Did we really just do that?

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The Summer Mission Team from the US Central Territory: Christopher Irvine, Justin Johnson, Macy Theriot and Summer Koehler

Upon our return from the tiny mountain top village of Mukili, a 12-hour perilous drive in the northwest of Papua New Guinea, we shared the strange feeling of disbelief. We looked at each other and asked, “Did we really just do that?!”

It was our privilege to accompany the four young people from the US Central Territory’s Summer Mission Team on their final trek. Justin, Summer, Christopher and Macy had come to spend six weeks traveling the territory sharing in service, evangelism and adventure. The team spent a week in each of the communities of Meii (Gulf District), Kimbe (North Coastal Division – Island of New Britain), Port Moresby – twice (South Central Division), Lae (North Coastal Division), and finally Mukili (Sepik Division).

On a Friday we flew to the division’s headquarters in Wewak on the north coast of PNG. Major David Temine, the DC, picked us up, settled us into the guest house at DHQ and then took us to a secluded black-sand beach for a late-afternoon swim. We came back to DHQ for a welcome ceremony and dinner with the DHQ team, then settled in for the night to prepare for what we knew would be a long drive on Saturday.

We arose early, and after a quick light breakfast, we helped pack our stuff into the back of the division’s 4-wheel drive truck then piled into the back of the hired Land Rover that would be our “bus” for the trip up the mountains. The road at first was quite normal (by PNG standards), with a relatively smooth hard surface (they call it bitumen – we call it asphalt), broken frequently by potholes, speed bumps and outright craters.

After about 4 hours the road gave way to dirt with sparse gravel, with even more and larger holes and craters. Oh – and did I mention that the road, nearly from the start, was literally snaking along the crest of one mountain after another?! You can then imagine our … er … excitement … anxiety … OUTRIGHT FEAR … when the road became soggy and boggy.

We were grateful for the two 4-wheel drive vehicles we were traveling in, and even more, for the intrepid drivers (Thank you Major David and Ben!) who manhandled those trucks!

In one tiny village along the road young people prove their readiness for adulthood by dwelling together in a tall triangular hut for many days.

In one tiny village along the road young people prove their readiness for adulthood by dwelling together in a tall triangular hut for many days.

As the afternoon wore on, the road got rougher and steeper, and the muddy spots became muddier. Many times one vehicle or the other would get stuck, and the guys would pile out of the trucks to push and pull and grunt and groan and pray to get the reluctant vehicle through to the next dry spot.

Late in the afternoon on a particularly long and steep grade, the 4-wheel drive gave out on the DHQ truck! With much manpower assistance and clever driving by Ben, the truck made it up the steeps. But as the sun set quietly behind the mountains across the valley from us, we were still about 20 kilometers away from Mukili, and now the trail was little more than two vague ruts in the grassy trail that meandered along the edge of the mountain toward our destination.

This time the now-2-wheel drive truck was stuck good, and refused to budge!
Ben, whose family resides in Mukili, called ahead (thank God for cell phones even in the most remote parts of this earth!) and told “the boys” to come help us out. Within about 45 minutes we saw young men, including the corps officer from Mukili, come jogging around the bend with big smiles and joyous greetings for us, and they began to push and pull the truck through one muddy bog after another – always with huge smiles on their faces.

As darkness fully engulfed us, the truck seemed to say, “Enough, I’ll go no further …” We couldn’t really blame it – we were now at the bottom of a small gully, facing a long, slippery slope of nothing but fresh mud! I have to admit at this point to a kink in my normal pollyannaesque optimism, as after two hours of pushing and pulling and tugging and yelling, the truck refused to go more than a few meters up the slippery slope.

Fate intervened, as just as I was pronouncing my confidence that we needed to abandon the truck and walk the last several kilometers to the village, the yelling suddenly got louder and more excited, and I looked up the hill to see that the truck was crawling out of the bog and onto the next dry (relatively) spot on the path.

We crawled into the village around 8:30 in the evening to find a small group of women and children holding torches (no, not the flashlights they call torches on this side of the world, but real brush material torches lit in the little fire by the side of the road!), waiting to greet us and to carry our bags and supplies down to the Corps Officer’s house where we would be staying.

After a hurried supper, we said our goodnights, put up our mosquito nets and climbed into bed.

The congregation gathers on the mountain top at Mukili.

The congregation gathers on the mountain top at Mukili.

