Wantok Bilong Mi

Tony Gallasch served as a mechanic with the Australian Lutheran Mission in New Guinea in the 60’s. His wife Coral recounts the story of their moving visit to the country and people that are part of our family of faith.

The tropical rain poured down, turning the village tracks to mud and shrouding the Hedsbach community in mist. We peered out of the window from where we had taken shelter in the Finschhafen District guesthouse. Then we heard a voice calling out above the downpour: ‘Tony, Tony, here is someone to see you.’ It was the voice of the Finschhafen district president, who lives with his family across the road.

As Tony went out onto the verandah, a large umbrella sheltering three figures emerged out of the rain. Suddenly, a small figure elbowed the district president to one side. He dashed up the steps and threw his arms around Tony, hugging him as if he would never let go. Tears streamed down his face, which radiated a mixture of love, wonder and joy.

This was the emotional reunion of Tony Gallasch and his former ‘work boy’ Sabade, as they met again after forty-one years. ‘The strength and length of that hug would have frightened me if I had not recognised Sabade at the lsat moment,’ Tony commented later. ‘I have never in my whole life been hugged like that. What a reception, what a welcome back!’

Together with his eleven-year-old granddaughter, Sabade had walked a two-and-a-half-hour journey down to the coast from his village Pindiu, high up above the Sattelberg mountain. He had come in response to a message from the district president, who had sent a messenger telling him that there was a visitor at Heldsbach wanting to see him.

Heldsbach Station at Finschhafen in Papua New Guinea (PNG) had been home to Tony for two years from 1965-1967, when he worked in the Lutheran Mission workshop as a mechanic. During that time Tony trained Subade and other ‘work boys’ as apprentice mechanics. Tony also worked in other PNG Lutheran Mission workshops in Madang and Goroka, until he returned home to Verdun, South Australia, in 1970.

Now forty years on, Tony was moved to return to PNG, taking me with him. We were hesitant at first. Stories of the rascals and the rising crime rate made us question whether this was a good time for my first visit to PNG. Tony was afraid that too much would have changed, and that precious memories would be destroyed. Then, after speaking with former mission workers, we realised that the New Guineans need to know that former mission workers have not forgotten them – that they are still ‘wantok bilong mi.’

When the tears had dried and the emotion had subsided, Tony and Sabade talked for five hours before Sabade started on his three-hour return walk up the mountain. After all, they had forty years of catching up to do! ‘It’s amazing how my Pidgin (the common language of many Papua New Guineans) returned after all these years,’ said Tony.

Tony was able to introduce me to Sabade and show him photos of our family. Sabade told us that he was married and had eight children and fourteen grandchildren. Throughout his working life, Sabade had continued to work in mechanics. The Hedsbach Lutheran Mission workshop business was later sold to Boroka Motors and shifted to Gagidu and is still in use today. Sabade followed the Lutheran workshop to Gagidu and worked there until his retirement.

Although some would say that Tony was ‘only a mechanic’ and not a ‘real missionary,’ God uses all situations and all believers as vessels to spread his word. Tony was humbled as Sabade related how God had used and blessed Tony’s efforts as a young twenty-one-year-old.

Throughout Sabade’s working life, God had provided the opportunities for him to train other New Guineans to become mechanics and to contribute to their country’s growing independence from white dominance. ‘You were my best teacher,’ Sabade told Tony. ‘You taught me everything I know about engines. You explained about two-stroke and four-stroke, and about how engines work. You taught me very well, and I was able to teach others too. Yu Papa bilong mi (you are my father).’

In his retirement Sabade is a subsistence farmer, growing coffee, taro, and many fruits and vegetables. God is also using Sabade to minister to the Finschhafen district during his retirement. Sabade told us that he is now a spiritual headman in his village. To prepare him for this challenge, Sabade has taken part in the village headman classes run by German missionary Pastor Tobias Jaeger at Heldsbach. These classes run for several weeks at different time throughout the year. The men study the Bible and learn how to be lay ministers to their villagers. After their course is completed, rather than leaving the area to minister in other districts, these men return to their homes to become spiritual leaders in their own communities.

