INDONESIA

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Transformation in the mountains of Indonesia

Photo: Mark Hewes
Written by Chris Burgess
Sep 1, 2020

Children poured from the wooden schoolhouse and rushed into the arms of waiting parents, their squeals breaking the calm of the thin mountain air. Liku stepped out of the doorway behind the last straggling student. His son was playing in the grass with another child and began to cry. Liku scooped him up and walked to a cluster of low-slung huts atop a hill. Cradling the child’s head, he ducked through the doorway and sat him down next to his siblings. Kivina, Liku’s wife, stoked a fire in the center of the hut where yams cooked under a smoke-blackened ceiling. 

His daughter crawled into his lap and they began to sing. First a traditional Wano song, then a rendition of “God Is So Good.” Liku and Kivina prayed, they ate, and soon this small family fell asleep.

The sun dipped behind the green peaks and rain began to fall on the village of Mokndoma— tucked high in the rugged mountains of Papua, Indonesia. The following morning Liku and a group of other men from this Wano community would depart for another village. There was important work to do.

Photo: Mark Hewes

Beyond Roads  

Mokndoma sits on the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. This equatorial island is larger than the state of Texas. It is home to jungle-clad mountains that would tower over the Colorado Rockies and hundreds of different language groups.

There are no roads to Mokndoma. The few existing trails to and from the village mostly consist of fallen logs, creek beds, and mudslides. Mokndoma is one of several villages of the Wano people.

Western civilization’s slow transformation from Greco-Roman roots marked by fickle gods and ubiquitous slavery, where unwanted children were tossed into fires and the marginalized were sexually exploited, has taken—and is still taking—over two millennia. In Mokndoma—as well as many other places in the global South—that transformation is happening much, much more quickly.

This remote region has incubated entire people groups with little to no contact from the outside world. For millennia, people like the Wano were separated from globalization’s steady stream of exchanging ideas, religions, technologies, and cultures.

In his book Dominion, British historian Tom Holland argues that nearly every facet of Western civilization and Western thought is deeply indebted to Christianity. Holland—an atheist—recognizes beliefs like universal human rights, the sexual ethics undergirding movements like #MeToo, care for the poor, and the humane treatment of children are not innate to humanity. Rather they flowed down from the followers of an obscure Jewish rabbi in first-century Palestine. Traces of Christ’s teachings can be found in everything from the Geneva Convention to the tender love of a parent to a child.

Photo: Chris Burgess

Western civilization’s slow transformation from Greco-Roman roots marked by fickle gods and ubiquitous slavery, where unwanted children were tossed into fires and the marginalized were sexually exploited, has taken—and is still taking—over two millennia. In Mokndoma—as well as many other places in the global South—that transformation is happening much, much more quickly.

Like any civilization, the Wano developed ways of framing the world around them. They understood the physical and spiritual realms to be deeply connected. Capricious spirits haunted the night—keeping the Wano from venturing into the darkness. Child mortality from natural causes was staggeringly high. When death came to younger members of the community, it was blamed on the work of witches. They would gather around a pit of burning leaves, when the fire died down, the woman sitting in front of the least burned portion would be accused of being the guilty witch. She would then be killed. 

Life for the Wano in Mokndoma is very different now.

Liku is different too.

Photo: Chris Burgess

Thy Kingdom Come in Mokndoma 

“Liku was not a normal Wano man,” said Tim Ingles, who serves in Mokndoma and has lived with his family among the Wano for over a decade. “He was shy and kept to himself—which was pretty different from most of the other people here. 

When the Ingles family and another family on their team arrived in Mokndoma, they received a warm welcome from the Wano. The Wano helped them build a new home and learn the language. Tim and Rebecca got to work developing a written language and providing basic healthcare. Soon a school and a clinic were built.

As the relationships grew, Tim and Rebecca began telling a story. For months, they walked through the narrative of Scripture—starting with Genesis and culminating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. They invited the Wano into this story.

And the Wano stepped into it.

The fabric of this community began to transform. Violence ebbed. Men moved into huts with their families. Children were treated with love and kindness. Night no longer brought with it the fear of spirits. And the children began to survive. Word spread that people “no longer died” in Mokndoma.

Liku was one of the first among the Wano to follow Jesus. And he stepped out of the margins and became a leader in both the community and the fledgling church.  

“He was so nervous the first time he stepped up to preach,” said Tim. “He was literally shaking.”

“When people [in the West] say to leave people like us alone, I think. ‘Poor them, they must have a distorted Gospel,’” said Liku. “Come look at this place for yourself. This was not the Garden of Eden. We were living in the midst of Satan’s lies. We blamed hardships on evil spirits and were killing each other. Now, we are no longer scared. We live in peace because of the Gospel.

That nervousness is now gone, usurped by a quiet confidence and dogged passion to bring hope to others. Liku not only serves in the village—at the church, the school, and the clinic—he also trains teachers and travels to other villages to share the same message that transformed his community. The Wano carved an airstrip by hand into the middle of the village so Mission Aviation Fellowship could support the village and the work they were doing. 

“When people [in the West] say to leave people like us alone, I think. ‘Poor them, they must have a distorted Gospel,’” said Liku. “Come look at this place for yourself. This was not the Garden of Eden. We were living in the midst of Satan’s lies. We blamed hardships on evil spirits and were killing each other. Now, we are no longer scared. We live in peace because of the Gospel. 

