By Sam Christiansen
Bob and I watched the Yembi Yembi video and sneaked pieces of hot elk steak. “You’ll be a different person when you come back,” he said. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking, but I knew better. I don’t change that easy. In fact, I was so divided between seeking the adventure and running from it that I wasn’t sure I’d ever find out what changes might take place. After months of making and changing travel itineraries, getting shots, passports and visas, meeting with team members, writing support letters, and talking to church congregations, we were within days of our appointed departure.
Travel to a third world country would involve coming face to face with other cultures. I didn’t expect it to begin in LAX, however, but it did. And so began an odyssey of traveling some 50 hours, through four countries, and into mind-numbing cultural experiences. It also began an educational experience far beyond the reach of any formal classroom, in any university. But even exceeding the issues of travel, culture, and learning was the issue of faith. Faith that we would return home — and in a reasonable time. Faith that the needs of an ill-prepared, lacking-in-experience group of six Midwesterners traveling to distant lands would be met each step of the way. Faith that our limited skills and knowledge of what we were getting into could make an eternal difference. The issue of faith would be the essay question on the semester final. Would we pass muster? Would we, like Peter, have the faith to step out of the boat and onto the raging sea?
Stepping off a jet plane and onto a jungle tarmac in a place that only faintly resembles an airport is exhilarating. Coming face to face with people whom you have not seen for two years and care deeply about is a thrill. It isn’t, perhaps, on the same par as the joy of seeing your child for the first time, but it’s close! Finally, arriving at Wewak and hooking up with Tony and Tara was an incredible experience. We felt more than just a little bit like the lost sheep being found! It was homecoming, Christmas, a birthday, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one exuberant celebration. Frankly, it defies description.
Less than 24 hours after arriving in Wewak, we found ourselves loading a 46 foot long dugout canoe in the middle of nowhere for a 5 and 1/2 hour “float” down the Salumei river. This experience defies description as well. On one hand the beauty of the flora and fauna were breathtaking; on the other, the apparent lack of stability of the boat nearly robbed us of breath. Logs, sand bars, engine problems, darkness, and gas tank changes each added their own color to the trip. The arrival in Yembi Yembi was with mixed feelings. Getting onto solid ground and out of the dugout was a blessing. Stepping into a dark village filled with dark-skinned people who did not speak our language gave cause for apprehension.
The apprehension quickly melted into guarded comfort when the village ladies fawned over Scarlet and Logan, when both the men and women refused to let us carry more than small personal effects up the steep hill. Finding a jungle house with beds and electricity at the top of the hill where we would stay added even more to the comfort. Things were looking up!
Our first day of work in the jungle began at sunrise with work on the floor of the house. At mid-morning, we stopped for a leisurely breakfast, returned to work until noon, then swam, changed clothes and ate lunch. After lunch and a relaxing ‘siesta’ we worked until dark, swam again, changed clothes, and ate dinner. After dinner, the more social in our ranks took time for conversation, while others headed to bed, preparing to repeat the process again the following day.
While we continued our hot and dirty work, our female counterparts cooked satisfying meals, made bread, kept us fortified with plenty of water, washed grubby clothes, applied bandages and sunscreen, and visited with the ladies from the village when they brought fruit and veggies from their gardens. They were constantly performing an integral and necessary function of the project. Although the house can be seen today, that portion of the work was largely, and remains, unseen.
As we watched our efforts manifest themselves in the shape of a jungle home, we could also see our inhibitions disappearing. Living with a team — sleeping, eating, bathing, and working together has a way of putting aside any pretentiousness that one may harbor. You become less private and more focused on the synergy of your effort. But changes were also taking place that weren’t so readily visible. Changes from within began to show without.
I floundered with a machete and jungle pole, ala roof rafter needing to be rid of its bark, as four village men watched me with a keen eye. I had no understanding of their conversation but the quiet laughter was telling. They were clearly amused at my lack of dexterity with the big knife. After rolling and smoking a cigarette, the older man in the group approached me and signaled for the machete. He pointed to the pole and said, “Dry skin.” “Yes,” I responded, “dry skin.” He began to deftly remove the “dry skin” with quick, scraping chops on the bark. I held the pole for him and he quickly converted the former tree into a suitable rafter. Then, with a few fast accurate chops, cut the top off at the proper length. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up, hoping that it wasn’t some socially unacceptable gesture in his culture. He grinned back through red lips and stained teeth and gave me a thumbs up in return. “Name bilong you?” I asked. “Joe,” was his reply. “Name bilong me, Sam,” I said. “Yes,” he smiled back, “Sam.” Joe and I always greeted each other with the thumbs up sign after that. He was middle aged and muscular, warm and always ready with a smile.
Days passed, and I had similar experiences with Greg and Rodney. All three would help me often as I worked on the house. All three were eager to ask me questions about America and answer mine about their language and customs. One day Roy brought carvings in wood and stone to show me. Artifacts that may have been hundreds of years old, prized possessions for Roy, but he wanted to show me what “my ancestors make.” I was touched a little more each day by the friendly spirit of these people. The apprehension that I felt prior to traveling to Yembi Yembi was becoming disappointment when I considered that I would soon have to leave. The changes were becoming so real as to be nearly palpable.
Only one factor alone made me anxious to get back in that dugout and head up river. The water was high. I wanted to get the river travel over before it went down again. But it meant leaving behind people whom I don’t know if I’ll ever see again. People who have, through their friendliness and the persistent “tug” of God’s Holy Spirit, forever secured a place in my heart. Brothers and sisters who need to hear about Jesus and His grace in their own tongue. People with whom I desperately desire to spend eternity.
A short-term missions trip may not be for everyone. It is laden with pitfalls. It will show you the deprivations, difficulties, the separation, and the sacrifices that missionaries make every day. It will show you that hearts for the lost must be much greater than those of the missionaries alone to be successful. It will show you that while you may live on Main Street, USA, you have an integral role and responsibility in worldwide missions. You will learn that you must hold your missionaries to be accountable to your church, to the people they serve, and to God. You will learn that the job set before us is overwhelming. You will learn that the passive heart can become impassioned, and that a 180 degree turn is nothing more that a tiny jog in God’s road. It can be very scary; and you will learn that Bob was right.