I liked Joseph (not his real name) as soon as I met him. He came across as kind, quiet, gentle, respectful, and polite. Anytime we needed anything, he was always ready to help us. He quickly became one of our friends, and he always spoke to us in Enga. Yet he spoke slowly so that we could understand, and he always patiently listened and helped me (Adam) as I responded to him in my broken Enga.
Because of Joseph's personality, I was a bit shocked one day as we rode a bus into town and he pointed out to me villages in neighboring tribes that he had burned to the ground. From 1972 until 2005, Immi had been plagued by tribal fighting, and we came to discover that Joseph was their best warrior who had killed many people among their enemies. In Engan terms, he was "a cassowary" who always went to the "teeth of the fight" (or a hero who always fought on the front lines). He was even hired out across the province as a mercenary to fight battles for other tribes. Somehow during all of those years of fighting, Joseph was one of the few men from Immi who was not killed.
Then three years ago, when Darren Terros came to pastor the Assembly of God Church in Immi, Joseph began turning his life over to Christ. Pastor Darren is a well-educated man who could have chosen many more desirable church locations to become a pastor. But he felt the Lord leading him to Immi. On his first Sunday as pastor, there was only a small handful of people in attendance and the total offering was just eight toea (forty cents). Nevertheless, Pastor Darren served where he felt the Lord was calling him and began reaching out to people like Joseph. Now Joseph is one of the leaders of the Immi Assembly of God Church and is currently serving as the Assistant Pastor.
On our last Sunday in Immi, I had the privilege of presenting gifts to three of the men who had helped us, looked out for us, and become our good friends. Joseph was one of the three. I presented each one of them an axe or machete and a Bible. First I asked them to hold up the axe or machete. Then I addressed the entire congregation and said, "Before, your lives were based on weapons like these and you used them to kill and destroy." Then I had the three men hold up their Bibles and I said to the congregation, "Now your lives are based on the Word of God, and these axes and machetes that you used to use to kill and destroy will now be used to build new houses and build a new life based on the Word of God."
Joseph had never owned a Bible before. Because there is no Enga Bible yet, I gave him a Tok Pisin Bible instead. He can barely read it. He reads one word at a time with a long pause between each word as he tries to make out the next word. What he really needs is an audio recording of the Bible in Enga, which of course does not exist yet. Nevertheless, after the presentation he went to the pulpit to say a few words. As he tried to speak, tears came streaming down his face as he clutched his Bible and kept staring down at it. He had difficulty speaking because of the emotion he felt. It was evident that God was truly at work in his life. I felt incredibly privileged to be able to encourage him and to witness this moment in his life.
On the last day of our five weeks in Immi, Joseph accompanied us to the Wapenamanda airstrip to say goodbye. As we were riding in the car, he and some of the other men pointed out places along the road where fighting had happened and where people had been killed. Then as we passed a prominent Christian international school, Joseph told us that he had once burned down the school's administrative offices and had also at that time been planning on killing a couple of American students at the school.
I turned my head away and pretended not to understand what I was hearing. I felt anger welling up inside of me. It's one thing to burn down the houses of your enemies, but why in the world would you burn down the office complex of one of the best schools in the province and try to kill innocent children. I had heard on our previous trip to Enga about the school's offices being burned down. It was a very big deal when it happened. I couldn't believe that the man who did it was sitting in the car with me and had become one of my good friends. I wanted to lash out and say, "What did that school ever do to you that made you want to burn it down?" but I held my tongue and sought wisdom from the Lord as to how to respond.
Before long Pastor Darren, who was also in the car (and who was also very angry to learn about this), tried to help me understand the mindset of people like Joseph before he knew Christ. They knew nothing about God, and they had been around fighting all of their lives. They viewed tribal fighting much in the same way that Americans view war. In a war, you destroy any resources of the enemy that provide aid to the enemy. The school provided jobs for the neighboring tribe, including income that could be used to buy guns and bullets. Plus the school brought prestige to the tribe and the possibility of other development projects in the future. So in the pre-Christian Enga mindset, the obvious thing to do if you are at war is to burn down that resource so that it can no longer aid the enemy.
It was easy for me to overlook Joseph's past wrongs when I thought he was just burning down the bush houses of his enemies, but now I was truly conflicted in my spirit about how I should respond. But I slowly realized that when Christ died on the cross, he died for ALL of our sins, even the most heinous crimes, and that I too must forgive Joseph and embrace him as the brother in Christ that he had now become. So as we said our final goodbyes, I gave Joseph a hug as a way to let him (and myself) know that I cared for him and accepted him despite anything he had done in his past.
But Joseph is just one man among the more than 300,000 people in Enga province. How many more are out there who still know nothing about God and who continue to fight because it is the only way they know? How many more like Joseph struggle to read and understand God's Word in Tok Pisin? How many more lives would be changed if everyone had access to an audio recording of the Word of God in Enga? The need for the Word of God in Enga cannot be understated!