“But our friends are not at peace. They are out there and we must help them.”

 A New Christendom

Before his ascension, Jesus gave his followers the command to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In the two millennia since, his followers have largely been successful. The Christian faith has truly become a global religion. Yet, as the Gospel spread throughout history, it often did so in tandem with colonialism and imperial power. A common critique of Christian missionary work—particularly of Western evangelical missions in the 19th and 20th centuries—is that it has perpetuated these power structures. While this critique has been at times valid, it does not paint a full picture.

 But perhaps more importantly, this critique has grown outdated. The West is no longer the driving force of Christianity.

Lamin Sanneh, the late Gambian theologian, highlighted that Christianity seems to have its best response where indigenous religions are strongest. The worldview of the New Testament writers—which were very aware of the spiritual realms and Christ’s power over them—in many ways meshes more easily with the outlook of animistic Papuans than with post-modern hipsters in London or Portland.

Sanneh goes on to point out that in many African and Asian contexts, the Gospel took root particularly well when it was divorced from state or colonial power. Over the past century, these small sparks turned into a blaze until about 40 years ago, when the epicenter of Christianity shifted from North America and Europe to the Global South.  In fact, according to a 2015 study by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 68 percent of Christians in the world are people of color—and that percentage is growing.

The Gospel has and will continue to move forward without Western organizational structures— often amid political instability and the collapse of public institutions.

Jesus’ command to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth is being carried out more and more by people like Liku who live in places like Mokndoma.

Photo: Chris Burgess

In Mokndoma, Puluk, Papua, and to the Ends of the Earth.

On a crisp morning a few years ago, a man stepped out of the forest into Mokndoma. He had walked several days from a village called Puluk—crossing mountains, malarial jungles, and raging rivers.

This man, named Anut, and his wife had lost several children in Puluk. His wife had gotten so sick she had to be flown to Mokndoma with her baby to receive medical care. Anut followed on foot a few weeks later. Sickness, death, and fear had long plagued their small hamlet. But word of what was happening in Mokndoma reached them. Anut knew they needed whatever the Wano in Mokndoma had.

The Wano welcomed Anut’s family and gave them a patch of land where they could garden and build a small home. Soon two more healthy and happy children were born into their family.

Liku mentored Anut and Anut became a follower of Christ. Anut quickly grew into an adept Bible teacher and aspired to join Liku on his trips to other villages. But what Anut really wanted was to return to Puluk for the long term to share the hope they had found with the people there.

Early one morning, Liku and Kivina woke up in their hut and Liku gathered his things. The time had come for Anut to return to Puluk.

Photo: Chris Burgess

A helicopter rose above the clouds that had settled in the valley below Mokndoma. Blades thwacked as the pilot touched down in the middle of the village. Smiling Wano children restrained themselves until the blades stopped and then rushed to greet the pilots as Liku, Anut, and a few other Wano teachers climbed into the helicopter. They were soon whisked away to Puluk. 

The helicopter bypassed the treacherous, days-long journey Anut had made years before in just ten minutes. Rounding a bend, they approached Puluk, which sat balanced on a narrow ridge in a valley ringed by mountains.

They touched down and a crowd greeted them with singing and dancing. Far fewer children were dispersed among the crowd than in Mokndoma. This moment had been a long time coming for Puluk; the village elders had been working on building an airstrip in their village by hand since the 1970’s. They were hopeful that if they finished the airstrip, help would come to them.

Liku and Anut greeted the villagers and made their way to a field where a feast of roast pigs was being prepared. People ate and then relaxed under the blazing Papuan sun as Liku stood up to speak. He told them of a God who was not capricious or fickle, but was steadfast in love. This God sent his son to die for them and was ushering in a new kingdom that was transforming places like Mokndoma.

Lamin Sanneh, the late Gambian theologian, highlighted that Christianity seems to have its best response where indigenous religions are strongest. The worldview of the New Testament writers—which were very aware of the spiritual realms and Christ’s power over them—in many ways meshes more easily with the outlook of animistic Papuans than with post-modern hipsters in London or Portland.

Anut spoke next, bringing a bow and arrow and a branch. The bow and arrow, he explained, represented the violence he had engaged in. The branch, which came from a plant they associated with evil spirits, represented the darkness which had held sway over his life. Anut threw them both on the ground. He had left them behind.

 He invited Puluk to leave those things behind as well.

That evening, a small handful of children played in a field under the setting sun. Liku and Anut stayed awake around a fire in the men’s hut where they continued to discuss, teach, and listen. Soon darkness covered Puluk. Liku and Anut would return to Mokndoma the following morning.

After the helicopter arrived back in Mokndoma the next day, Anut got out and walked with his family up the hill to their home. They gathered tubers from their nearby garden and sat down to eat. This place had brought their family peace, but it would not be home for long. He plans to return to Puluk. What Anut has learned from Liku here has changed his life, the life of his family, and, one day soon, he hopes it will transform Puluk as well.

On a nearby ridge, smoke rose from Liku’s hut. Anut’s children jumped and climbed on a log in the evening’s last light as Anut looked out across the valley. One day, in Puluk as in Mokndoma, perhaps even more children will live to play under the setting sun.