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Update from the Mesem in Papua New Guinea

Note from GapFill.org’s Founder: It has been almost a year and a half since I had the privilege of being at the Mesem New Testament dedication in Papua New Guinea.  This was a twenty year work for missionaries Neil and Kathy Vanaria.  Neil was able to return to Papua New Guinea in April of 2014 to check on the Mesem to see how the churches and the Christians were doing.  I told Neil that he must have felt like the Apostle Paul checking on his churches he planted.  Neil has just returned and sent me the following update.  Thank you GapFill donors for giving toward the Preaching the Mesem New Testament project as Neil was able to use the donated monies to help the churches and Mesem Christian missionaries in need.  Here is Neil’s update.  At the time we were celebrating the arrival of the Mesem New Testament (NT) with our Mesem friends our schedules allowed us to participate in the initial celebration, however, none of us were able to participate in the celebration & distribution which took place in almost every village after we left. There are however some great reports. In Hobu village, an older woman who had worn eyeglasses from a young age was very concerned when she heard she was to get her own copy of the Mesem NT. Her eyes were pretty bad and she used eyeglasses for everything, cooking, going to the garden, walking along the trail. Her eyes were bad enough that reading was not something she could do very easily. So when she heard she was to get her own copy of the Mesem NT she became concerned that she might not ever be able to read it. So she simply asked the Lord to heal her eyes so she could read the Mesem NT when she received it. That was months before the NT arrived. And on the day she received the NT the Lord healed her eyes. Not only does she read but she no longer needs eyeglasses at all!

Neil's Jungle Selfie

Neil’s Jungle Selfie of him & some children of the Niso village after they spent about an hour together reading the Gospel of John in Mesem.

My visit to the Mesem also brought me to Niso village where we had done a comprehension check of 1, 2, 3  John & Jude back in 2008. On this visit I could see there seemed to be some significant interest in adult literacy and producing more books – especially Sunday school material. Later the village elder, Fisika,  asked me if I knew why there was so much interest in reading even though the initial celebration and distribution of the NT was more than a year ago. He then told me that after they had brought the Mesem NT in cartons from Samanzing they decided to have their thanksgiving and distribution service the next day. Fisika said that during the service when they cut the sealing tape from the cartons & opened them there was such a strong presence of God that many people could not stand up!  So now they feel like the best way to get that power is by learning to read. Many younger Mesem can read and read well. Adults have not always been interested. So I suggested to Fisika that each Sunday they read 3 or 5 verses of John together after church. Taking the time to be sure each person who comes to that Sunday reading lesson can adequately read the selected verses, then assigning those same verses as practice through the week in preparation for public reading the following Sunday. Repeat each week. It shouldn’t be long before people who had not learned before will feel comfortable reading Mesem.

Yanga Explains

Yanga Explains

I also delivered 6 copies of our current project – a New Testament cultural reader called “How the Jews Lived” to Yanga, Dick, Funkeka, Kundolo and two vernacular school teachers, Konaga & NoBruce. Their job will be to read through the book – which I had printed before leaving the US – to make spelling & other corrections. Once that is done they will mail the book to me and I will enter the final corrections into the computer. Once in final form I will email the file to the Evangelical Brotherhood Church print shop in Lae. I met with them and they said they would be happy to print out the book – about 65 pages long – for us. The print shop manager has given me the bank details so I can send payment from here and I also introduced him to Yanga & Dick who will come down from the village to proof-read the text before production begins. The Yanga Explains picture is of Yanga telling people in the village about this new book we are producing. After talking things over with Dick & Yanga we have decided to begin translating the Book of Job into Mesem. It really fits their world view of “if you do nothing bad, nothing bad happens to you”, of God’s control over our lives and of the unity of man & woman in marriage. I will spend about one day a week preparing the rough draft in Mesem and sending it along to Dick & Yanga a chapter at a time. Others are interested and have already begun translating the Psalms. Dick Hedzure is very frustrated with the contentions of adults in Samanzing but continues in his calling as a teacher of the Gospel to children and young adults in Samanzing & Mukuwe villages. Yanga Tumbe lost his younger brother earlier this year. Yanga’s brother was working far away in Alatau when he died and so communication and repatriation of the body back to the family were very time consuming. While Yanga remains very busy preaching and teaching in Mesem his real priority needs to be building a house for his family. We talked about that again.

