Mission Trip to Malekula
Flexon is from Malekula, the second largest island in Vanuatu. Since his conversion back in June 2005, he has been requesting that we make a trip back to his home village of Tulwei. He desperately wanted to take the truth to his family and friends.
The time was finally right for us (along with his wife, Fiona) to make such a trip. This was planned as a survey trip of sorts, as this was going to be my first trip to Malekula (and to our knowledge, the first time Christ’s gospel has been taken there). I also sent out letters to all of our Bible correspondence course students beforehand, but was not able to meet with any of them face-to-face on this trip. A few of them did contact me though, and hopefully I will be able to get together with them next time.
Lest I forget to mention it in my daily journal below (I am writing it two weeks after the fact), I must say that I was very encouraged by both Flexon and Fiona during this trip. Their grasp of the truth and desire to share it is a treasure to this missionary. To think that they were only converted themselves a few short years ago! I pray that their zeal never grows dim.
Monday, 29 June - Shawnda, Titus and my sisters dropped us off at the airport about 10:00am. We were originally supposed to depart at 6:45am, but I received a call from Air Vanuatu on the Friday before stating that our departure time had changed. I am assuming their just weren’t enough passengers to warrant the earlier flight.
When they called our number, we headed out the door to a very small, twin engine plane - an eight-seater (plus two more for the pilots). There were seven of us on board, which meant I got a double seat to myself - I don’t know how the others did it with two people in each row, as I was cramped even with the extra space! The 1 hour flight was relatively uneventful. I did think the pilot looked awfully young to be flying solo, but must admit that he did a fine job (does that mean I am getting old?)
Everyone should have the opportunity to experience a domestic Vanuatu flight in the daytime - shear beauty! Blue, turquoise and green waters, white surf, black and white sandy beaches, and islands sprouting up out of the ocean. We landed on the dirt/grass airstrip just after noon. Every time I touch down in an airfield like that, I feel like I am in a movie. The airport was a corrugated-tin shed, connected to a blackened facade of the old cement building - it had been burned down a couple years ago because of a land dispute (two groups of locals claimed ownership of the land in order to receive royalty payments from the airline - the losing group set the airport on fire). Flexon immediately eyed the transport that goes to his village, a late-model Toyota pickup. He went and corresponded with the driver, and came back to let us know that the truck needed to make one trip, and would return shortly to pick us up and take us to Tulwei. “Shortly” is a relative term in Vanuatu, whose national motto is “Another Time, Another Pace.” An hour later, we were still waiting on the transport - by then we were the only souls left at the airport. Thanks to the new cellular network in Vanuatu, I was able to call Shawnda on my mobile phone to let her know we’d made it safely. Flexon then called one of his cousins, who was in town nearby and agreed to come and get us. Twenty minutes later, two vehicles pulled up to the airport at the exact same time, literally. Of course, it was our original transport driver and Flexon’s cousin. Everyone got a good laugh out of the story, and we hopped in the Toyota.
Our first stop was at the town’s general store, where we loaded up on groceries for the week - 5kg of rice, several packs of Ramen noodles, tinned tuna, sugar, crackers, cooking oil, and coffee. Most of our meals would be from their usual diet of local fruits and vegetables, but they always seem to enjoy some “white-man food” (as they call it), as they don’t usually have the money to buy things at the store. My bill was approximately $38.25. Interestingly, the transport driver spent $46.50 on 7 packs of cigarettes - that really blew my mind!
I thought we were headed straight for the village, but as we pulled out of the store’s parking lot we headed to the town center where the open market is located instead. The transport driver comes to town (Lakatoro) every morning, and returns in the afternoon when all his passengers are finished with their business. A one-way trip under this scenario is about $3 per person. To charter the truck would be a flat fee of $30, so we just waited patiently for about an hour. I met several of Flexon’s relatives while we were sitting there under a mango tree.
The actual drive time to Tulwei was only about 45 minutes, which included 2-3 stops along the way to drop people off at their houses (or what sometimes seemed like the middle of nowhere). I was amazed by row after row after row of coconut trees. During the height of the copra trade, this island processed a significant amount of coconuts. . Unfortunately, the market has tanked in the last several years, and it is no longer economical to harvest the produce.
We were all sitting in the bed of the truck, and everyone was very interested in the lone white man! I was pleased that when I said I worked with Christ’s church, two of the ladies perked up and said that they listen to radio program every Sunday afternoon - how encouraging! They had good things to say about the programming, stating their appreciation of our clear, Bible-based teaching. I later learned that they and several other members of the Presbyterian Reformed Church listen each week - this seems to be a potential open door for future trips, as they live and worship in Tulwei.
We received a very warm welcome from Flexon’s family. All of the kids were especially reactionary to my arrival - some excited to see a white man, and some scared to death (several of them wailed every time I looked at them throughout the entire week). It was such a pleasure to meet Flexon’s mom, sisters, brother, and extended family. Flexon’s mother had tears in her eyes when she saw him, as the last time she had seen him was at her husbands funeral just a few months ago. Flexon has been very upset that we were not able to go and teach his father before he died, and it was obvious that everyone still missed the family patriarch.
We were ushered to our house, newly constructed by Flexon’s dad for our coming. Like all the houses in the village, it was raised about 10 inches off the ground with split-palm flooring, woven bamboo walls, and a thatch roof. It measured about 15 x 10 feet. They had hung a piece of material from the roof to divide the room into two parts - I slept on one side, with Flexon and Fiona on the other. It worked out quite nicely. I was also pleased to find out that they had dug a new toilet in honor of our coming (kinda like our old saying of “putting on the dog” I guess ... ha!). The toilet was a Port-a-Potty sized room with a square-foot whole cut out of the floor - simple but adequate.
By this time, the sun was beginning to go down, and so we got settled and hurriedly began getting ready for our evening study as we would be without light soon. Flexon’s mom, three adult sisters and adult brother were all in attendance for every study, along with their spouses. His oldest two sisters have 20-something year-old daughters who were also present. Two of his brothers were in Vila, but we hope to study with them there in the near future. I usually approach public studies like this as a construction project - foundation, main structure, and finishing. We studied an overview of the Bible as a book, considering the two Testaments, the various breakdowns of the Bible books, and closed with a general outline of the entire Bible. As we often get here, everyone was very complimentary of the lesson, stating that they had never been given such a clear presentation of the Bible as a whole. We often say that ni-Vanuatu are very religious and God-fearing people, but tend to have little or no knowledge of the Bible. This makes it a great setting for mission work.
After the study, we enjoyed our first installment of laplap, “Malekula-style.” Flexon’s mom was the chief cook for the evening. In Malekula, they cook a whole chicken in with the laplap. When cooked, the chicken and juices are left in the middle, and they “milk” a coconut over it. This creates a dipping sauce for the laplap, which ends up making every bite taste like chicken! It is by far the best way to eat laplap, and I truly enjoyed it and the chicken. It is eaten in a sort of buffet-style - several sit down on the floor surrounding the laplap and once you’ve eaten as much as you want, you get up and someone else takes your place.
I was good and tired by the time the sun went down, and so I went to bed pretty early.
Tuesday, 30 June - After a breakfast of coffee and freshly made, local bread, we met for our second and third studies. Since we were going to be there for a relatively short amount of time, I wanted to teach two lesson per day. Flexon initially thought it would be best to run studies in the morning, so that everyone would be free to go about their normal routine the rest of the day (working in the garden, fishing, washing clothes, cutting fire wood, preparing meals, etc.). We studied “God’s Chain of Authority” (looking at how God communicates with man through the New Testament) and “The Three Time Periods of the Bible” (helping to distinguish between the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian Ages when studying the Bible). There were 12 adults present for these studies, and they seemed to go over well, but I must admit that it was odd to have finished my teaching for the day by 8:30am. Following the studies Fiona helped me pass out a suitcase full of secondhand clothes I brought to share with Flexon’s family, mostly women’s and children’s clothes - it was clear that they were much appreciated.
Flexon and I walked through the bush about 2 minutes down to the ocean. I will never get tired of seeing the ocean and the islands. Flexon tried to spear some crabs, but was unsuccessful. We walked down river to “swim” (Bislama for bathe). It as a beautiful setting, and actually reminded me of a river in Colorado - cool, crisp, clear water with a stony bottom. Though it was a bit of a hike from the house, I was happy to go there every morning for my bath.