We praise God that the roots of the gospel planted in those years still remain firmly in place. The faith of the people remains strong. We are still all part of God’s family. Every year the Finschhafen people remember the date that Missionary Flierl first landed at Simbung village well over a hundred years ago. They give thanks to God through commemorative services and celebrations. They also remember that it was not until thirteen years later that the first converts to Christianity were baptised.

We were privileged to attend the Heldsbach commemorative service on 12 July. This special evening service was held by lamplight. Carrying torches and lamps, hundreds of people crowded into one of the village classrooms. Most, including the elderly, sat cross-legged on the floor. Those who could not fit inside gathered at the open side-walls. The evening began with a single voice singing a melody. This was gradually followed by other voices, until it seemed that the whole room was filled with the sounds of spine-tingling free harmony, all singing praise to God, accompanied by the haunting beat of three kundu drums.

Later in the evening, Pastor Tobias started up his generator and showed an excellent DVD about the life of Missionary Flierl, complete with Pidgin narration. We were amazed that while we were in Finschhafen PNG, we were watching footage of the Louise Flierl Missionary Museum at our home congregation in Hahndorf!

During our time at Finschhafen we became aware of the need for maintenance in many areas. This commemorative service was held in lamplight not by choice but by necessity! There is a hydro-electric scheme at Heldsbach, but two years ago this broke down due to lack of maintenance. Two years later this fault has still not been fixed. There is still no electricity in the community, and there are only a couple of small personal working generators on the station. Most people have to make do by using lamplight or candles, and by cooking with gas or on open fires outdoors.

Pastor Tobias is especially concerned about the state of the classroom used for the village headman courses. He told us that this school is a vitally important part of the ministry to these Finschhafen communities. White ants have invaded the wooden posts and beams of the classroom, the roof is rusting and leaking and the wooden walls are rotting.

Is God calling us to return to Finschhafen with a maintenance team? We wait for God’s guidance, as we pray about this and grapple with the question of what to do. Since this country’s independence, we are very aware that Papua New Guinea belongs to the New Guineans. It is now time for the New Guineans to make the decisions. It is not our place to say ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’

We hope and pray that Tony’s recent efforts with silicone on the leaking classroom roof will challenge some of the younger men at Heldsbach to get up and have a go.

There is one thing that we are sure of: throughout our trip through Finschhafen, Lae, Madang and Goroka, God was with us, protecting us all the way. As we stepped out in faith, God sent his PNG guardian angels to protect and guide us in many potentially dangerous situations…

Like the time we met a group of a dozen men, armed with machetes and bush knives returning from clearing the bush. Another local villager just happened to be casually walking with us…

Like Suzie at Madang guesthouse, who took us under her wing and helped with our travel arrangements, which we had found so frustrating and difficult to organise from Australia…

Like Ola to Lae who insisted on accompanying us to the market bus depot. She personally chose our PMV (people moving vehicle) and haggled a good price for our trip to Goroka…

Like this stranger at Lae wharf who kindly offered us a lift to the Lutheran guesthouse when our arranged pick-up was late. He said it was too dangerous for us to wait there alone…

Like the stranger at Goroka market who helped us find the right bus to Asaroka. Unlike our buses in Australia, PNG buses do not have a destination displayed or even a marked bus stop…

Or when total strangers would casually walk along with us, chatting like old friends as we walked through the towns. Later we learnt that the rascals leave you alone if you are with a local because they know that locals may be able to identify them…

Even when travelling on the PMV mini buses for many hours from Madang to Lae, and later from Lae to Goroka – in buses that were hot, cramped and overloaded with people and cargo – we were always treated with helpful friendliness, courtesy and respect. We made many new friends from all works of life.

We thank God for this amazing trip and for our New Guinean brothers and sister. Along with Sabade, we can say this with love and humility: ‘Wantok bilong mi’ (you are one of my people – you speak my language).

This story was also published in the October 2008 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/