Our hearts throbbed with dread more than excitement as we took off from Chicago bound for Papua New Guinea. Our January return from furlough was not what we had dreamed it would be. In our absence, feelings of ill will had erupted against us. Word had reached us that when we returned to PNG, someone would be coming to put an end to us. This had caused the evacuation of the Lawrence family from May River. As we sought answers, our plans to return had to be delayed.
A group of pastors from the Sepik Mission was sent to investigate. They discovered that a cultural misunderstanding had occurred a few months earlier when we had refused a teenage boy’s request for a canoe ride. At the time, we had no extra lifejacket for him to wear, and we had a firm rule that no one could ride in our canoe without one. We considered this rule important because of PNG’s culture of reprisal. If anyone were to drown while riding in our boat, our lives would be forfeit, and we would likely face immediate execution by machete.
But our refusal of the boy’s request had deeper cultural significance than we realized. His village interpreted it as an insult to their clan. We had unknowingly placed ourselves between a cultural rock and a hard place, and we didn’t even become aware of it until eight months later.
We thank God for the Sepik Mission pastors who advised us how to make peace with our May River villages. With their guidance, we set up plans for a reconciliation feast to be held in the church yard near our home at May River. Though we were still halfway around the world, we were responsible for arranging and coordinating a feast for 300 to 400 people from nine clans. For our safety the feast had to happen promptly, so it was scheduled to begin just 18 hours after our arrival. Under this crushing load of stress, our comfort came from Bible promises like Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
However, even as we sat in our airline seats and faced an uncertain future, God was already working things out ahead of us. The following is our testimony of how He took our hands and led us step by step through this deadly trial.
Three weeks earlier, as we were booking our tickets, we were in the final stages of the purchase when the price suddenly increased by $1,500, prompting us to abandon the transaction. We didn’t know it, but this was God’s first leading. After further searching, we found another flight with the original lower price, but it had a return flight two days later than our first booking. We would later learn that our first itinerary would have brought us back to Chicago on a day of record-breaking cold and blizzards that closed the airport and halted bus service for two days.
Two weeks earlier, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Edie had felt a sudden impression that we should change the plans for our transportation after our arrival in PNG. Instead of our usual travel by PMV truck and motor canoe, she felt that we should charter an Adventist Aviation Services (AAS) flight to our village. In that same hour, as I was praying with a friend, I felt impressed that we should ask AFM to send someone to accompany us to the reconciliation feast. This would necessitate hiring the AAS airplane to cut out three days of river travel for our guest. These two impressions arriving in the same hour convinced us that this was God’s will, so we acted on them. This was God’s second leading.
We emailed the AAS pilot to set up the flight and get a price quote. This pilot didn’t know who we were, so he quoted us the full price instead of the discounted missionary rate. We prayed and asked for God’s intervention. In fact, when we flew out of Chicago on our way to PNG, we still only had the first price quote. But while we were in the air, God was working things out. After a reference check, our price was slashed to only the cost of fuel! Thank you, Adventist Aviation Services! This was God’s third leading.
After our arrival at the Port Moresby airport, veteran missionary Steve Erickson of the Gogodala Project volunteered to take a week from his busy schedule and go with us to the reconciliation feast. His presence brought us comfort and strength. The local people respected him deeply. We are thankful he came to witness what God did. This was God’s fourth leading.
When we arrived at the Sepik Mission headquarters in Wewak, we were not confident that we would find anyone there. In past years, the mission leaders had been on vacation the week after New Year’s. But as we walked through the gate, to our surprise, Pastor Martin Sungu, the Sepik Mission Secretary, the very person we were hoping to find, walked out and greeted us warmly. After a brief meeting together, he offered to accompany us to the reconciliation feast. Pastor Sungu is a man of authority, and everyone at May River church respects him. Having him manage the reconciliation ceremony was a huge relief for us. This was God’s fifth leading.
Pastor Sungu quickly sent a message to Pastor Levai of the May River area to immediately start a week-long series of evening meetings to prepare the villagers for the reconciliation feast. We had never dreamed of sending a pastor to soften the people’s hearts before our arrival, but God did. This was His sixth leading.
