over money they do not have. The Bible School treasurer is always relieved when we are in the country, so that I can do the books and hold the Bible School money. Then he can tell those who put pressure on him, “Go and ask Mrs. Esther for it.” I say “No” to unreasonable demands (when they have the nerve to ask) and afterwards other lecturers too will tell me how relieved they were because they disagreed with the request but couldn’t protest to someone who is older.
Prestige is a big thing in both cultures. The Asians use honorifics all the time and the Papuans are starting to adopt them too. It feels weird to be calling young teachers “Mrs teacher X” and hearing them call each other “older sibling” regardless of their age. In the church, people want the titles and perks but not the responsibility and work attached to being the head of something. Government jobs are prized as they give a salary and pension irrespective of any effort. When we protested diplomas being sold or misappropriated, the Bible School principal shrugged and said “That is what we do.” At Bible School it seems that the certificate is the most important thing. Teachers give high scores on exams and ignore cheating or dumb down the questions to things like, “In the book of SAMUEL, what did Hannah call her baby?” No wonder false teaching abounds.
Wesley has been teaching from the Old Testament prophets and warning people that God calls us to account for how we treat the powerless. Often, when he preaches in a church, he will ask “Do you have any widows?” Yes, yes. “Are their houses leaky and in poor condition?” Oh yes, for sure. “Well, shame on you! God commands us to care for widows — go and fix them!” Stunned silence. Womi, one of our past lecturers, caught the picture and reported that this teaching was unheard of in remote areas. At Bible School, he was receptive to our urging that widows and the poor be the guests of honour at banquets rather than corpulent rich men in prominent positions, and it has been great to see the change and the gratitude of the thin old ladies.
The Asian culture seems more egalitarian, but we continue to battle domestic violence in the Papuan culture, even in church. After Wesley preached against immorality because we have high numbers of HIV-positive and AIDS cases, using Joseph and Samson as examples (“Say NO”), one of the church elders got up and summarised “Yes, women are the problem—ever since Eve, women are causing sin” (hence they need to be downtrodden).
The Mamit Bible School actually has a rule that wives may not be beaten. When Yekimes beat his wife for failing to have his meal ready on time, he was expelled. His church sent them right back, demanding we keep him as they had no one else to become their pastor. Recently, a female MAF pilot was coming to Mamit. When I mentioned it at the service, the students clapped and one of the lecturers commented “See, it is worth educating your daughters!” We are sad about all the illiterate women and girls who miss out on education because their families only value their gardening work, not caring that this cuts them off from reading God’s message to them in their Bibles. The gist of teaching for women in church is to ‘shut up and obey your man or men’. Pornography is rife which makes this attitude even more dangerous. I prepared material of encouragement for a women’s conference which Womi used. He said the women were crying as he preached that they were made in the image of God and God loves women. He told them that he would not be where he is if not for his mother. On May 12, the loss of MAF pilot Joyce Lin was a major blow. The engine of her plane malfunctioned just after take-off from Sentani and she plunged into Lake Sentani.
In the West, the teaching of evolution is so prevalent that illness and death are almost exclusively credited to come from physical causes and often just the symptoms are treated, although there are some physicians who will delve into the effects of anger, unforgiveness and bitterness on the body. In contrast, most sickness is assumed to be from spiritual causes in the Papuan culture.
One day a Bible School student brought a handwritten letter to me, asking that I type it for him. Looking at the legible writing, I started saying “No need to do that as it is readable”, but I began to read it and was shocked at the accusations of witchcraft! He told me his nephew had died of unknown causes, so he was advising that they have a witch hunt. I told him that one of Mamit’s recent wars was caused by a false accusation that an evangelist’s wife did witchcraft to kill a young woman who showed signs of STDs before her death. Praise God, he was able to be persuaded not to send his letter. I can only remember one year when we did not bury multiple members of the Bible School community. With COVID-19 now, the lack of hygiene and good nutrition are especially concerning.
When we lost our visa in March we sought to be proactive about the threat of Coronavirus and supplied bars of soap to all the school children and patients at the medical clinics. We also arranged for a tank of oxygen to be sent to Mamit should there be a serious case. The Lamp of Hope teachers made face masks for the first few weeks of their holidays. The Bible school closed down for a few months but decided to all come together again, much to our chagrin, in order to graduate third year students. More recently, Wes worked on a poster in Lani about Coronavirus, to be sent to each church throughout the Lani language area. There are approximately 1000 Lani churches in all; we normally only have contact with about 300 of them.
Praise God that His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by His own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 NRSV) It is a comfort to know that our people have the Bible in their language and the Holy Spirit to speak through it, as we wait for travel to open up again. Your prayers are powerful and effective, and we are very grateful for them and your support which has upheld us all of these years. Only heaven will reveal all that the LORD has done in answer to your prayers.
by Wes and Esther Dale