The Jesus Way

In Papua, everyday discipleship bears good fruit


In Papua, Indonesia, wedding invitations go out the day before the big event. Our friend, Albert Gombo, being sensitive to our need for long-term planning, sent word on a Wednesday: “I will be getting married on Saturday; please come.” He even included directions: “Go to the end of the Eragaiam road and walk for about three hours.” 

My wife, Heidi, was on crutches and wisely excused herself from the journey, but our children, Arwen and Walker, were excited. I told my little discipleship group that I needed help getting my kids to the wedding and back. With big smiles they enthusiastically responded, “Let’s do it!” 

“When should we leave?” I asked.

Emi, Arwen’s first-grade teacher, is from a village near Yabendili, where the ceremony would take place. “In the morning,” he answered. After 34 years in Asia I am still not used to “rubber time.” The ensuing conversation about departure had nothing to do with when the wedding would actually start or end but was all about ensuring a good adventure for the kids.

“If we leave early we can walk slow, and it will be cool and we can sing and laugh,” Emi reasoned.

For almost 10 years Heidi and I have poured our lives into “cross-cultural, life-together discipleship.” These last years we have found our work role shifting from higher education to starting elementary education in remote villages. Last year another missionary family joined us to train nationals as teachers and administrators. The status prioritizes the wealthy who live in cities and has virtually no concern for the poor village children. Sadly, many Papuans send their children to be educated far from home, resulting in the breakup of families.

The Lord has blessed our small work over the last five years and we now have two small village grade schools that are offering an international standard of education that empowers the family and community. We can manage only 165 kids with our current resources, but five other villages are asking us to start a school with them.

Living and working together in a village context with an intentional strategy for community and discipleship enables us to become incredibly close to our national teammates. The wedding adventure, for example, is just a picture of the everyday discipleship we experience here in Papua.

We headed out to Albert’s village at 7:30 a.m. Halfway into our one-hour drive to the Eragaiam road, I was going around a hairpin corner when we met a one-ton pickup loaded with two tons of people and stuff. We were both in the middle of the road, and the other driver locked up all four wheels, sliding downhill in the mud while we slithered to one side. His Mitsubishi hit my Landcruiser, crunching its rear passenger door while breaking his plastic fender. 

Blaming is a skill found around the world, but here it is an art form. “We were both at fault since we both were in the middle of the road,” I said to the other driver, “so let’s just take care of the damage to our own vehicles.” This confused everyone, because the custom is to sit for two hours blaming each other. 

Our group piled back in, and for the next half hour we talked about how the Papuans have been trained to seek a “supernatural cause” for any bad event. This accident had to have a spiritual cause even for these third-generation Christians. Who has offended what spirit and who needs to be appeased? This is their lifestyle, yet they are learning a new way. Beliefs don’t change in a day. 

We started walking from Eragaiam at 9 a.m. with a perfect overcast to keep us cool for the first hour on the wide, smooth trail toward Yabendili. As we came out of the tall grass, Emi said, “Oh, no, our soccer field!” We had come to what looked like a mile-wide “mud glacier”—black shale-like soil that is continually creeping toward the river and villages. For the next hour we traversed deep ravines of slippery, unstable ground. Then we started straight up the side of the mountain to gain about 3,000 feet before crossing the ridge.

Walker and Arwen walked most of the trip, but at difficult sections the guys carried them. These Papuan young men are superheroes when it comes to blasting over slippery rocks and through the jungle in a pair of flip-flops. Every step of the way Emi, Alinus, Otneil, Ones and Robert were ready to carry, leap and risk their own lives to protect my kids: “Be careful of that pig, Walker! It is half wild; you can see by the way he walks.”  “Come on, you know that grass can cut. Watch out.” “You can do it!” Walker and Arwen got an education that almost no white kids in the world get. 

Guided by smoke from the cooking fire, we climbed into the village of Yabendili, 8,000 feet above sea level, at about 1 p.m. Albert was there to meet us, and the men greeted us in the tradition of “crying” as an expression of their respect and gratitude.

It was a revolutionary wedding.

Darline, the bride, is an Nduga, whereas Albert is a Walak. They had met in the orphanage in Wamena where both had lived since junior high. (Most “orphans” are kids sent to town for schooling because education in the villages is so bad.) Throughout the ceremony, continual references were made to the fact that “this never happens that we marry outside of our tribe” and “this is breaking our tradition that the children rather than the parents choose who marries whom.” Darline didn’t understand any of the service because it was in the Walak language. Her family sang a song in Nduga about Naomi and Ruth, stressing the fact that they were losing their daughter to a foreign land. 

