The Jungle Book
By Kristel Ortiz
May 5, 2013
The rain forest surrounding the tiny mountain village of Samanzing, Papua New Guinea, is full of noises ... wild noises. On the wind come sounds of distant waterfalls, strange animal calls, and drums. Enormous bugs whir as they zip by. Jungle vegetation, matted and lush, rustles mysteriously. For thousands of years the sounds have continued, undeterred.
But in late January 2013, a new sound echoed through the mountains as a song reverberated on the wind: “We have the Book of God, and when Jesus comes we will go! Hold on to Jesus — hold on to His eternal life!”
The beautiful words were sung in Mesem, one of the 800 languages spoken across Papua New Guinea, an island nation off the coast of Australia. Samanzing, the largest of the nation’s Mesem villages, lies squarely in the heart of a mountainous jungle at an elevation of nearly 5,600 feet.
During World War II, Japanese and Australian warplanes roared over these wild mountains, jarring residents who had existed almost entirely untouched by the outside world. The first wheels they saw where those on the warplanes.
“Until the war, the lives of many Papua New Guineans had been essentially unchanged for thousands of years,” says AG missionary Kathy Vanaria, who along with husband Neil and son Anthony recently completed the first translation of the New Testament into Mesem.
Since early in her Christian walk, Kathy has had a heart for the lost. In college, she identified five of the most “lost” girls in her dormitory and boldly told the Lord, “I want them for You by the end of the year.” Over the ensuing months, she slowly built relationships with the women, and by the end of the year, all five of them had received Christ.
Joyce Blundell Turner, Kathy’s former roommate, recalls, “I was baffled by her. I got to the room after her and was disappointed because I was sure she’d take the best side. But she hadn’t. She took the smaller side with no window.”
Neil and Kathy did not fully understand the gospel until their late teens.
“I did not receive Christ and then start reading the Bible. I started reading the Bible and then received Christ,” Kathy shares.
Neil realized that if it took that long to under-stand the gospel in a country in which every home has a Bible, people in other parts of the world had barely any chance at all. His interest in translation work set the course for the Vanarias’ future ministry, but the path was in no way an easy one.
Kathy, who was hit by a car at age 18, is partially paralyzed. During the first several years of the Vanarias’ marriage, she experienced five miscarriages. Finally she wept before the Lord.
“I told Him I did not want any more pregnancies unless the baby was carried to term and would remain true to the Lord all his days,” she remembers. “I knew I couldn’t stand more losses.”
God mercifully answered her prayer. In 1992, the Vanarias’ son, Anthony, was born. He was 6 months old when Neil and Kathy arrived in Papua New Guinea for the first time. To him, Samanzing is home, and the Mesem treasure him as their own.
The Mesem Project
The Vanarias believe God speaks the language of His friends, and translated Scriptures are a gift of His love. And although a written language contributes to a sense of identity, Kathy points out, “People identify with their own language, but ultimately a good understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures is the key, even over the sense of identity that a new translation can create.”
Translating the Scriptures into Mesem has been slow, laborious work. Because of Kathy’s medical condition, she lives in almost constant pain. During some phases of the translation she worked on her back, her computer propped against her knees. Yet over the years the Vanarias’ efforts prompted the establishment of 12 schools to help teach the Mesem to read and write their own language.
Understanding and sharing daily life experiences was key in building relationships in Mesem villages.
“When we arrived in Samanzing, it was important for me to have a link to the Mesem women — something that transcended our cultural differences,” shares Kathy. “A big part of that was Anthony. I may have been white and they may have been Mesem, but we were all scolding our children for splashing in mud puddles.”
Neil also made inroads into the culture as he hiked from village to village through jungle-covered mountains. He frequently stopped to share food with those he met along the way.
Often those Neil met on the jungle paths were children, flitting like phantoms appearing and disappearing through the jungle foliage. Deftly they navigate the muddy, winding mountain trails with their leathery bare feet. Many of these children now refer to Neil as their best friend. One young boy goes so far as to say, “Neil is my grandfather.”
As a family, the Vanarias visited with village friends and shared meals in their homes.
