Hands on

For the past two years, Stu Robertson, friend and encourager, has creatively prepared inspirational and captivating newsletters on the life and volunteer work of Stan and Gwen Dudgeon as they work as volunteers in Papua New Guinea. Stu shares his insights and images gleaned over these past two years as he has shared in the journey of Stan and Gwen from the ‘distance’ of his home in Brisbane.

Papua New Guinea. It conjures up a stack of visuals in under a minute, doesn’t it? Marketers call these ‘top of mind’ images. Randomly un-prioritised, seemingly trivial concepts of this independent neighbour of ours, under an hour away by high-speed boat from the very tip of Australia.

What’s yours? My quick ones, in no particular order, are steamy jungles; palm trees brushing back and forth on golden beach sands; that Aussie soldier with a blindfold being gently led along the path by ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’; the Kokoda Trail (or Track, depending on whose version you want to stick with); mist swirling around Mt Hagen; Missionary Aviation Fellowship planes and their incredibly short landing strips. The last? A picture of my dad, khaki sleeves rolled up, crouching with his mates outside their canvas tent during World War II.

All these have nothing to do with Stan and Gwen Dudgeon, except for the fact that this was where my mind was two years ago when the Dudgeons told me they had accepted the invitation to leave their Brisbane home to travel to Karkar Island.

Where’s Karkar? Initially I naively thought it was the home of the Phantom, the Skull Cave and his loyal Pygmy friends – but a more intellectual colleague of mine put down his coffee cup and stared at me in a slightly unnerving way.

Karkar Island is about thirty kilometres off Madang. It comes complete with its own dormant (we hope) volcano and gritty mineral sandy beaches. It’s oval-shaped and located in the Bismarck Sea. It has a population of ‘about’ fifty thousand, mostly Catholics and Lutherans, who speak either or both of the two languages, Waskia and Takia. Neighbouring islands are Bagabag and Manam, if you wanted to check the globe. Stan and Gwen opted for the ‘hands-on’ role in the refurbishment of the Gaubin Hospital. They are there to make a difference – a real difference in making a ‘sick hospital’ better.

Rusty see-through roofs, murky wade-through sewage are just two of the more ‘attractive’ features of this wonderful old, slightly post-World War II hospital (built by Dr Ed Tscharke, the late dedicated and long-serving Australian) as the effects of longevity and equatorial climate fight for their own kind of medical residency.

Yet if there’s one thing I’ve picked up from the safety of a Brisbane chair, it’s the sheer patience of the Dudgeons and their blind devotion to the real reason they do what they do. Stan’s a bit of wag really. Seeing the irony of a situation is a specialty. Usually a wry smile comes on his face and a small giggle ushers forth. Here’s what he wrote recently about the disgusting Sister Gau at the hospital.

I met Sister Gau soon after arriving at Gaubin – fell head over heels: she was gorgeous. I found out that she’d been here many years, so was at the point of retiring, her old body wearing out. I felt that it was amazing that she could even keep going, but she did. I think it was one day in March that one of the guys found her, and it was plain to see that work for her was no more. I can remember respectful discussions about her future – she was a respected member, having served for so long at the hospital. She was here when the Tscharkes were here and worked with them for a number of years. Since then I hadn’t seen her around the hospital, but every now and again I’d go by and just say a few words, just like I’ve been doing lately for Ulabin (‘All a bin’), as he was in bed with a broken leg.

Anyway, to get back to Sister Gau, on the 5th of November I went by her room. There was putrid smoke everywhere and a lot of noise. I started to get excited as I saw through the smoke. It turned out that all the smoke was coming out of the tractor’s exhaust, and of course the tractor was making the noise.

As you have just picked up, Sister Gau is the name of a 1960s Massey Ferguson tractor that is used for everything at the hospital. The story in their #10 Karkar Newsletter touched a nerve over the world, with offers of parts, service manuals and practical suggestions. They still need help with it, by the way. Mostly money, so they can get the parts on the mainland.

Now Gwen is quite a lady. She has the patience of…well, you know the story. Her raw perspective on project matters and her succinctness with words is a quality that Stan appreciates. Especially as he feels he gets the truth, nice or not – but another opinion to consider. Gwen’s personal ministry reveals the heart of a woman the Saviour clearly handpicked for Karkar: her encouragement, grace, perseverance with the Island ladies, teaching healthy cooking with the available fresh produce, helping them to be independent through learning to sew and by simply loving them for who they are, where they are.

Incidentally, Gwen and Stan, both retired teachers, have been involved with Emmaus Walk Movement in Queensland for some twenty years, inspiring everyday Christians to deepen their faith and go back to their own denominations to inspire others. So encouragement, patience and perseverance are no strangers to the Dudgeon household – wherever that household ends up being relocated. Stan was born in PNG and lived there for many of the early, formative years of his life, so I guess that gives him something of an advantage in knowing the PNG way of thinking and culture.

Through several events that occurred prior to their arrival, and the recent death of Don Kudan, a great Lutheran Health Services director, the knock-on effect is being felt now, and the money supply from the PNG government has dwindled, with the result that the Dudgeons reluctantly have had to accept the latest scenario, that they will be returning home in December 2011.

Pity – so much done, so much to do. Then again, nothing takes the Lord by surprise, does it? He has something in mind.

This story was also published in the October 2011 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email nevin.nitschke@lca.org.au. For more information, go to http://www.lcamission.org.au/join-gods-mission/volunteer/

Read more stories about volunteering at www.lcamission.org.au/category/join-gods-mission/volunteers/