A Grave Situation
(by Dave Dever, 13 minutes)
In June 2001 my wife Abby and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary by taking a trip of a lifetime. We traveled to the Island Nation of Vanuatu located in the South Pacific approximately 1900 km northeast of Brisbane, Australia. We departed from Vancouver, BC Canada and arrived in Sydney, Australia. After resting for the day, we took the evening flight to Vanuatu. We arrived in the capital city of Port Vila on the island of Efate at midnight in a driving tropical downpour. After checking through customs and gathering up our luggage we found our ride that would take us to our island resort. A small 2 door compact car pulled up and we jumped into the backseat with all of our luggage on top of us. Our driver and escort were local natives, we found it “a little” unnerving as we hydroplaned over the large mud puddles through the streets of Port Vila. A small boat took us across to our retreat. All our senses seemed to be working overtime and culture shock was already setting in. As we walked down the trail to our beach bungalow the amplified sounds from the crickets kept us on high alert. The holes in the window screens motivated us to spray down with tropical strength bug spray and the large spiders hovering in the corners convinced us to keep the lights on as we crawled into bed for the night. After a few days we began to settle down and enjoy our tropical surroundings.
I had first learned of Vanuatu in the middle 1980’s when I was hired to haul a load of garbage to the city dump. Part of the load was an old box of books. As they teetered on the tailgate I deliberated on whether I should keep them or kick them off. Something inside me said, “don’t throw them away”. So I took them home and put them in the basement, forgetting all about them until a cold winters day when I stumbled across them again. I took them upstairs and threw them into the fireplace for fuel. Fortunately, Abby came running when she saw me throw them in and said, “No, save them, they’re old books.”. We did save some and almost immediately I began to read one of them. It was a 2 volume set written in 1891 by the Presbyterian missionary John G Paton. I later learned that this was a rare set of books about the missionary who went to the New Hebrides in 1858, renamed Vanuatu in 1980 after gaining independence from the British and the French.
I was amazed when I read the story of Paton’s life. He had great courage, commitment and passion and was dedicated to his cause. He was stationed at Port Resolution on the island of Tanna which was fully inhabited by cannibals. He was in constant danger and there were many attempts made to kill him Just 3 months after arriving on Tanna, his wife Mary-Ann died of malaria. Then to crown his sorrows, only 3 weeks later, his infant son Peter Robert died too. Even though his hardship was almost unbearable, he chose to continue on with his mission on Tanna. As I read his story over many times through the years I dreamed of one day retracing his steps but wondered if it would ever happen.
It was hard to believe that we really were here in Vanuatu. After spending a few days in the capital city of Port Vila we took a twin otter plane to Tanna. This was a dream come true. Barnabas met us at the airport, he was our driver. He took us by 4×4 truck to the other side of the island. As we climbed a steep hill and turned the corner there before us loomed the great Mount Yashur, an active volcano rumbling and smoking in the distance. It was a surreal experience to take in the contrasting landscape of the volcano, jungle and blue sea below. We finally reached our destination of Friendly Bungalows, a rustic grass hut resort on the seaside where there was the constant sound of waves crashing against the reef. The next day we hired a guide to take us to Port Resolution where the Paton’s had been stationed many years earlier. I was particularly keen on finding Mary-Ann Paton’s grave and was disappointed when we discovered our guide had no idea where it was. After some time I saw a man far down the bay and decided to go ask him if he knew the grave’s location. As I approached the lone man who was fishing I attempted a greeting in his language, Bislama. I learned that his name was Narua and he was the chief of Port Resolution. To my delight he also knew where the grave was and would take us to it.
At the end of an unmarked overgrown trail through a coconut grove lay not only Mrs. Paton’s grave but their son’s as well. It was a sober moment as we silently honored their memory and reflected on the huge sacrifice they paid to share the gospel with the people of Tanna. As we started back down the trail I began to tell Chief Narua the story (recorded in Billy Graham’s book ‘Angels”) of how on one occasion John Paton’s life was miraculously spared. A cyclone had come through, destroying the banana crops. The chiefs got together and discussed that this disaster must have been caused by Paton’s God and resolved that he must be killed. They marched around his hut all night long while the Paton’s were inside praying. In the morning they all left without incident. Some time later Paton asked one of the chiefs, “why didn’t you kill me that night?” The chief replied,”we couldn’t, there were too many men standing around your hut with drawn swords”. Paton explained that they must have been angels for they were alone. Chief Narua asked me who some of the chiefs were back then. I mentioned the high chief of Port Resolution Nowar who was also John Paton’s best friend and had saved his life on many occasions. At this Chief Narua fell to his knees and poked 5 holes in the sand. Our guide and interpreter Philemon said “he’s Nowar’s great great grandson.” We were all amazed at the events that were unfolding. Almost without thinking I said to the chief, “I will come back in 2 years and bring you a copy of the John Paton story”. Later Philemon said to send him the book and he would read it to Narua for he feared he would be dead in 2 years. I did send the book to Philemon once back in Canada.
Later that day we visited Mount Yashur and looked into the fiery inferno as it spit hot lava into the night sky. I remembered reading that Captain Cook was denied access by the natives to this volcano when he came to Port Resolution in the 1770’s for they considered it holy ground.
I had brought a Bislama bible to Tanna to learn this national language. The Bislama translation was spearheaded by BSSP (Bible Society of the South Pacific) with their consultant Dr. Ian Fray and translator Bill Camden (Presbyterian Minister) being 2 individuals who played a significant role in the 30 year long project. The first edition was printed by the Bible Society of the South Pacific in 1998. Many of the natives on Tanna were overjoyed to see it and would have loved to have a copy of their own. After returning to Canada I couldn’t get it out of my mind the peoples desire for a bible. One day while Abby and I were on our walk, Abby found a 25 cent coin on the ground . We decided to donate the coin for the start of the Bislama bible fund. We asked God to multiply it just like the fish and the bread in the bible story. Soon the fund started to grow, donations came from friends , Sunday Schools , and many other generous people. Even the guy at the garbage dump saved pop bottles to cash in for bibles. We had over $7000 dollars in the fund enough for 705 bibles. We bought the bibles at a discounted price from Jacklyn Reuben Titek the Coordinator of the Bible Society of Vanuatu located in Port Vila and had them put on a ship headed for Tanna.
We partnered with local native Pastors and other local leaders, making the distribution a great success. Pastor Barnabas said, “remember this day September 28,2002, this day makes history the bibles have come for the first time for free to the people The first bible went to a crippled man named Jack he literally jumped up and down on the ground and had a huge smile when he was given a bible. Many speeches were made of how happy they were, most believing they would never be able to have a bible of their own. I previously had one of the bibles wrapped in tropical fish wrapping paper for a special gift for Chief Narua. I went to see Philemon and asked him how Chief Narua was. He reported that just one month earlier he had died. I was saddened by the news, I asked him if he had given the Chief the Paton book. He said that he had given the book to him and his son Weary had read it to him. After hearing the Paton story Chief Narua said, “I must become a Christian” and gave his life to the Lord Jesus. I was happy for him that he had made his peace with God. I had intended now to give the special bible to the eldest son of Chief Narua but when all his sons came forward to get a bible during a ceremony at Port Resolution, I decided to leave it in my pack.
Later that week we went to Sulfur Bay. After giving out bibles Pastor Maliwan invited us for lunch. I had been told that he might be able to take me to the cargo cult and to see the leader Chief Issac. He outright refused and said it was impossible to see him because he was completely closed to the things of God. We decided to go anyway, I knew people back home were praying for a door to open. The chief was not home so we went around the volcano to look for him. The children found him and brought him to us. He greeted me with a friendly handshake and invited us back to his hut. We exchanged gifts, I gave him the wrapped bible in my pack, and he was over joyed. As we left the chief smiled and invited us to visit him again if we ever came back to Tanna. The Cargo Cult started around the end of the second world war when the U.S. marines came to Tanna and the natives saw the wealth of the West. Some believe that a man named John Frum will come and give them material wealth and ships and planes will bring the cargo. Others believe he is living in the volcano with many spirit followers.
We were happy to give out bibles to many people but it only “scratched the surface”; so many were requesting bibles for their villages but the bibles had run out. After returning home the funds continued to come in so we knew another trip would happen again the next year.
