We tend to regard death as an end. And, for the most part, it is. A final breath, and a life is finished. A person’s story and legacy, however, do not end in death.
If I were to ask you where the first Adventist missionary to die in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was from, what would your answer be? A courageous American perhaps, or a brave Kiwi? Sorry, no. “Oh, then it must have been an Aussie.” Again, no. The first Adventist missionary to die in PNG was Fijian—a man called Peni (Bennie) Tavodi.
His loss is irreparable to the work and to me. I used to seek his advice and counsel on nearly everything . . . [but] I do believe that the death of Bennie is going to speak louder to those people than his life.
In 1907 PNG remained an untouched territory for the Adventist Church. That’s when Septimus and Edith Carr, who were overseeing the Buresala Training School in Fiji at the time, accepted a call from the Australasian Union Conference (now the South Pacific Division) to enter into PNG (known then as Papua). Accompanying them would be Peni, a student from Buresala.
“They go to carry the message to a field as yet unentered by us and their departure is thus of unusual interest, as it means another outpost occupied in the great island field . . . To all human appearances their field is a most difficult one, but the Lord can open the way before His servants.”1
The difficulties were apparent from the start, with the trio receiving a “cool reception” from the locals upon their arrival.2 Much prayer and perseverance eventually resulted in the establishment of a mission at Bisiatabu, located approximately 68 kilometres from Port Moresby.
After several years of faithful service—albeit without any conversions—tragedy struck.
Peni was working in his garden with his wife, Aliti, and the wife of another Fijian worker, when he was bitten by a snake. Thinking the bite wouldn’t be fatal and not wanting to cause distress, Peni refrained from telling them what had happened. But his condition quickly deteriorated and he died later that day, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
Many believe the snake was conjured up using witchcraft. Whether that is the case or not, one thing is certain—the Church lost a great man with a heart for mission. “The boys were all around him till the last,” wrote A N Lawson in a letter to Australasian Record shortly after the tragedy. “He pleaded with them individually to yield themselves to the Lord . . . [he was] faithful unto death.”
“His loss is irreparable to the work and to me,” added Mr Lawson. “I used to seek his advice and counsel on nearly everything . . . [but] I do believe that the death of Bennie is going to speak louder to those people than his life.”
And it did. Not long after the tragedy, two boys responded to a call to follow Christ—one of whom was Peni’s cook.3 From there, the gospel spread like wildfire. Fast-track to 2014 and there are approximately 250,000 Adventists in PNG.
Much time has passed since Peni’s death—more than enough time to forget. But that isn’t in keeping with the Christian spirit. The Book of Acts is full of stories about the early church. We forget these at our own peril. The same can be said of the stories of how God continues to work with His Church in the modern era.
“We have to remember that the Adventist message did not go forward in PNG without tremendous personal sacrifice,” says South Pacific Division (SPD) president Dr Barry Oliver, who, along with other church leaders from across the Division, recently visited Peni’s gravesite (see article photo).
“It’s a privilege to remember Peni Tavodi—his ultimate gift and the enormous sacrifice of his family and many others since, as well. It took the first Adventist missionaries a number of years before they had their first baptism—a teenage boy. Who could have guessed back then that this growing nation would have over half a million Adventists (counting our unbaptised children)?
“That is the power of going where Jesus calls, even when the cause appears hopeless and the price unbearable.”
Peni’s story is still changing lives today. As a symbol of unity, a meaningful reconciliation service was held a few years ago between Adventist Koiri (who are indigenous to the region) and Fijian leaders in order to express sorrow for Peni’s death.
Following God’s call into uncharted territory cost Peni Tavodi his life. His story and legacy, however, live on. And it’s something we will never—ever—forget.
Visit <www.spd.adventist.org/in-memoriam> to learn more about the brave men, women and children who paid the supreme price in sharing the gospel of Christ in the South Pacific.
1. Union Conference Record, June 15, 1908.
2. John Garrett. Footsteps in the Sea: Christianity in Oceania to World War II, p 61.
3. A N Lawson. Australasian Record, December 9, 1918.
Linden Chuang is assistant editor of Adventist Record—digital.