Yet her family need not have worried. Albert is Papuan gold at its best. In a land where women are bought and sold, he will love, cherish and honor his bride. To me, that is far more revolutionary than an Nduga girl marrying a Walak man. It was well worth the crushed door on the truck and hours of trekking. During the ceremony I was thinking of our former students, like Albert, who have lived in our discipleship community and said that the most important thing they learned was about marriage and family. Most of that was what they observed and asked questions about, not what we taught in class. It was a result of life together.

The last thing I wanted to do was traverse the landslide with Walker and Arwen in darkness and pouring rain, so we took off without eating and walk-jogged for a good portion of the homeward journey. As the kids got tired, the guys carried them on their shoulders while running down the trail pretending to be their horses. These are amazing men that God has brought into our lives.

Along the way we talked about tribalism and marriage. As the rain poured down one of the guys said, “We have learned so much today. We can learn a lot in the classroom but not like what we learned on this walk.” 

“Maybe that is why Jesus lived the way He did,” I said. “He told us to go and make disciples. Maybe this is the Great Commission.” 

We ran the last 100 meters to the truck in the pouring rain and pulled into Bok about 7:30 p.m., the end of our 12-hour wedding adventure. “Thanks so much for loving my kids,” I said to my friends. “I had a blast with you guys today.”

Otniel said, “Walker and Arwen, I am so proud of you!”

Tears came to my eyes. Otneil could have been an Olympic athlete—and he is proud of my kids. There is no way a 6- and 7-year-old could have made a 15-mile trek through the mountains without the strength of this little cross-cultural team—a good lesson for a guy who likes to do everything by his own fading strength. 

Making disciples is the Great Commission. No Christian gets a “get-out-of-discipleship-free” pass. Discipleship as Jesus modeled it is a lifestyle. Last summer, the guys and I spent a lot of time renovating “Sintia’s palace,” a rotted-out house that would become the home of Walker’s teacher. Each day God did some eternal stuff as we were working, and I got to be a part of it. 

“Why is this house rotten?” one of the guys asked.

“See this water dripping through small holes in the tin?” I asked. “An occasional drip is no problem, but if it continues day after day, the ceiling, rafters, floor and joists rot out. The water makes the posts sink, and then this section of the house sinks. A small hole wrecks everything.

“This is like our lives. Sins like pornography or gossip creep in, and little by little it destroys us. Do we have the ability to control that part of our lives? What do we have to believe in order for us to have victory? Isn’t it amazing that God takes our wrecked and rotten lives and makes a beautiful palace He can use for His glory?”   

It was a week of questions and discussions about deeper-life issues, and we are all going to remember what God did in Sintia’s palace and on the road to a wedding. It will be months or years before we can say “transformation” has happened, but the process began with a group of guys doing what Jesus commissioned us to do.

Good Fruit

A number of villages have requested that we start a branch of our school for their kids, but we tell the villagers upfront that they have to provide land and a building and pay teachers’ salaries. We will come up with the rest, but because this is their school, they have to pay for it.

Recently we met with the church and village leaders in Eragaiam, the Walak village we trekked through on our way to Albert’s wedding. I shared that I didn’t view the villagers as poor but as strong, wealthy, brave and very capable people, created in the image of God. A number of tough Walak men teared up; they are starving for that kind of affirmation.

“We have to give the wood and materials and help to build this school,” they said. “We have to build a road in. We are ready to pay the teachers’ salaries.”

We were meeting about 50 meters from a beautiful elementary school that was totally empty at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. It is supported with foreign aid money and is free. Kids graduate with a shattered identity and crushed self-worth; most cannot read, write or do basic math. The villagers realize this and are ready to pay $60 a semester for their child to go to school in a place that Reuters calls one of the poorest spots in one of the poorest countries in the world.

James Tooley, in the book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, tells of an African father who was asked why he sent his child to a run-down private school when he could send his child to the government school that had great buildings and was free. He answered, “When you go to the market and someone is giving fruit away for free it is because it is rotten. If you want good quality fruit, you pay for it.”

Ob Anggen, the name the villagers gave to our school, means “Good Fruit.”

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