The reconciliation ceremony started with prayer and a Bible message about reconciliation. Then, directed by Pastor Sungu, our canoe crew and six clan heads each came forward in turn and briefly mentioned something they had done against us, spoken against us, or felt that we had done against them. This included the clan of the offended young man. We had feared that they would scream threats at us and try to shame us, but instead they humbly said they were sorry and asked to be forgiven. We accepted of their apology and forgave them. Then we shook hands and prayed with them. This happened seven times. This was God’s seventh leading.
Afterwards, Pastor Sungu gave a speech praising AFM and us by recalling the positive things we had accomplished at May River. Then it was my turn to speak. I did my best to explain why we had not been able to give the boy a ride. Then Edie and I said we were sorry about the cultural misunderstanding and asked for the clan’s forgiveness. Following that, I told them that I had another big apology to make. I explained how AFM needed to start a new mission project in Africa in an area that spoke Edie’s language. I went on to say how sorry I was that we would be transitioning to Mozambique where our lives would not be threatened. Then I wept.
We ended by standing in a huge circle holding hands while I prayed a blessing upon all the children, community, church members and church leaders. I prayed that our feasting together would signify our reconciliation and bring blessings instead of curses. Then I went and spooned rice, fish, noodles, and greens from the cooking pots of each of the nine clans onto my plate. When I sat down with my plate full of food, the reconciliation feast began. Swarms of people came forward with their plates. We had supplied the nine clans with 18 large cooking pots, 220 pounds of rice, 240 packages of noodles and 150 cans of tuna, and they had prepared the food. It was the biggest feast we had ever seen in PNG, and there was enough for all. This was God’s eighth leading.
Now that reconciliation was complete, Pastor Sungu flew back to Wewak, and peace reigned at May River. The man who was most responsible for starting the bad feelings toward us brought us cucumbers from his garden to show us how sorry he was. But not all the men were as repentant. Some showed by their body language that all had not been forgiven. Sadly, we realized that we couldn’t stay even if we had hoped to.
But how soon could we leave? It was the rainy season, and rain fell heavily eight to ten hours every night. The river was nearing full flood stage. If the flood covered the airstrip, the AAS airplane wouldn’t be able to land. To make matters more stressful, we learned that tribal fighting had broken out in Wewak after a mass shooting. The Sepik highway would be closed for days. Now we knew why God had impressed us to cancel our plans to travel by road, which would have caused us to miss our return flight to Chicago. This was God’s ninth leading.
Early the next morning, we said goodbye to our teammates Orion and Keren Lawrence, loaded our luggage into our canoe in the dark and motored four hours in the heavy rain to the airstrip. We were praying the whole way that we would find firm ground and grass enough for the airplane to land. When we got there, the water was just a few inches below the top of the river bank. Surely if we had waited another day to depart, we would have found the flood covering the airstrip. This was God’s tenth leading.
A few days later as we prepared to check seven heavy bags for our return flight to Chicago, we were shocked to learn that we would be charged more than $2,000 in extra baggage fees. We had not read the small print stipulating 66 lbs. total, not 66 lbs. per bag for each of our four bags as we had thought. Our combined luggage was overweight by 190 lbs. The ticket agent looked at us. “Is all this yours?” he asked, looking amazed. Telling us to wait, he disappeared with our passports to talk with his supervisor. I didn’t even have a chance to explain who we were and ask for mercy. So we prayed instead. When the agent returned, he told us that we would be charged a total of $114 for our overweight bags. This was God’s eleventh leading.
When we arrived in Chicago, the public buses were still not running because of the arctic cold. But, as divine providence would have it, an AFM worker’s flight out of Chicago had been canceled the day before, and he was being dropped off for his new flight just as we arrived. We didn’t need to stay at an airport hotel after all. This was God’s twelfth leading.
When we look back at how God led us miraculously step by step through our final days in PNG, it gives us confidence that He will continue leading us as we start a brand-new project among the Tonga people of Mozambique. We will arrive in Mozambique on March 18 to begin our new ministry, so look for our future stories in the Africa section of this magazine!