Changing history one heart at a time

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The South Pacific Division report1

Think of a globe. Divide its circumference into thirds in your mind. And then imagine a division so immense it stretches one-third of the circumference of that globe. That is the South Pacific Division (SPD). It stretches almost 13,500 kilometres from the Cocos Islands in the west to Pitcairn Island in the east, and from the Antarctic in the south to above the equator in the north.

Ten years of extraordinary labour and all to show for it was one teenage boy who had abandoned the faith, one dead missionary, his widow and his fatherless children. Would you wake up the next day and preach the gospel again?

The SPD is not only the largest Adventist division by territory, it’s also the most diverse. It features ultra-modern cities along with some of the most isolated locations on earth. Papua New Guinea alone has roughly 850 different languages. Our Division includes one of the world’s most southern cities where cold winds from the Antarctic blow, through to consistently balmy tropical atolls. It includes nations that are majority Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian and Caucasian. There are large Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Sudanese and Chilean communities, among many others, within its borders. 

So how do we reach a territory so immense and a population so diverse? By remembering that we have nothing to fear when we remember how God led in our history.

It was 1908 when the first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, Septimus and Edith Carr and Peni Tavodi, arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of what is today Papua New Guinea (PNG). The governor of the day had previously divided the area around Port Moresby between the various Christian denominations. The Adventists met a cool reception from the other missionaries when they arrived.2 But they weren’t deterred. They headed out of Port Moresby to a remote area in the mountains to start their mission among the Koiari people. 

From the start it didn’t go well.

The Koiari were noted by early explorer Alexander Morton to be particularly warlike.3 They certainly weren’t interested in the gospel. The Adventists set up a mission station and laboured in the remote Bisiatabu for a full year without a single baptism. The next year also ended without a baptism. The same pattern repeated over the next three long, hard years. 

Finally, in the sixth year, a teenage boy was baptised. But soon after the boy’s father pulled him out of the Adventist mission and that ended his association with the Church. 

If this beginning wasn’t discouraging enough, in 1918 Peni Tavodi, who was now married to Aliti, was bitten by a venomous snake. He died, but not before making a passionate appeal to the young men at the mission to give their lives to Jesus. 

Peni Tavodi.

Imagine the scene after Peni died. Ten years of extraordinary labour and all to show for it was one teenage boy who had abandoned the faith, one dead missionary, his widow and his fatherless children. Would you wake up the next day and preach the gospel again? 

It wasn’t until 1920—12 years after the first Adventist missionaries arrived and two years after Peni died—that a boy named Baigani accepted the gospel. This time, however, things were different. The grace of God descended on him and Baigani served Jesus for many years, having a profound impact.

More missionaries followed. In 1924 Pastor William Lock baptised 11 young people at Bisiatabu. By the mid-1930s Adventist missionaries were in many new areas of PNG. And the Lock family moved along a rugged trail known as the Kokoda Track, inland to the village of Efogi. There they set up a mission school and clinic. All along the Kokoda Track the Adventist message was preached.

At the time, however, no-one knew that in just a few short years, the Kokoda Track would go from being an obscure trail in a forgotten part of the world to the centrepiece of one of the greatest dramas in human history: the battle between the Imperial Japanese forces and the Australians, New Zealanders and their allies. 

But unlike most battles, the lasting symbolism of the Kokoda Campaign is not a fighter, general or weapon. Rather, it’s the Papuans who displayed remarkable kindness and selflessness, assisting wounded soldiers to safety. So impressed were Australians by the Papuans they called them Kokoda “angels”. Bert Buros, an Australian combat engineer, captured the admiration and thankfulness Australian soldiers felt for those who helped the wounded in a poem:

Many a lad will see his mother
and husbands see their wives
Just because [Kokoda Angels]
carried them to save their lives

A Kokoda “angel” assists a wounded Australian soldier. [Photo courtesy: Australian War Memorial]

An Australian soldier at the time put it this way: “Believe me, when this war is over and its history written there is one chap that should get a large share of the praise. He is the [Papuan] . . . He sometimes arrives with bleeding shoulders, puts the wounded gently down, shakes himself, grins and off he goes for another trip.”4

Captain John McCarthy agrees: “These [men], so gentle and compassionate with men in pain . . . hold a justly honoured place in the esteem of every Australian.”5 

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating stated: “. . . above all, we should honour and express our profound admiration for the Papua New Guinean carriers whose stalwart support was crucial to the final victory. The support they gave to Australian soldiers, the terrible conditions and dangers they endured with the soldiers, the illness, injury and death many of them suffered, constitutes one of the great human gestures of the War—maybe the great humane gesture of our history.”6

“These [men], so gentle and compassionate with men in pain . . . hold a justly honoured place in the esteem of every Australian.”—Captain John McCarthy [Photo courtesy: Australian War Memorial]

In recent years academics have striven to demythologise the Papuans who saved the wounded Australians and New Zealanders. They point out that many were coerced by the Australian military into service. While this provides texture and context for the story, it still fails to explain why people who were so mistreated were so kind in return? After all, the early accounts of the people were of a warlike, bloodthirsty culture. What changed?

For that you have to go all the way back to 1908. Because, it turns out, those 12 long years struggling to find a single person to accept the gospel had, by the time of the Kokoda Campaign, borne fruit. Alan Smith writes that, “By the time World War Two erupted, every village along the Kokoda Trail had come under some measure of Adventist mission influence, with baptised members in most villages . . . The Koiaris had become so transformed that when the Japanese penetrated the area in their advance toward Port Moresby, the Koiaris decided to remain loyal to their missionary friends.”7

Alan Smith’s account is confirmed by Pastor Steven Barna, whose grandfather was a Kokoda “angel”. Pastor Barna, who today leads our Church in the villages along the Kokoda Track, explains, “it was because of [Christianity]—it was love that drove the hearts of the people to help . . .”  Pastor Barna’s view is backed up by firsthand accounts. 

