Mission on the frontier

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There’s no road network that’ll get you around the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea (PNG) unless you count the hundreds of wiggling interconnected rivers, large and small, that break up the land into a crazy paving of tropical green and silt-laden brown. 

For the Adventist Church in PNG, this is frontier country. The South West Papua Mission has only 25 established churches—the other 92 congregations are listed in official statistics as “companies”, meaning they require organisational support to remain viable.

Without a personal visit remote village churches are cut off from the rest of their Adventist family.

Quietly spoken young pastor Lenon Greson was appointed just last year to look after the Baimuru district—15 congregations in all. Visiting them is a logistical challenge, involving a series of boat rides and bush walks. “One of the greatest moments in ministry is visitation,” says Pastor Greson. “It brings hope and assurance, strengthening the faith of our fellow church members and also the community as a whole.” Earlier this year, he spent a week visiting four village churches—Kapai, Mapaio, Maipenaru and Apiope—a journey in and out of river mouths and along PNG’s southern coastline in a small boat puttering along courtesy of a 15 horsepower engine. A transfer to dugout canoe is required for smaller waterways. Accommodation is a series of traditional village huts—the homes of church members who share their simple diet of fish, sago, greens and bananas.

Pastor Greson didn’t travel alone. “Four young men heard I would be going on the patrol and they said, ‘We will go with the pastor’s visit,’” he recalls. “They were interested in the Lord’s work. It was also part of my plan to involve young people in church work.” Three Bible workers also formed part of what Pastor Greson calls his “Spiritual Force Patrol Team”. “Some of these men have the support of sponsors who donate towards their living expenses, but some are not paid and serve God freely. They’ve asked me for sponsorship but it’s hard for me to help. We are praying that the Lord will still provide.” 

The church visits allow Pastor Greson to spend time with these far-flung members in prayer and Bible study—encouraging them to keep the faith. He’s keen to put the Adventist Church’s focus on discipleship and “total member involvement” into practice, inspired by the gospel commission of Matthew 28:18-20. And like the apostles of biblical times, the district pastor brings news from the larger Church, updating the members on new appointments, policies and upcoming events. There’s no email, no landline phone; mobile phone towers are few and far between. Without a personal visit, these remote village churches are cut off from the rest of their Adventist family. 

Small congregations are vulnerable without regular support. As Pastor Greson embarked on his recent patrol he began to hear stories that the 35-member Apiope church had lost its way. Worship services were no longer being held in their building; instead it had become a popular spot for gambling. “All we heard was negative comments,” recalls Pastor Greson.

Apiope had not been visited by a pastor for a few years and, although Pastor Greson feared the worst, he was determined to include it in the itinerary. “The Spirit of God was working, preparing them before my arrival,” he says. “The people had built up the walls of the church and they were worshipping in the building and not gambling. When we arrived they were surprised as we had not told them we were coming. I shared a message, encouraged them and prayed for them and today they are continuing in church. Our hearts were filled with tears of joy as we saw God’s people living.”

Small churches love a visit from the district director.

Pastor Greson’s work also involves reaching out into new communities. Adventists first had contact with Korovake Village in 1942. It’s one of largest communities in the Baimuru district and three other Protestant denominations coexist harmoniously there. But for the past 74 years Adventists were prevented from building a church or establishing a formal presence. 

Korovake struggles with some difficulties. Pastor Greson explains: “One of the interesting things in this community is that culture and customs are very strong. This is related to evil forces, poison, sorcery and many other similar things. The most dangerous way of sorcery and poison comes from the use of crocodiles. This is absolutely fact and it is reality. The people fear crocodiles and, when we arrived, were not washing or fishing because crocodiles kill people in this place.”

This year, for the first time, village leaders allowed Pastor Greson and a group of Adventist Community Service (ACS) volunteers to spend some time in Korovake. They tidied up the community, cutting grass and cleaning, and led a workshop on local herbs and healthy living. Local residents were invited to work together with the team and participate in their meals and daily worships. The positive contact led to biblical discussions and the opportunity to pray for the village.

“The chief of the village allowed us there because the messages and the programs were different from other churches and it was biblically based,” says Pastor Greson. “Secondly, the ACS department and church prayed and depended on God to lead us.” 

Community members told the ACS team that, since their arrival, a change had taken place. The sense of fear that usually pervaded the community had dissipated and the people were feeling a sense of freedom and peace. During the farewell gathering the chief of the community declared that the Adventist truth had come to Korovake and said the Adventist Church has permission to share the love of Jesus in their village. “Today we have some new interest members in that community,” says Pastor Greson. “The church is preparing for a follow-up program and for a church planting process. We are working hard to buy little machines like a projector and generator because people want to see Bible story pictures on slide. It’s new to this place. Help pray for us that the Lord will provide.

“With God all things are possible. We have the responsibility of the Great Commission Christ called us to. We praise God for the Holy Spirit power moving in this end time for the enhancing of the gospel work.”—Baimuru Mission Spotlight newsletter with Kent Kingston and Lenon Greson