“Through shared hardships, losses and joys of living together in the village, we became friends and grew in our understanding of each other,” says Neil. “Eventually people began to see past our white skin and saw a family who understood them. That made it easier to talk to them about the gospel.”
Whitewashing and Witch Hunts
“The Mesem people are spiritual in their worldview and are very interested in knowing the origins of the world,” Neil shares. “There is a Papua New Guinean saying: ‘Western man believes he is descended from apes, but we believe we are descended from gods.’ Mesem have no problem accepting things that to Western minds are contradictory. They can say they believe Jesus made the world, yet still honor spirits they believe made the ground where Mesem live.”
Often a veneer of Christianity covers animistic traditions.
“Mesem often give an appearance of much deeper faith than many of them actually have. It’s like trying to whitewash something,” Kathy explains. “They gladly accept the gospel, but only on the surface. So we keep applying and reapplying it and eventually the truth will adhere.”
The Vanarias have repeatedly faced violent situations with the occult at the core, though at times Christian sentiments are mixed in.
In one case, a village chief and his brother both died unexpectedly. As often occurs when sudden or unexplainable deaths happen, a trial was conducted to determine who practiced sorcery and caused the deaths. Six women were gathered and accused. Four were hanged, but the other two were released. The authorities explained that sparing them was “the Christian thing to do.”
One night, Anthony came into the house reporting a commotion. When Kathy stepped outside to investigate, she found a group of village men who had accused several others of sorcery. They chopped off two fingers from one man and beat the others with gunstocks.
“I yelled out, ‘Stop what you are doing in the name of Jesus!’” Kathy recalls. “It was like flipping a switch. The men stopped immediately and came toward me. Then the rest of the villagers came out of hiding and talked to them. At that moment it began to rain, and the group broke up and drifted away.”
Superstition also played a role in a near-fatal car accident in which Neil was involved.
“A colleague and I were on the way to a meeting. Our vehicle hit a pothole and flipped,” Neil explains.
While the driver remained unharmed, Neil’s head was severely cut, and he suffered three broken vertebrae. Rather than coming to their aid, bystanders robbed the two men, but they did no harm to Neil physically.
“They believed I was dying,” Neil says. “And according to their superstition, the last person to touch someone who is dying will be haunted by that person’s spirit. Nobody would touch me.”
Finally Neil was taken to a local clinic and then evacuated to Australia where surgeons fused his vertebrae and performed surgery on his head.
Opposition to the End
At last, despite repeated delays, the Vanarias’ work was completed, and 3,500 New Testaments, enough for every Mesem man, woman and child, were printed. Each small blue volume came in a plastic bag with a flap to protect the pages from the rain forest environment.
“One of the things we learned in our years in Papua New Guinea is that cockroaches love to eat books,” laughs Kathy. “So Life Publishers suggested a protective cover to discourage digesting the Word for the wrong reasons.”
When the Bibles arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, another crisis awaited. Customs refused to release the containers, forcing the date for the Bibles’ distribution to be changed eight times. At last, the date for the dedication was set for January 27, 2013.
A sign announcing “God’s Talk Has Life” adorned the path to Samanzing when Neil and Kathy returned from the dock with the Bibles in tow.
“Black and white come together, and we accept the Word of God. Jesus has come — let’s go with Him!” sang the villagers. “We have the Book of God, and when Jesus comes we will go!”
Five gates were set up along the precipitous mountain trail into Samanzing, each symbolizing one of the five Mesem villages represented at the celebration. Gate by gate and prayer by prayer, the Vanarias were ushered into the village. Following them were Mesem wearing bright white gloves and carrying five boxes of New Testaments.
Once they reached the center of Samanzing, an elaborate ceremony began. Each of the five villages performed traditional dances and brought a special offering. For a full day they celebrated with pageantry, reverence and joy.
Visitors from across Papua New Guinea and the United States attended the dedication to rejoice with the Mesem people.
Russ Turney, AGWM regional director for Asia Pacific, was among those who attended. “The past 20 years was a time of great difficulty for Neil and Kathy,” he says. “They could have easily given up and decided the work was too difficult. However, they persevered, and with the help of many friends and the power of the Holy Spirit, they completed the work.”
Jerry Jacob, AGWM area director for Pacific Oceania, also made the journey to Samanzing.