Writing out of thanks to Adventists along the track for their courageous and compassionate assistance, Lieutenant R I McIlray, states:

“Dear Pastor Lock, I am writing this letter to tell you of the grand job done by the [Papuans] of your mission . . . the good work of your people who apparently have by your example and teachings reached a stage where they can teach us something of Christian ideals . . .”8

Maybe even more extraordinary is the report from Robin Sydney McKay, an Australian Commando:

“[Y]ou had your loyal [Papuans], and your disloyal [Papuans] . . . without being in any way sectarian, we found that the Seventh-day Adventists were by far outstanding in loyalty. I know of not one Seventh-day Adventist adherent who was any way disloyal. I don’t know what it is, but it just worked out that way . . . The other religions could be one way or the other, but the Seventh-day Adventists for some reason were particularly loyal and . . . well, they always were a cleaner people, they taught them cleanliness and respect and loyalty and cheerfulness. And, you know, I’ve got no beef for the Seventh-day Adventists . . . [but] if you had to rely on a [Papuan] without knowing him, or knowing the circumstances, you know, the fact that he was a Seventh-day Adventist would swing you.”9

In a time of great trial, the change the gospel makes in people’s lives came through. 

Today roughly 10 per cent of Papua New Guineans identify themselves as Seventh-day Adventists on the national census. That’s almost half a million more people claiming to be Seventh-day Adventists than the Church counts as members! Maybe it’s because of the wonderful impact the Seventh-day Adventist Church has in PNG today. Adventists occupy many high government offices; more than 50 per cent of the students studying medicine in PNG are Adventists; Adventists run an outstanding education and health network across the country; and Pacific Adventist University is among the most selective universities in the world.10 

A science student at Pacific Adventist University.

And PNG is only one part of the SPD where the gospel is still changing history one heart at a time. 

According to national censuses, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is now the fastest growing multi-ethnic church in both New Zealand and Australia. Adventists run the premier health and wellness company in both nations—a company that organises the biggest children’s triathlon series in the world and produces New Zealand’s and Australia’s most trusted breakfast food. Avondale College of Higher Education continues to gain recognition. Two Adventist primary schools beat out 7600 competitors to make it into the top 100 academic schools in Australia. Sydney Adventist Hospital is now the largest private hospital in Australia. And Adventist Media is widely recognised as the leading Christian media organisation in the region.

Across the Trans-Pacific, Mission to the Cities initiatives have resulted in exceptional growth. In 2014, baptisms in Vanuatu were up by more than 550 per cent, baptisms in Solomon Islands were up by more than 250 per cent and 2013 saw baptisms in Samoa increase by 400 per cent.

Greater Sydney Conference president Pastor Michael Worker and South Pacific Division Youth Ministries director Dr Nick Kross lead out a baptism in Solomon Islands.

Is the growth real? Jesus said where our money is, that’s where our heart is. So let’s look at dollars and cents.

Over the past five years, SPD tithe is up 24 per cent—growing at more than twice the increase in the cost of living in four of the five years. The SPD now gives the highest world mission offerings as a percentage of tithe of any division in the world. Australia, with its small population, today is the fourth highest tithe paying nation on earth, with Australians averaging almost 50 per cent more tithe per member than North Americans.11

Is it all good news? No! The Adventist Church in the South Pacific is in desperate need of the Holy Spirit. Our only hope is . . . Jesus. The same Jesus who walked with those early missionaries out of Port Moresby and down the Kokoda Track. The same Jesus who lived in the hearts of the Koiaris as they carried broken men back to safety. The same Jesus who today continues to change history across the South Pacific, one heart at a time.

1. Major sources for this article include interviews with Alai Waigari, Pastor Steven Barna and Dr Jeff Crocombe (PAU); Lester Lock, Locks that opened doors; Seventh-day Adventists in the South Pacific 1885-1985; Milton Hook, Lotu Bilong Sevenday—Early Adventism in Papua New Guinea; John Garrett, Footsteps in the Sea: Christianity in Oceania to World War II, and a number of articles from Adventist Record and its predecessors.

2. John Garrett, Footsteps in the Sea: Christianity in Oceania to World War II, p 61.

3. Alexander Morton, Notes of a trip to the Islands of Torres Straits and the south-east Coast of New Guinea, 1877.

4. Ibid, quoting from: “New Guinea heroes tell their battle stories”, The Australian Women’s Weekly (Sydney, online edition), 24 October 1942.

5. Ibid, quoting from: Allan Dawes, Soldier superb: the Australian fights in New Guinea, Sydney, F.H. Johnston Publishing Company, 1943, p 51.

6. Speech by the Prime Minister, The Hon P J Keating, MP, Anzac Day, Ela Beach, Port Moresby, April 25, 1992.

7. Alan Smith, “The [Kokoda] Angels: the Adventist Connection,” Adventist Record, September 9, 1995, pp 8,9.

8. Lester Lock, Locks that opened doors, p 40.

9. Robin Sydney McKay, ‘M’ Special Unit, interviewed by Daniel Connell for The Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-45.

10. James Standish, “The 7% Club”, Adventist Record, December 10, 2014.

11. Based on 2014 numbers.


James Standish is director of Communication, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and editor of Adventist Record for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific.