The Day We Shook 56 Hands

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 11:25PM

Maybe you have seen masses of people baptized at once, but this was a first for my family. Today, we had the privilege of being present while 56 souls committed themselves publicly through baptism just as their Savior had done over 2000 years earlier.

We have only been in Papua New Guinea for two weeks, but had decided before ever coming here, that we wanted to take an active part in a local church where Jackson would be able to make friends with the local children.

So, when we were looking to visit another church this weekend it was suggested to us that we could call one of the pastors who we had recently met. We were told he might be able to suggest a church for us to attend.

We called our new friend to see if we could ride along with him to the church he attends. Pastor Soga is native to Papua New Guinea, and the conference president for all of the Seventh Day Adventist churches in the Eastern Highlands, which he tells us numbers around 700 churches, with the general population in the area he oversees being around 700,000 people!

He said he was happy to have us. We assumed we would be joining him in one of the churches in the town of Goroka, where we all live, but to our surprise he had other plans.

We woke early to make sure we didn't miss his call to come meet us at our house, where we understood we would then follow him to church. Tony spoke with him around 8:00am and he told us he was headed our way. We live about 5 minutes from his home. We waited and waited. Tony prayed, and we began to wonder if we had somehow misunderstood the plan. Then around 9:00 am we heard a honk at our gate.

When we opened the gate the Pastor was in a large diesel four­ wheel drive pick up truck that had our church logo on the side door. He suggested that we all ride with him, and explained that we weren't going to a church in town, but a village church outside of town and the roads get rough, maybe a bit too rough for the little car we are loaning from our mission.

Jax riding in the church truck that picked us up.

So we loaded in the cab of the large truck, with Jax sitting between Tony's legs. We drove out of town towards Bena Village about 15 miles from our home, although the drive took us close to 45 minutes. The road started off smooth, but then it became increasingly more winding, and eventually dirt and much bumpier the closer we got.

The scenery was absolutely amazing. Everything here is lush, green and tropical. The hillsides are covered in a green plush layer of grass, which is so very different from where we used to live in the desert!

Halfway to our destination we stopped on the side of the road near a group of houses where about 15 people rushed out, each dressed in their Sabbath best. They hopped in the flat bed of the truck and Pastor Soga continued driving. When I looked back through the glass to the flat bed I had several eyes staring back at me. A couple of little boys that had jumped in found us very fascinating! So, I made sure to turn and smile at them often. This made them giggle.

Once we got closer to the village the Pastor explained more about where we were going. He was taking us to a local village's 20th anniversary church celebration which would be spoken in their local Bena language. He explains to us that no white missionaries that he is aware of have been to this local language event before, or to this village. That seemed hard to imagine at first, but later after seeing how we were welcomed, it became clear to me that it certainly could have been true!

Once we park the truck we see tons of people everywhere. There are tents on the hillsides and sides of the road where family's are camping out for the weeklong event. Everywhere I look someone is staring at us, some as if they were confused by us, others as if they are eager to meet and greet us. No matter which, once we smile and say "Happy Sabbath" (a phrase common in our churches whether in the states or here in PNG) or "Moning," a phrase common in Pisin, mostly everyone smiles back, and many want to shake hands.

The Pastor finds a small opening up a muddy embankment and finds us a plot of dirt and dried grass to sit on. We all begin to sit down. But before we can fully sit down, a little girl comes over and shares with us a large piece of colorful fabric to sit on. I am sure she has given us the only fabric her own family had to sit on, leaving them nothing to keep off of the mud. A few minutes later she brings us an umbrella for shade, again we say thank you.

The Faithful Prayers of Many Avail Much

We are in the middle of what seems like a couple thousand people, everyone is sitting on dirt clumps and dried grass. When I look over the crowd I see what seems to be a sea of colorful umbrellas.

Then the speaker tells the crowd that the people in the back can not see (because of all the large umbrellas). He says that they should pray in faith that The Lord will soften the sun so everyone can see the stage. We all bow our heads, and he prays.

It was amazing! Within a few minutes clouds began to form and block the sun! It stayed this way until the baptisms began at the end of the program, at which point it began to lightly rain. What a beautiful picture of faith and The Lord's mercy! Shade for the sermon and a cleansing rain for the baptisms to signify the rebirth and a new beginning for so many precious souls.

Just Like Everyone Else?

We are happy to sit on the ground like everyone else. We get lots of curious stares, truly a lot, but then the stares start to turn to smiles. Jackson is handling it all pretty well, I am very proud of him. It's not easy to be a little boy who desperately just wants to fit in and play, and instead be giggled and stared at (even if they're innocent stares and giggles). But, he doesn't seem greatly phased by it (although, I find out later in the night, he certainly noticed it). He just watches the boys in front of us as they chew the dried grass from off the ground and play with a grasshopper they found.

I know he wants to play, but instead he sits quietly with us trying his best to understand the sermon in another language. Once in a while the speaker reads something in English from the Bible, which excites Jax because he can understand it! Tony tries to engage Jax and fill in the blanks to the sermon, and Pastor Soga, who I am sitting next to, tries to do the same for me by translating periodically.

We were sitting there for about 20 minutes or so, when out of the blue the speaker says to the crowd "Look at the missionaries in the back." He meant us! He welcomes us and apologizes for not knowing our names, and tells us that we are their special guests (even though they do not know us, nor did they know we were coming!).

