Last year I had the privilege of witnessing the baptism of a young couple. I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. Canoe since the man’s name sounds like the Gogodala word for canoe. They and their three young children live in the neighboring village of Kotale.
Mr. Canoe’s name has special significance to us. Eleven years ago, our family took our first voyage into Gogodala territory. We flew by mission plane from PNG’s capital city, Port Moresby, to the remote airstrip near the town of Balimo and stayed at the mission house for a few nights to acclimate to the remoteness, heat and humidity. Then we ventured up the Aramia River to Kotale Village, our final destination, where a house built by a previous AFM missionary, Jeff Bishop, was waiting for us.
It was a partly cloudy day as we pushed off from the muddy banks of Balimo in our loaded dinghy (an open fiberglass boat with an outboard engine) and maneuvered through the small creeks and waterways that led to the Aramia River. Laurie and I had no idea where we were or where we were going. We were relying entirely on local people to guide us. I felt totally helpless and dependent. It was all so new. One local church member from Kotale volunteered to pilot the dinghy for us. Though the scenery was beautiful, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have because I was worried about getting soaked by the rainclouds that loomed ahead of us. Just before turning off the river, we passed a majestic hill covered with tall grass and coconut palms. That would be a neat place to have a house, I thought. Little did I realize that this beautiful hill would later become the location of our mission house and training center.
Turning off the river into a small creek, our pilot guided our boat through a curving waterway leading to a large lagoon dotted with small islands and ringed by grassy hills. Motoring across to the far side of the lagoon where thick woods enshrouded the bank, we pulled up to a small clearing where a crowd of curious locals had gathered to see who these white strangers were. The dinghy glided to a stop on the muddy bank, and our driver chatted with the people in a strange language we couldn’t understand. Then he turned to us and announced that we had a little further to go. A young man with a wooden canoe paddle climbed onto the front of our dinghy and pushed us back out into the lagoon. He guided us through a small channel to some more swampland. After another 15 minutes on the water, we arrived at our final destination. I never forgot that young man with the canoe paddle, because his name in Gogodala was Mr. Canoe.
Like many Gogodala men, Mr. Canoe has had a rough life. His crooked nose testifies to his violent past. But he was always friendly to me when I would see him in the village. I used to walk past his property on my way to the bush to cut timber for our house and would see him building his house. Eventually he finished his house, got married and started a family.
After we moved to Kewa, I lost track of Mr. Canoe. Then one weekend last year, Pastor Marc Coleman, AFM’s international field director, came with our field directors, Arnold and Diane Hooker, to visit our project. Since Marc is an ordained pastor, we planned a baptism service at our mission property and invited people from our churches in Kotale, Balimo and Awaba to join us for the weekend and bring those whom they were preparing for baptism. When the Kotale church arrived with their candidates for baptism, I was pleasantly surprised to meet Mr. Canoe among them. He and his wife had been studying the Bible with our Kotale church members, and they both were baptized that weekend.
Early this year after returning from our four-month furlough, I asked a Kotale church elder how Mr. Canoe was doing. “Is he still going to church?” I asked anxiously.
“Oh yes, Steve! He is one of our most consistent and active church members!”
When the Kotale church members decided to build a pastor’s house near the church, Mr. Canoe was right there on top of the walls hammering nails with the rest of them. Several weeks ago, I preached for the worship hour at the Kotale church. One of the assistants on the platform with me was Mr. Canoe. He was so excited about his new friend Jesus and how his life has changed for the better. Last Sabbath, I participated in an ordination service for deacons and elders. What a joy it was to see Mr. Canoe ordained as a deacon! Praise God for bringing forth spiritual fruit in one of our first acquaintances in Gogodala territory.