Darkness had already fallen over the craggy mountains, so I had to watch my footing as I navigated the steep and narrow pathway. The only sound came from the chirping of a couple of lonely crickets. I ducked to avoid the low thatched doorway as I entered the neighboring hut.
Wearing only a faded, ripped pair of shorts, Tonggop was sitting alone by the fire.1 He did not raise his eyes but sat staring at the fire as he whittled away on a hardwood arrow tip. Finally he spoke softly in the local trade language, “I heard the men talking earlier. If you do not give them what they want, they will chop you up with their machetes and leave your bodies to be burned.”
As he spoke those words, a wave of fear swept over me, and the seriousness of our situation hit me. What were we to do? After six long years of preparation, I had just moved my wife and my four young sons from Florida to the middle of a nearly impenetrable jungle in the Asian Pacific with the purpose of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the unreached Wonok people.
A New Home
Five months earlier, my sons and I had built our simple bush house with the help of Wonok men from the Inveya hamlet. We stripped small straight trees of their bark and nailed them together to build the foundation and frame the house. Then we shaped flat boards for the walls with nothing but axes and machetes. We covered the wooden floor beams with the bark of local pun trees. For the roof we laid down rubber strips and covered them with palm fronds to protect the rubber from the intense tropical sun. My family now called this home.
The year was 2006. My wife, Libby, schooled the boys each day and had already learned how to make most meals from scratch, including fresh bread in our old wood-burning stove. We were both starting to learn the language and culture of the people. My days were full, as I followed the men out hunting for baic (a wild marsupial) and nggoica (wild pig), and I hung out with them in the koinyawi (men’s hut).
The Wonok language would prove to be difficult because their verbs can take many forms. In fact, I would later find that each and every verb could morph up to 2000 different ways, depending on the context!
No outsider had yet learned the Wonok language. It was a slow process watching them in action. The Wonok people were truly at home in the jungle. The men were happiest deep in the forest, as long as they had their tobacco and betel nut to chew on. As I followed them each day, I wrote down as much as I could, and then headed back to my hut to break down the phrases and sentences and figure out the grammar patterns. This went on week after week, and my language ability slowly grew.
In Harm’s Way
As my mind struggled to process Tonggop’s words that night, my eyes were fixed on his fire. The flames were magical. Like living creatures, they would slowly rise up, stretch their arms up to the sky, and then vanish. They danced over the coals, as their warmth permeated the hut.
What would we do? These hostile men had entered our village a few days earlier. They were not from the tribe we were working with and were known for their ferocity. In the past they had even taken hostages, and some captives never made it back alive! These warriors demanded things that we could not give. And now they were angry.
I needed to get my family out of danger! As I left the warm, smoky hut, the black night and cool mountain air again engulfed me.
Libby and I sat down on the bark floor of our little jungle house. The single dim lightbulb reflected our heavy hearts. We cried together and prayed to God, knowing we had no way to get out of this danger. We were too far from anyone who could help. The strangers had cut down some trees so they could observe our house. There was no escape.
That night the Lord strengthened our hearts. I remember thinking, Lord, I know you never make mistakes and you have us here for a reason. You are in control of every situation and every person, and you are in control of this night. I know from the promises of your Word that you always have the best in mind for my family, and I trust you.
We were too far from anyone who could help. The strangers had cut down some trees so they could observe our house. There was no escape.
Moments later, we checked our email via our satellite modem, and a fellow missionary—not knowing our situation—was checking on us and included Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (ESV).
Through teary eyes we read each line as if they had been written directly to us. “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (ESV).
The Lord placed that beautiful passage on the hearts of our dear friends, knowing what we needed. “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
These words, penned by David so long ago, came alive again and calmed our heavy hearts. God protected us for the next two weary days while a missionary helicopter planned a risky rescue. Just hours before the attempt, the outsiders unexplainably and suddenly left the village without harming us in any way.
That was just the first of many trials, and each time God’s Word came alive to inspire us and see us through.
Where to Begin?
After living with the Wonok people day in and day out for three years, we finally became fluent in their language. By this time we had done countless hours of medical assistance in their homes, rejoicing with them at each birth, and mourning with them at each death. We even developed a literacy school for them, and had become trusted and respected members of the community.