We had a lunch of rice, tuna, and island cabbage. I did some reading/studying after lunch, and eventually fell asleep for about an hour. That evening I had a good conversation with Flexon’s brother, Alsen. He stated that he had led a sinful life, but his dad’s death he had opened his eyes to the need for repentance and faithfulness to God. He asked some questions about the church and baptism in particular. Since he was really the only male present for all of the studies, I was glad that he showed so much interest, as the church would need his leadership were it planted here.
Just before sundown they set up a TV and DVD player (powered by a diesel generator) and watched boxing from the early 1990s - two Lennox Lewis title fights. It was odd to be surrounded by so much primitivity, and yet have a TV.
Night number two brought laplap feast number two (we were going to be there for five days, and Flexon’s mom, 3 sisters, and brother each wanted the honor of preparing a laplap for us). After dinner, several of the young men headed down to the ocean to go diving. Two of them jumped in with masks, snorkels, an underwater flashlight and a speargun. Several of us stood on the shore and watched. Before too long, they had surfaced with a fish ... and then a lobster ... and then two crabs ... and then two more lobsters ... and then a handfull of shellfish. By the end, we had a sack full of seafood! We made our way back to the house and settled in for the night.
Wednesday, 1 July - No fresh bread available today, so we substituted crackers with our coffee. The water was extra hot this morning, and burned my tongue quite completely.
We started our morning study about 8:00. Having laid the foundation in our first three studies, we were now ready to move into the main structure of our studies. Our forth study was entitled “The Church of Christ,” in which we consider the meaning and importance of the phrase. This lesson is very important, as in it we see that Christ established but one church and consider exactly what “one” really means. The study went a little long, and made an executive decision to wait before starting another study. I told them it would be like eating more food when you are already full. They all agreed, and we planned to hold our next study that evening (now that I knew they had a generator, I volunteered to pay for the fuel so we could study after dark.
After my morning swim in the river, we took a tour of the village. We walked to one end and passed the village school, several denominational church buildings, and lots of coconut trees. Flexon would tell stories about various landmarks as we went. Once we reached the end of the village (it is not that populous, but very spread out), we turned around and headed the other way, ending up at the ocean about 20 minutes into our walk. Some fisherman had just come ashore with their catch from the previous two-day voyage. They were distant relatives, so Flexon visited with them for a few minutes (speaking in their local language). There were some kids there who were very excited to see me, so I went over and talked to them. They asked if I had a camera and if I would take a photo of them. I did, and they LOVED being able to see themselves in the LCD screen afterwards - digital cameras make it possible to let the locals see themselves, which they don’t normally do (don’t have many photos of themselves or access to mirrors). We walked back to the house with a large fish donated by these relatives.
A few minutes after we arrived back at the house, it was time for lunch. Flexon came in with two plates in hand - one with a whole lobster, and the other with 7 boiled whole sweet potatoes. He said, “here’s your lunch.” There was absolutely no way I could physically put that much food into my body at one time (nor was I even exactly sure how to eat the lobster), but said thanks and dug in the best I could. A similar lunch at a restaurant in Vila would have been about $30, but here it was basically free - fresh from the ocean and the garden. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, resting and playing with the kids.
I haven’t mentioned yet that there is a small hill on the side of the road that goes from the house to the river. This hill is the only place you can receive a cell phone signal, so Flexon and I headed there about 3:30 each afternoon for me to check in at home - quite a blessing!
Once the laplap had been prepared and put on the fire, we started up the generator and began our evening study. We looked at the characteristics of the one true church we had studied about that morning - specifically its organization, worship and doctrine. This being our third day in the village, news had really spread of our presence and we had a largest attendance to date - about 20 adults. There were a few questions following the lesson, which showed that the people were really listening to and thinking about the lesson. One man in particular, an elder in the Presbyterian Reformed Church, seemed to be sincerely interested and asked some thoughtful questions. He and I visited for several minutes after the study.
After another round of Malekula laplap, we were all ready for bed.