Future Mesem Office

Future Mesem Office that Sikiong built

Funkeka Karise & husband Sikiong have dedicated a room in the house which Sikiong built of concrete brick, the room will be used to support Mesem NT activities. In addition to safely storing NTs which are yet to be distributed, Sikiong is in the process of getting bids to install solar electricity into the house. Once that is complete we will have a place to print Mesem materials and quite possibly reliable email & telephone communication. Kitiwanu Lounu has made a couple of visits out to the east Mesem to promote reading and NT distribution. He has for the last year held Bible studies, scripture reading & worship sessions under a palm-leaved roofed sun shelter he built next to his own house. People meet twice a week with Kitiwanu. Ulam Papane & Kimambi Kumbo continue to support reading the Scriptures in Mesem and will help with corrections to “How the Jews Lived” and in editing/revising of the Book of Job. While there were a lot of conversations I did not get to have, I am really encouraged to see & hear the Mesem NT is being widely used and still supported by the community. Neil and Kathy Vanaria are currently working on the translation of the Tok Pisin Study Bible while they “keep tabs” on how the Mesem are doing.  Visit the “Items Needed” tab on the GapFill.org website to see how you can continue to help the Mesem in the Preaching and Teaching of the Mesem New Testament.  To receive GapFill.org’s 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”.

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Mesem New Testament Dedication

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.

Dancing at the Docks

Dancing at the Docks as the Mesem Bibles arrive

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

Samanzing Arrival

Arrival into Samanzing from the chopper window

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.

Bibles Entering Samanzing Village

Bibles Entering Samanzing Village

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  

Mesem Bridge

Bridge build by Vanaria supporters

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.

Mesem New Testament

Kathy Vanaria and Joyce with Mesem New Testament

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.


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Meet the Vanarias: Missionaries in Papua New Guinea

Note from GapFill.org’s Founder: Kathy and I first met freshman year of college as roommates at UMASS Amherst and through the years my husband Bill and I have had the privilege of being a part of Kathy, Neil and Tony’s ministry with the Mesem. There are so many stories both Kathy and I could tell about the past 35+ years we’ve known each other, many of which I hope make it on this blog. In this first blog though, I wanted Kathy to start at the beginning and explain in her own words why she choose to become a missionary. A decision that has forever impacted her life, her family’s life, and the lives of the thousands of people with whom she has shared Christ’s love. 

Kathy and Neil

Kathy and Neil

How Did a Nice Girl Like You End Up in the Rain Forest?

I’ve been asked that question dozens of times. In fact, I’ve asked myself that question a few times! Fortunately, I have a very good answer. Growing up in America almost every home had one or more copies of the Bible. There was a Bible in my parent’s home which I read, but didn’t totally understand. “Jesus died for you”, people would say. Or, “Ask Jesus into your heart”. I didn’t understand the meaning of that phrase. I joke about it, but it’s the truth that I spent almost a year trying to find an evangelical Christian who would evangelize me! After coming to understand the signficance of Our Savoir’s death and resurrection, I understood why it was really “good news”. I also quickly concluded that if it was that hard to find a Christian who could explain Christianity to me in a country where a Bible was in every home, and TV and radio shows told of Christ, what chance did people have who lived in places where they had no radio, or TV, nor a Bible in their language, nor Christians galore crowding their churches? Thus was born my desire to be a missionary.

I asked God to let me be a missionary and hoped He would say yes. He did. He sent me a husband who had an experience much like my own and also wanted others to have access to the wonderful news that Jesus came to reconcile us to Our Father. I confess, the rain forest was not the first place that came to my mind, but my husband felt very strongly that if someone wasn’t willing to go to the really hard places, how would those with the greatest need ever hear? He was right. In 1987 we left our secular employment and headed to prepare for overseas service. One year later, August 20, 1988, Neil and I left the USA for Papua New Guinea.

Last week we held in our hands a proof copy of the Mesem New Testament. It was tangible evidence of 25 years of God’s faithfulness to us and our family. During the last two decades our friends at GapFill sponsored schools, computers, translation helps, medical supplies and Bible materials for years while we worked first among the Kobon people and for the last 20 years among the Mesem. In January GapFill’s founders will join us in Papua New Guinea to celebrate what God has done.

Neil and Kathy Vanaria are Assembly of God World Missionaries. They have been missionaries in Papua New Guinea since 1988 and translators with the Mesem people of Morobe Province since 1993.

Visit their “Items Needed” tab on the GapFill.org website to see the current needs for Neil and Kathy Vanaria.  To receive GapFill.org’s 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”.