“I was overwhelmed when I saw Mesem weep as they were given the New Testament for the first time,” he says. “This Book will affect them for generations to come!”
“Some of us are black and some of us are white,” stated a Mesem pastor during the dedication. “But what we all have in common is the red blood Jesus shed for us.”
In Papua New Guinea, a country long troubled by violence and conflict, such a recognition is notable.
“Papua New Guinea is a spiritually fractured environment due to so many years without people having the Bible in their first languages,” says Neil.
The Vanarias and Phil and Kim Rojak are the only U.S. AG missionaries in Papua New Guinea. For them, setting an example of unity and purpose is of primary importance.
Prepared to Serve
When Phil Rojak received Christ as Savior in 1978, he was specifically called to Papua New Guinea.
“I had to get out an atlas to figure out where it was,” he chuckles.
He attended Bible school briefly, became a registered nurse, and then returned to Bible school. There he met Kim. They began to date, but she ended the relationship because of her concern that he was called to missions and she was not. Undeterred, he continued to pursue her, and after much prayer she agreed to reconsider their relationship and a life in missions.
As newlyweds, Phil and Kim ordered their lives around their plans to serve as missionaries. They gave up buying a house and other expensive items to avoid debt and build up their savings. After serving 10 years in Vanuatu, another Pacific island nation, they arrived in Papua New Guinea in 2010, 32 years after Phil’s initial calling.
“We may not be perfect missionaries, but we are prepared missionaries,” laughs Phil. “Besides, elders and maturity are highly respected in Papua New Guinea. We are able to have more effect now than we could have in earlier years.”
The Rojaks focus largely on training church leaders and perpetuating the indigenous church. Phil travels across the main island and to smaller, outlying islands to teach in Bible colleges and provide further education for local pastors. He and Kim also assist at an aid post in an area where health care is lacking. They are working closely with the national fellowship to replicate this outreach in other areas as an avenue for sharing the gospel.
In November 2011, the national AG fellowship began to re-emphasize children’s ministries, an area that had long been dormant, and asked the Rojaks to help lead the way.
“Youth, women’s and men’s ministries are strong here, but children’s ministries are not. There are so many children here, but they are practically their own unreached people group,” shares Kim.
Young people who cannot pass nationalized tests from sixth grade into high school become what Phil calls “wandering youth” and struggle to find a place in society. Often they become ensnared in drug and alcohol abuse.
“We desperately need a ministry like Teen Challenge here,” says Kim.
“The AG has existed in Papua New Guinea since 1948,” says Phil. “But many aspects of ministry are still in their earliest stages. So many kinds of ministry need to be done here.”
As the Vanarias conclude their translation work in Papua New Guinea and prepare to serve in another country, the Rojaks will be the only AGWM missionaries in the country. Yet they remain undaunted, sure of their calling, and determined to persevere through difficulties of all kinds, including separation from their four adult children.
“I think that is the worst thing, especially as a mother,” says Kim, her voice wavering. “We are so very far away.”
A Beginning, Not an End
Even in their excitement of finally receiving the long-awaited New Testaments, the Mesem recognize the dedication as the beginning of their journey, not the end. Now that they have the Scriptures, they are responsible to share it with others.
A respected leader in the Mesem community sums it up this way: “The English left their village to take the Book to America. The Americans left their village to take the Book to the Mesem. Now the Mesem must leave their villages to take the Book to others. No language is greater than another. In heaven we will all speak the language of Christ!”
Russ Turney is encouraged by the response among the Mesem, but he knows an enormous work remains to be done. “Our few days in Papua New Guinea were filled with joy, but we continue to pray for the more than 500 tribal groups who still wait for the gospel in their languages and for more trained workers to reach and disciple others throughout the nation,” he says.
Deep in the rain forest mountains of Papua New Guinea, God’s Word has come. Prepared through adversity, this labor of love is bringing light to one of the most remote areas of the world. The dedication of the Mesem Bible marks the beginning of a journey. Missionaries and church leaders are praying that the “Jungle Book” will continue to penetrate its surroundings, bringing the message of salvation and eternal life to those who have yet to hear.
KRISTEL ORTIZ is a staff writer for AGWM Communications.
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