How he even saw us in a crowd of 2000 people plus umbrellas (all opened to block the sun) is beyond me, but it confirmed that we really did stand out! We were surprised by the greeting from the podium and tried to go back to listening and blending in, but now I am feeling even more noticed.

Another few minutes pass and two older gentleman come over to where we are sitting in the crowd; they are carrying a large wooden bench. In my mind I am thinking, oh no, please tell me that's not for us! Pastor Soga can tell Tony and I are getting a little uncomfortable being singled out, and assures us that we should just gladly accept and sit on the bench, so we smile and thank the two men. Now we are the only people in the crowd sitting on a bench. I am thankful that Pastor Soga is at least sitting with us on the bench.

What About Our Churches in the States?

This all made me think about our churches back in the United States. If a visitor came to a church in the US, how would they be treated? Would they get the best seat in the church, would they be singled out and greeted and called special guests? What if the guest was of another culture, color or denomination, how would they be treated?

Here we were in this small village, different from everyone there and yet they went so far out of their way to make us feel special, and who were we to be treated that way? Nobodies really, yet they did it all the same. They seem to have a true grasp on how Jesus would have treated a stranger!

At this point the Pastor is speaking about the differences between Mary and Martha. It caught my attention. The parallels seem to mimic the differences between true Christianity and playing church, which I was already thinking about in light of all that is going on around us.

He said Mary had the heart knowledge and Martha had the head knowledge of Jesus. Mary was intimately connected to Jesus and Martha was intellectually connected with Him. Mary worked with Jesus and Martha worked for Jesus. This group we were visiting was obviously spending time at the feet of Jesus learning as Mary learned. Their love and their kindness were overflowing. We certainly felt it.

What a Surprise

At the end of the sermon, it was time for the baptisms. We found out, it was not just one soul being baptized, but 56, and 20 had already been baptized earlier in the week! I have never seen this many baptized at one time, though I have heard of it often in mission stories, especially in developing countries. It was a privilege to see it firsthand.

The crowd starts to gather around the large tank they have setup for the baptisms. We don't see much at first. Then, Pastor Soga gets up to leave us. But, before he does he tells us to wait for him at the bench. He wants to see if they may need his help due to the large number of people being baptized. He makes his way through the large crowd to the grass woven hut where the speaker, podium and sound system are located.

We stay seated for a while, then we see Pastor Soga on stage and he is officiating the baptisms. The next thing I know Tony is telling me to get up and motioning me to follow him up front. He is telling me that Pastor Soga is calling for us over the loud speaker to come to the stage!

I guess I wasn't paying the best attention to what was being said on the loud speaker. I must have been very focused on trying to see what was going on in the baptismal tank, because I never heard a call to go to the front! I was quite surprised, and not sure that I wanted to go. But, Tony took my arm and we began to make our way through through the large crowds to the front of the field.

I started to get a sense of what Jesus himself must have felt like. He was continually surrounded by masses of people as they pressed in against Him, yet somehow He didn't get overwhelmed. Instead He had compassion for them. I wish I could say that I didn't find this all overwhelming like Jesus, but that was not the case.

We made it to the stage where Pastor Soga announced us by name as the new mission pilot and his family. The crowd clapped and smiled at us, they seemed thankful that we were here for them. I could tell Jax was now a little overwhelmed. This maybe was a bit too much for him too!

Coming Out of the Water

After shaking several of the elder's and church official's hands on stage we sat down. We were now sitting on a bench behind Pastor Soga and watching the proceedings from the front. People were just beginning to get into the baptismal pool; a stand alone tub filled about waist deep with water. There were stairs made from woven grass allowing them to get in and out of the tub. The candidates for baptism went into the water two by two, and for each two people going in Pastor Soga said a prayer for them and welcomed them into the family of God.

He was now speaking in Pisin, so we understood him a bit more than the sermon earlier, which was spoken in the local Bena language.

It took about an hour to pray over the 56 people being baptized, clapping for each two souls coming out of the water. At the end there was a large group of Bena villagers standing in front of the podium, recently baptized and wearing lays and beautiful biloms they had been given around their necks. Some seemed genuinely joyful, some seemed solemn in reflection of the decision they had just made.

I later found out that each person that was baptized had gone through one to two years of Bible study prior to being baptized, so they would fully understand their commitment to The Lord. I also found out that only about 20 percent of the people in the village could read, so all of their learning of the Bible has to be taught and read to them.

What a committed group of local church members to disciple new believers for this long and this intensely! Of the 700 churches mentioned earlier that are in the entire Eastern Highlands division there are only 200 pastors! This means that it is quite likely that these 56 new believers were mentored by local lay people and elders within surrounding churches. Yet, another great example of how on fire these people are to spread the Good News of the Gospel!

The last and final excitement for our little family was when the Pastor motioned for us to come off the stage and shake hands with all 56 newly baptized church members. Once again, we were all still a little unsure, but by now we gladly did whatever they asked of us!

Tony, Jackson and I followed behind the Pastor and shook each hand and hugged many of our new brothers and sisters in Christ. At one point Jax got a bit confused and ended up following the other speaker and found himself deeper in the crowd shaking everyone's hands! I just laughed, and followed closely behind.

By the end of it all I think Jackson and I shook well over 70 plus hands! I imagined this is what Jesus would have done too, so we gladly shared a smile and a hand shake or hug. At this point Jackson really seemed to be enjoying himself!

All in all, I don't think our family will ever forget the Sabbath we shook 56 hands (or maybe more!) and witnessed 56 people gladly professing Jesus as their Savior through baptism.

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