Papua New Guinea: Land of the unexpected

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by Major Allen Satterlee – 

One of the names for Papua New Guinea is “the land of the unexpected.” It is a gross understatement. It is a land that is often savage—from its unforgiving jungles to its crocodile-infested rivers, to some who still kill to settle an offense to their tribe. The streets are unsafe; an everyday trip to the store risks a carjacking.

It is a land of profound poverty. The average person in Papua New Guinea earns about US$1 per day. School is not free, so many children do not receive any education because their parents can’t pay the fees. The unemployment rate, including the marginally employed, hovers around 60 percent. The health system, though improving, is a shambles. If HIV/AIDS is not curbed, at the present rate 30 percent of the population will be infected in the next ten years.

But then, it is a land of great delight. The culture is as rich as any on earth, with complex rules for everything from how people marry to the connections they maintain with tiny home villages even while living across the world. One fourth of all the world’s languages, over 800, are found among its 5.2 million people.

The Salvation Army in Papua New Guinea is every bit as fascinating as the country itself. During the Second World War, Papua New Guinea, then part of Australia, was invaded by the Japanese. They swept aside the Australian forces from Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the far north, pushing them back until they were in reach of the capital, Port Moresby, in the south. Had they captured Port Moresby the island would have fallen, allowing them to stage an invasion of Australia, less than 100 miles away.

After months of fighting, the Australians, joined by troops from New Zealand and the United States, succeeded in driving the Japanese back over the brutal Kokoda Trail. It was an epic struggle that stopped the Japanese advance. The Salvation Army was here then, serving the troops first during their retreat and then their advances. It was the Army’s service at this time that has made it a beloved part of Australian life to the present.

But the Army left when the troops did. It wasn’t until 1956 that the Army officially opened here as an outreach of the Australian Eastern Territory. Next year the Papua New Guinea territory will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. When it does, it will be with over 125 corps and outposts, almost 40 social institutions and close to 11,000 people who claim the Army as their church. That translates into one corps for every 41,000 people. By comparison, in the U.S. there is one corps for every 230,000 people.

The Salvation Army is the fastest growing church in the country. The forces have tripled in the last 25 years. While most of the openings are planned, even now Salvationists are planting new corps and reporting them to headquarters after they feel they have enough people for an enrollment of soldiers. Forget the paperwork. The corps is already going.

Nor do they allow the remoteness of an area to affect whether a corps will flourish. The road system features highways that are often no more than double ruts, barely negotiable even with four-wheel drive vehicles. Some roads that scale the mountains require ascending a slope at a 45-degree angle. Some corps are along these roads, but many are located on walking trails anywhere from two to eight hours from the “highway.” Others can be reached only by boat. The danger of the rivers is such that a recent project was to buy life jackets for the officers. But the Salvationists here have determined that if there is a group of people anywhere, they need to hear the gospel and the Army is the one who needs to bring it. So they track through the jungles, often witnessing to tribes of people who a generation ago (or maybe even now) were their mortal enemies, whose fellow tribesmen’s heads are still decorating the village house or sitting around on altars.

I cannot tell you the depth of my admiration for Salvationists here. They care nothing about their poverty, have a reckless regard for their own lives, continuing to move out and through and among the people of this nation, carrying little more than their Bibles, their uniforms and their witness. Although the Army remains very poor, it is a rejoicing and advancing Army. Perhaps we should say it appears poor but in the land of the unexpected, it is incredibly rich.

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