Faith in Action

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Faithfulness in doing what is right is one of the most cherished virtues in humanity and is vital to every aspect of missions, as illustrated in these two examples during a recent trip to New Guinea.

I visited the Gogodala project, and during their training center dedication, I sat listening to a series of presentations by Philip Vaki, an ex-prisoner. As he stood before a large crowd, he shared the fascinating story of his life as a machine-gun-toting, sorcery-practicing criminal at the top of the nation’s “most wanted” list (wanted dead or alive), then as a prisoner, a new believer, and ultimately, as an evangelist. While still in the country’s toughest prison, he led other prisoners to Christ. One of those new converts was a guy by the name of Bani. If you are getting regular updates from the Gogodala project, you have probably heard of him more than once.
When Bani had served his time and was ready to leave prison, Philip took him to the side and encouraged him to be faithful in living up to what he had learned from the Bible, keeping the Sabbath and witnessing. Philip even challenged Bani to raise up a church.

When Philip reached this part of his story, I could hear a man in the audience begin to weep. He was such a tough-looking fellow; it was hard to imagine anything shaking him up, but something did, so I walked over and sat down on the ground beside him. He continued weeping, so I directed my attention to the speaker’s story and hoped my presence might be of some comfort. A short time later, this tough-looking fellow turned to me and said, “The reason I was weeping is because it was so hard. It was SO HARD!”

It was Bani.

Once out of prison, he returned to his Gogodala homeland and worshiped by himself every Sabbath . . . for a long time. Eventually, his wife and children studied the Bible with him and joined him in worship, but no crowds were begging for Bible studies. He wasn’t a church planter yet. He was just Bani—Bani, the ex-convict. Each Sabbath, his little family worshipped alone. He wanted to be a missionary and raise up a church, but that didn’t seem to be working out. Nobody wanted to listen to him.

Nobody, that is, until after he had been faithful in his private spiritual life and Sabbath worship with his family for thirteen long years. Only then was the first person willing to study the Bible with him. Then came somebody else, and they told somebody else. After his thirteen long years of faithfulness, hoping for an opportunity to start a church, a few people finally showed interest, and once they started, more just kept coming. One turned into ten, and ten into fifty, and in just a few months, a hundred and twenty people began gathering together on Sabbath mornings to worship with him. A second group was already starting in a nearby community.

“It was so hard!” Bani had said. And it was. And it got harder over time. But after thirteen long years of it being hard, it suddenly became a lot easier. He was now surrounded by the inspiring lives of new believers and the excitement of people learning new truths and following them. His dream finally came true; he started a church.

So this fellow sitting on the ground beside me was no longer Bani, the ex-prisoner. He was Bani, the church-planter. What did it take to make the difference? Faithfulness—thirteen long years of faithfulness with no fruit to show for his labors other than his wife and children.

Bani is right. Faithfulness in doing what is right often comes at a cost, but if we hold on, eventually it pays us back.

Twenty-three years ago in the mountains of Gulf Province, I met Joel, an enthusiastic and sincere youth who wanted to serve God and wasn’t sure how. I offered to work with him, and he moved down to the village where we were living. After some training, he began working as a lay pastor, receiving a small stipend for a few years, the equivalent of about $60 per month—enough to buy some rice, soap, salt, and maybe some clothes on occasion. I explained to him that while stipends can definitely be helpful, we need to be dedicated to moving God’s work forward whether we get paid or not.

When we left PNG in 2007, he was still getting a stipend but left to continue his studies before returning as a regular pastor, once again taking up the mantle and shepherding his tribal people. When he was eventually asked to move to a new district, he opted to stay and continue working with his people, even if it meant the loss of a regular salary.

We had started a small school before we left PNG, and after our departure, attendance steadily grew from several dozen to well over two hundred. However, they seemed constantly short of teachers, so the headmaster asked for Joel’s help. He wasn’t a certified teacher, so the school would have to pay him from a small fund students contributed to at the beginning of each year. He would receive about $16 monthly for a full-time job teaching a large classroom full of elementary students. He wondered if he should do it.

His wife, Evarista, was aghast at the idea. It was impossible! There was no way. They had children and depended on a large garden for much of their food. How could they send their children to school if Joel spent all his time volunteering as a pastor or teaching for $16 per month? What would they eat, and what would they wear? They could return to grass-skirts if they had to, but what would that look like for a pastor or teacher?

Joel shared her concerns but felt there were a few more important things to consider. Looking at his wife, he asked a tough question, “Do we really believe in education, or just education for OUR children? If I don’t teach, thirty other children won’t be able to go to school.” He also felt it was essential to consider the need for faith—“the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 1:11). They hoped their children would be able to attend school, just like all the other parents did. And they lacked visual evidence of how this was possible. So what did faith look like in their situation?

It isn’t always easy to answer questions like this. While we might admire Joel and Evarista if they agreed that he would teach, it would be hard to fault them if they said no. Teaching wouldn’t just be inconvenient; it would make life extremely difficult. There was much to think about.

But Evarista loved God. When she was pregnant with her first child, a camp meeting was being held about forty miles from her home, right in the middle of the rainy season. Since she was already full-term, she was encouraged to stay home, but rather than miss an opportunity to learn more about God, she waited for the others to leave, then began silently walking through the forest. Once she reached a dirt road, she got a ride but had to ask the driver to pull over and stop for twenty minutes so she could deliver her baby before continuing to camp meeting with her new daughter in her arms.

In the end, though, they decided they believed in education and not just for their own children. Joel added teaching to his pastoral work and other survival tasks, and they committed their children’s future into God’s hands.
While Joel taught a classroom full of students, this precious woman squared her shoulders, then took his first month’s pay and hiked several miles down the trail and out of the forest, where she found a small make-shift shop on the side of the same dirt road she had delivered her baby on. There, Evarista bought a case of flavored crackers, packed four in a pack. She then hiked home and sold them.

When the box was empty, Evarista hiked back down the trail, used her meager earnings to buy flour, oil, salt and yeast, and then returned to the forest. This time, she made dinner rolls in a crude oven over an open fire, sold them and bought more supplies. This became her daily routine whenever she could pull herself away from her children or garden.

At the end of the month, Evarista took some of what she had earned from her dedicated labor, bought food for her family and set aside a little money for her children’s clothes and education. She then took Joel’s next month’s pay and headed back down the trail to buy another case of crackers. She has followed this routine now for many years. Why? Because she believes in education—and not just for her own children. As I understand it, her daughter, the one born on the side of the road, is now the first girl from the school to continue past grade six and is now in high school, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and return to serve her people as a teacher or nurse.

These stories inspire me because people believed in salvation or education enough to take advantage of it and then willingly embrace suffering for many years to share it with others. Every aspect of AFM ministry depends on faithfulness—from missionaries to new believers among the unreached to donors who support the work, education of children, and AFM’s ministry. Faithfulness truly is a virtue. May the Lord bless all who possess it.

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