Thursday, 2 July - After another morning of HOT coffee and crackers, I got ready for our morning study (we decided that the morning/afternoon schedule worked best). Our topic of study was Salvation, in which I ask and answer a series of questions: What does sin do? Where is salvation found? How do we enter into Christ? and What is baptism? This study is such an important one, as it deals directly with the conversion process. I pray that seeds were planted in this and other studies that will produce fruit in the future.
Our hike today was up to the garden. We are always amazed at how far people have to walk to get to their gardens (especially in light of the fact that they have to carry the produce back to the house). Along the trail Flexon would tell me stories about his childhood, explain what land belonged to whom, and point out various fruits and vegetables. Flexon has a plot of land that was left to him by his father. I could hear the pride in his voice as we walked along in his garden. We stopped momentarily to eat a naus, which tastes a bit like a pear. The remainder of the day was pretty lazy - reading, resting and playing with the kids. I enjoyed sitting down with two of Flexon’s sisters while they were preparing the evening meal. They had several thoughts and questions to discuss. I tried to get some videos of the kids because they are so active and funny, but of course as soon as I brought the camera out they all went “back into their shells.”
During the day, several had come up to Flexon with questions, so Thursday night’s study time was devoted to answering those. As in most places throughout Vanuatu, the Seventh Day Adventist Church has spread their doctrine effectively, so many of the questions were based on their teachings. We talked about food laws, the removal of the Old Law, worshiping on Saturday vs. Sunday, sprinkling vs. immersion, and the appropriateness of eating food in a church building. In all of this, it seemed that people were very interested in the topics of study, and they seemed to be understanding the answers I was giving. As had become our practice, Flexon got up after me and clarified a few things in their local dialect.
After our fourth round of Malekula laplap and some visiting, we all went to bed. I slept well as the temperature the entire week was very pleasant, a bonus of traveling in the winter months of the Southern Hemisphere.
Friday, 3 July - Our study this morning was “What baptism means.” As I mentioned before, I could have coerced several to be baptized during the week without actually being converted. The studied covered nine responsibilities a person agrees to take on when they put Christ on in baptism. I wanted them to know that baptism was the start of a spiritual journey, not the end. I especially emphasized the fact that being faithful in a remote area without the permanent presence of a more mature Christian would be difficult, but that at the same time it was doable. I felt like the study went well, and that it really opened their eyes to the true meaning of conversion. There were a few questions from a member of the SDA Church again this morning, but (frustratingly) she would not listen to the answers I gave, instead she would begin thumbing through her Bible trying to think of the next question she was going to ask. I will have to present some more teaching on their doctrine during our next trip.
One of the things that we struggle with in Vanuatu when teaching in new settings is this: people hear what we teach and agree with it (having never heard most of it before), and assume that merely being in agreement is all that is essential. They do so in the absence of repentance, baptism, or a change to their old religious life. It is a delicate line to balance between showing them that they are lost in sin and coming in and berating what they have known as normal for generations. Along these lines, our next trip to Tulwei will of necessity consist of some fairly pointed lessons, especially privately with those who show an interest in becoming a part of the body of Christ.
Everyone began focusing on lunch preparations following our morning study, as it was going to be the main meal of the day instead of supper (we had to leave for the airport at 3:00). After lunch (Malekula laplap) Flexon’s brother publicly thanked us for coming and they presented us each with a mat and a yam to show their appreciation. It had been a really good week, and everyone there had a lot revealed to them that needed to be considered. We left them several copies of the studies we’d gone through, Bible correspondence courses and some tracts on the church. Hopefully these will serve to drum up some more interest before our next visit.
While we were waiting for the transport to come and pick us up, I enjoyed watching the kids play “police and prisoner” (aka cops and robbers in the US). I haven’t laughed so hard in quite some time! Policemen here don’t carry guns, and so whenever it is necessary to use “force” on a criminal, they beat them with fists or sticks. The kids had it down pretty good!
The trip back to Vila was surprisingly uneventful. We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, checked in without a hitch, and arrived home as scheduled. There were enough passengers to warrant a larger plane (20-seater), which I appreciated. It was wonderful to see my family waiting on the ground to welcome me home!
I am already planning for and getting excited about our next trip to Tulwei, which should be sometime in September or October. Please be praying that these souls will obey the gospel!