On Sunday morning we trekked down the hill to the mountain well where water was drawn for us and took our “bucket baths” in a small roofless hut set up for the purpose. After we dressed for church, we were led up toward the top of the mountain, climbing freshly carved steps just made for our visit. Near the top, drums and chanting caught our attention and we were danced up the rest of the hill by men and women in national costume while girls threw fresh-cut jungle flowers petals over us.

The spirit of the worship was exuberant, with the congregation sitting in the dust or on a blue tarp spread on the ground. The team shared testimonies and preaching and many gathered at the front of the platform for prayer after the message! That evening we gathered again at the top of the mountain for the second service. Afterward, the villagers and corps people refused to leave, instead dancing and singing and pulling our group into the fray. It was apparent that already lasting relationships were being forged, and that God was anointing this fellowship with His Spirit.

Mukili children play games with the brightly colored parachute.

Mukili children play games with the brightly colored parachute.

On Monday the team took supplies into the heart of the village and gathered children with them for “Joy Hour.” The sang songs, danced with silly motions, played games with a parachute, and made beaded bracelets that told the story of the Gospel message of Salvation. As twine was cut for the bracelets and beads were being distributed it became quickly apparent that not only the children, but every adult that was standing around watching, wanted to make a bracelet and repeat the story of salvation with the colored beads.

We rested in the heat of the afternoon, and then gathered again for the final meeting of the mini-crusade on the mountaintop. Once again, God’s spirit blessed the gathering with great singing, testimonies and sharing of the Gospel, and again, after the service, there was impromptu singing and dancing and hugging and picture taking.

Tuesday was the day of celebration. The village chief had gifted us with two pigs for a mumu. Major David oversaw the construction of the stone pit for cooking, while ladies and children gathered under a huge rain tree to peel every sort of vegetable. When the stones were ready, the fire was removed, and the mumu was assembled, layering piles of jungle leaves, then vegetables, then the pieces of fresh-cut pork. It was all covered over with more leaves, then earth, and water was poured into the center, after which every little steam vent where heat tried to escape was quickly covered up with more earth.

Summer Koehler pounds the sego tree to a pulp with the bamboo mallet.

Summer Koehler pounds the sego tree to a pulp with the bamboo mallet.

While the mumu cooked, we were led into the jungle to help fell a sego tree. Sego is a common staple in the diet for many throughout the country. After the tree was cut down, the trunk was split open, then using bamboo mallets the inside was beat to a pulp, carried on banana-leaf sheets to a make-shift trough where water was poured through the pulp and it was hand-squeezed through a piece of bush material with the liquid captured in banana-leaf buckets.

The liquid was allowed to settle, and the water poured off to leave only a “dust” residue. Water was heated over the fire then poured into the dust and slowly mixed until it suddenly swelled and stiffened to the texture of taffy. Using two small bamboo sticks a woman would pull up a glob of the mixture and begin to twist and pull until it was the size of a fist. She would then drop the reddish opaque glob onto a palm leaf and repeat the process until she had about 8 or 10 servings of fresh sego on the leaf. It would be carefully set aside and the process would be repeated until the bowl was empty.

After participating in the sego-making operation from start to finish, we were treated to a pottery making demonstration by some of the women of the village. “Special” clay from near the river was brought up, and the ladies would roll small ropes of the clay on dried banana leaves, then begin to roll the rope into a disk as large as they wanted their bowl to be, pinching and smoothing the clay together. More ropes of clay were added as the sides were built up. When completed, the pots would be dried in the sun for several days, and then burned over the fire so that they could then be used for cooking.

At the end of the day, the mumu was unburied, with tongs made from fresh bamboo. The food was separated, shared with the entire community, and we sat down to a wonderful meal of fresh greens and potatoes, kau kau, taro, sweet potato and pork. Afterward the villages gathered around us to thank us for coming, present us with gifts and pray with us.

A quick miracle to report – It was found that the exact piece we needed to repair the truck was in a village a day’s walk away. So by Tuesday morning the truck had been fixed, and we were praising God for his provision and ministry to us!

On Wednesday we packed up and said our goodbyes. Once again everyone from the village gathered to carry all of our bags and materials back up the mountain to the trucks. (They wouldn’t let any of us carry anything – not even our own backpacks!) Added to the stuff we had, we were presented with more gifts of food to take back to Wewak, so the truck was loaded even more heavily for our return!

As we gathered in the guesthouse at DHQ to rest and pray together Wednesday night, we really did look at each other and ask, “Did we really just do that?”

There’s so much more to tell, but the stories will have to be shared a piece at a time and in person. God is so good, and His mercies endure forever, and we are blessed for His hand over us on this wild, deeply meaningful adventure.

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