Finally it was getting close to the time to share God’s message. But how could we possibly hope to see any significant change with such an isolated people who had struggled in spiritual darkness for thousands of years? Until we started working with them, they didn’t have a Bible or any verses clearly written in their own language, and their souls were desperately lost.
They believed evil spirits controlled every aspect of life—from birth to death—and these spirits demanded their devotion and sacrifice. If a spirit was offended, for example, they might chop off the finger of a newborn baby and offer it as an appeasement.
They also believed that the spirits of women in the village could attack the men at night, causing sickness and death. The men used special leaves for divination to find which women were the “witches” attacking them. Once they had a clear answer, they would attack the women, filling them full of arrows until they bled to death.
Along with their ancestors’ teachings about evil spirits, some recent false teachers from other nearby tribes had come in and brought a works-based gospel to them. Their twisted teaching had caused much confusion but no relief from fear.
So, how could we help them out of their mess? How could they come to an understanding of their sinfulness, their need for a Savior, and ultimately the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Before we came to the jungle, we had excellent training from veteran missionaries with New Tribes Mission who had served other tribes. They knew by experience that you cannot water down the message or just start in the New Testament. This would leave too many questions in their minds. We needed to start where God started—in Genesis—and tell the whole message from the beginning.
We were part of a team. From the start of our work among the Wonok, we had been working with the Ingles family. They lived just down the path. Now that we were fluent, my partner, Tim Ingles, and I worked around the clock to develop chronological Bible lessons and translate Scripture to go along with them. We worked our way through Genesis and then Exodus and various passages in the Old Testament. We sought passages that showed how all men are sinners and without hope because of the first man’s sin, and also how God worked through history to prepare the way for the Redeemer. Then we worked our way through the Gospels, showing how the Redeemer was born, lived a sinless life, and ultimately died for the sins of the world and was raised back to life.
At God’s ordained time in 2010, we began to present His message to the people. We taught through 70 chronological lessons, 6 days a week, for about 3 months. Hearing the foundations of the Christian faith laid down slowly and systematically, our tribal friends were amazed at the Bible’s teaching. They saw how Yahweh was the great Creator Spirit. He was more powerful than everything else in the world. They learned about our ancestor Adam and how when he disobeyed God, death came to him and all of us, his descendants. They learned of the holiness of God, and about how He demanded a blood payment for sin. They saw how the blood of a substitutionary lamb could cover up sin, but not do away with it.
Only then did they learn about the Lord Jesus, born into this world, fully Yahweh and fully man. They saw how He lived a perfect life and helped people and performed many miracles to validate that He was indeed God. And they learned how Jesus had no need to die, since He was perfect and in fellowship with God. But He willingly and fearlessly died to become the replacement for those who would put their faith in Him.
As we finished up the teaching of the death, burial, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, many of the Wonok people understood clearly and were full of thankfulness for what Jesus had done for them to overcome the source of all their fears. That day a church was born as scores of the tribal people jubilantly received God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus!
Never-Ending Power to Inspire
Now in 2015, as I look back on that terrifying evening early in our ministry, I can remember the overwhelming peace God put in my heart. I remember feeling ready to die if the Lord wanted that for me. It was very scary, but I thank God for the experience. The Lord used that trial, along with many others, to strengthen my resolve to share the gospel no matter what the cost.
Since then the enemy, Satan, has tried many times to hinder God’s work, but he has not prevailed. Today, the Wonok tribal church has grown in maturity and is even taking God’s message to distant hamlets.
God used the message of His Word to change my youthful goals of a safe career in marine biology, and He put within my wife and me a yearning to take the gospel to an unreached people group. God convinced us that it would be best for our family to live in a place where we would be forced to rely on God alone. Without fail, He has proven Himself faithful in our lives, and He continues to use His Word over and over to spur us to complete the work He has begun.
God continues to use His Word from Genesis to Revelation—clearly translated in tribal languages—to inspire and comfort new followers deep in the remote jungles of the Asian Pacific and around the world. It crosses every barrier, and overcomes any confusion or darkness.