I recently returned from Papua New Guinea (PNG) where I was privileged to witness the celebration of the Mesem New Testament Dedication, a 25 year work by Neil and Kathy Vanaria. To say the celebration was overwhelming is an understatement. The love and giving that I and the others received from the Mesem people was truly amazing. Here were some of the highlights.
While on route to PNG, I saw a Facebook post from Kathy Vanaria, they were at the docks collecting the scriptures. There was a picture of a group of Mesem men, women and children who were waiting for them dressed in traditional attire and ready to sing and dance. Kathy relayed the story,
“At first the workers told them they could not get the scriptures even though they had all the paperwork and had paid the fees. Neil found a Christian friend who worked in the custom area and she quickly sorted the problem out. The forklift appeared shortly after and when the scriptures were lowered to the ground the Mesem got out of the truck and danced and sang as they approached the pallet of scriptures. After a prayer of thanksgiving they loaded the truck and we drove out to Hobu, which is an hour or so outside Lae. We were met there again by yet another group of celebrants who sang and danced as the Bibles were carried to the storage area. We had never expected such a welcome, but it was a precursor for what came next”.
Arrival in Papua New Guinea
I along with a number of overseas guests, arrived to share in the celebration. We needed five shuttles with the helicopter to get everyone to the village of Samanzing where the first dedication celebration was to begin. However, there was a mechanical failure and we ended up having to go one day later. Unable to communicate the situation to Neil and Tony who were already in the village, we wondered how it would be received on the other end. Neil knew there was an issue as they day grew later and we had not arrived and told our Mesem friends who had prepared an elaborate welcome. They said, “We came here to praise God, so that’s OK”.
Arrival in Samanzing
And what an elaborate welcome it was when we finally arrived. You could see the flags waving in the distance as the chopper got closer. Once the chopper touched down and we exited, Neil introduced each of us to the Mesem welcoming group that was at the landing. They then proceeded to carry everything we were holding (water bottles included) and escorted us up to the Vanaria’s house. At each of the crest on the hills between the house there stood another village of people, dressed traditionally who broke into song when we appeared. They were singing welcome songs to us and praises to Jesus. Our guide explained to us that each of these villages use to hate each other and be at war, but now they are all one in Christ. As we got closer, a choir sang and led us up to the house. The path had been lined with bamboo decoration and strewn with flowers. Every guest was greeted this way as they made their way to the Vanaria’s home. Next to the Vanaria’s home, the people had set up a table with their best foods. They had killed ten pigs and used the meat to serve us all with their most cherished dishes.
Shortly after the last of the invited guests arrived, the entire village became completely silent. We heard the rhythmic sound of the garamut and heard the low cry of a conch shell. A Mesem parade of Mesem men, led by a choir of Mesem women, walked slowly and reverently up the hill. On their shoulders the men carried cartons of the New Testament. Each man had his best clothes on and wore white gloves out of respect for the Word of God, I couldn’t help but kneel. This was one of the most moving scenes I witnessed. They treated the scriptures as fine gold. They did not hurry but carefully placed the scriptures in the translation office, while the choir of women continued to sing God’s praises.
We were then led down the center of the village as we followed another group of those singing God’s praises. There the people had built a sheltered grandstand and each of us was given a wreath of flowers and led to a seat on the stand. We had two attendants who served water in bamboo cups, and offered fresh fruit and cucumbers to refresh us. The next two hours were filled with speeches and encouragements to follow the Lord, a drama, praise, dancing and collection. When Tony, Neil and Kathy’s son stood to speak, everyone could feel the excitement. He brought the house down when he said, “When I get married I will bring my bride here, because she will not understand me until she understands you.” The people were thrilled and responded with tremendous affection. Then the music began yet again and the scriptures, now wrapped in purple cloth was brought into the dedication area. Bishop Giegere Wenge thanked the Vanaria’s for their ministry and then cut the ribbon and took the first copy of the scriptures. For the next hour we distributed copies of the New Testament. Representatives from the village collected copies to bring back to their homes so those who were unable to attend will also get a copy. It was an incredibly moving experience.
That night, after a wonderful meal, we met again in the church for praise and worship. Pastor Joe Sapienza of the Vanaria’s home church in Massachusetts, Celebration International, brought a word of encouragement to drink daily of the scriptures just as we would of any other life sustaining food. After a glorious service, the people presented gifts to each of us. Tony got a special surprise. He was presented with a hawk to bring back to America to help him to remember his home village. (He let it loose the next day when he got to the Ramu Valley). A glorious day was had by all who attended.
The Mesem Bridge
The next morning I hiked with Neil and Tony to the steel bridge that was built about 10 years ago by supporters of Kathy and Neil to connect the Mesem village to Lae and other areas of Papua New Guinea. This was a strategic bridge that was needed for the Mesem to sell their garden vegetables at the market. Previously, the Mesem would build a wooden bridge each year, however, after a child broke through the bridge and was killed, the Vanaria’s asked their supporters to help build a permanent steel bridge. As we were hiking toward the bridge, we met Mesem along the way going from village to village. Tony told me that this bridge was a monumental connection between the Vanaria’s supporters and the Mesem people. He said the Mesem were in awe that people who never met them cared about them enough to build this bridge. The Mesem started to see the oneness that Christians have throughout the world.
Neil and Tony, along with a photographer from Assembly of God World Missions, continued on to hike out to Lae. While they were on the trail they could hear singing off in the distance. Using the photographers telephoto lens, they spotted a group of Mesem men and women, heading back to their village, carrying cartons of the New Testament and singing as they went.
I hiked quickly back to the village as the helicopter was coming to take us back to Lae (versus hiking 12 hours with Neil and Tony). Unfortunately, we all learned firsthand what PNG time means (maybe today or maybe tomorrow). After waiting all day at the helicopter landing spot, the clouds moved into the valleys and we knew no helicopter was coming that day. We then proceed back to the house to experience the adventure of taking a shower with a bucket of water. It was quite an ingenious set-up and worked quite well.
Next Dedication at Hobu
The next day a few of the Mesem hiked up to a signal area where we were able to get a message to Neil that the helicopter never came. Neil, now in Lae, was able to get to the helicopter company and “remind them” that we needed to be picked up as another celebration was happening in Hobu. We all went down to the helicopter landing spot yet again. This time the helicopter came, however, we now needed to go directly to Hobu as the celebration had begun and they were waiting for us. We arrived in Hobu to yet another group of Mesem who had been waiting 5 hours for our arrival. Once we arrived the singing, dancing, speeches and Bible distribution happened once again until it began to get dark. Once more they fed us all before we departed in a van and open air truck (Tony got a pig this time as a gift which accompanied those riding in the open air truck) back to our hotel. My adventure was coming to a close, my flight was leaving the next morning. I knew it would take me a while to process all that had happened.
This was a 25 year journey taken by Neil and Kathy Vanaria. In the next few weeks Neil will complete the book, “How the Jews Lived” and check to be sure the New Testaments have been distributed properly to all the Mesem villages in Papua New Guinea. The Vanaria’s will then transition to Europe where they will be taking up a ministry in Italy.
Joyce is the Founder and Executive Director of GapFill.org with a masters in nonprofit management. Visit our “Items Needed” tab on the GapFill.org website to see if God is calling you to “fill in the gap” for a missionary in need. To receive our blog posts automatically via email, enter your email address in the “FOLLOW GAPFILL VIA EMAIL” box on the right-hand side of the blog and click “Follow”. Like us on Facebook (on the right-hand side too) to see videos of the dedication of this amazing trip.