On July 22 ,2003 my wife Abby, daughter Sher and I returned to Vanuatu. After landing in Port Vila we started making arrangements for bibles to be shipped to the island of Tanna. Our native friend Pastor Barnabas picked us up at the airport and took us to the grass hut he had specially made for us in faith, believing we would return. This year we had 224 more Bislama bibles to give out. We traveled to distant mountain villages, which were difficult to reach, some could only be reached by climbing steep slippery jungle trails on foot. Chief Kauia, an elderly man clad in grass coverings said, ” today we accept the gospel in this village for the first time . Never before have I allowed the Gospel nor has any chief before me, but now we will receive the Gospel because the bibles have come.” At another village the chief startled us when he announced that he knew that we would be coming and explained through an interpreter that he had been in WW2 showing the U.S. marines around when someone told him that there would be a white man coming with bibles. It went through my mind just how many years he had been waiting. He said that he had always opposed a church but now that the bibles had come he would allow it, and started handing bibles out himself.
When we returned home we helped to found a registered charity called Bibles for the Poor Society. Our focus is to reach the poor of this world and give them Eternal Hope. Luke 14:13,14 says ” … when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they can not repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
On November 28, 2004 we went back to Vanuatu. At first we went North to Malekula, Akhamb, Santo and Tangoa. Jacklyn Reuben Titek the coordinator of the Bible society of Vanuatu along with his wife Lucy and family accompanied us to the northern islands. Their home islands are Akhamb and Tangoa, they were essential as guides and interpreters, helping us find remote villages, and ultimately making the mission trip a success. Our first landing in our small plane was in a grass field at Lamap Airport, a tractor pulling a hay wagon then picked us up and took us to the ocean. We waited about three hours on the beach for our boat and driver to arrive. We all piled into our overloaded boat and were finally on our way. Fortunately Lucy had brought umbrellas to protect us from the scorching sun. It was a long three hour journey to Akhamb island. We were thankful that the sea was calm as there were no life jackets on board. Several times during our long, hot voyage we were visited by playful dolphins refreshing us emotionally. The people of Akhamb have no electricity and few modern conveniences living very simply and happy. One man had recently lost his son in a wild cow hunt and was comforted when he was given a bible of his own.
Next we landed at South West Bay and took a refreshing dip in the river. We hiked for many hours into the mountains to meet a nomadic tribe and gave them all bibles. It was just one week before Christmas and one leader commented that the usual Christmas gift was a candy. He laughed with great joy that this year they all got the Word of God. After one week we left Malekula for the Island of Santo. Here too we visited many remote villages bringing the people the message of Eternal Hope.
After distributing bibles on these islands we went back to the southerly island of Tanna. We found our friend Chief Issac who lives at the base of the volcano and he graciously accepted bibles for his people. Once again on all these islands we found that people were hungry for the Word of God. Most of the people never have had a bible before. There are many challenges that we face in doing God’s work but the joy we experience makes one forget the hardships and opposition that comes when you’re living on the edge and out of the comfort zone . On this years Mission Trip we were able to give out 738 more bibles; in total we have now given out 1667 bibles. Our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 14 :13- 21 said to his disciples, “you give them something to eat” after they had told him to send the hungry people away. But they only had a few fish and loafs of bread. We can learn from this passage, all we need to do is bring our resources, however small they may seem and when He blesses them, they will grow. After returning home we received a note from Pastor Silas of Tanna. He is a native of Tanna and has been a Presbyterian Pastor for over 50 years but now has come out of retirement, because so many people are coming to Christ. He says the bible has had a great result. He also said many are still needing a bible. They say , “now we are coming back to the light, it’s our turn we want to worship too.”
We are now preparing to return to Vanuatu with more copies of the Word of God and the question remains, “what could be better than to give people Eternal Hope?” The words of our Lord Jesus are still ringing out today to this generation of believers, His words last forever, He says, “you give them something to eat.” Let us not forget, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,… then the righteous will answer Him, ‘when did we see you hungry and feed you?…the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me…” Matthew 25:35-46 . We are very encouraged that people are giving generously for our next bible distribution trip. One six year old boy drained his entire piggy bank of $6.62 and donated it for bibles. When I heard this I just laughed with joy. God shows His love in many ways.
The missionaries who risked their lives many years ago have left behind a legacy, it is the glorious Gospel which continues to speak from the grave.
For further information or to support this worthy ministry please visit www.biblesforthepoor.org or write to:
(Canadian Address) Bibles for the Poor Society, Box 593, Aldergrove , BC CANADA V4W 2V1
(USA Address) Bibles for the Poor Society, Box 948, Sumas, WA USA 98295
Phone: 1-800-979-4743 (USA & Canada)