“Why did you leave us?” “Where are the Australians?” “Where have all the missionaries gone?” “When is the Lutheran Church of Australia coming back to Siassi?”

These questions, and many like them, were part of every welcome singsing (ceremonial dance), worship service, meeting and conversation we had as we went from village to village in the Siassi island region of Papua New Guinea in April this year.

Some words were mixed with deep sadness, others with a sense of frustration, and others tempered with regret or anger. Pain was evident as some people reflected on the loss of contact with the LCA members who had been their teachers, mechanics, nurses, doctors, pastors, friends, and more importantly, their “family”.

Despite some piercing words, my first visit to Siassi left a lasting impression, encouraging me to see the power of God at work in people’s lives, as well as his ability to take what we give him in service and worship – and multiply it in amazing ways.

Shortly before Bishop Wesley Kigasung died in May 2008, he asked me to visit Menyamya and Siassi – two districts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea (ELC-PNG) where the LCA previously had significant involvement – and make efforts to reconnect with the local people who see Australian Lutherans as family.

In a brief visit to Menyamya last year, members of the church expressed the same comments and concerns about the LCA as the people of Siassi voiced in April. In both places, questions were full of love, even when tinged with anger or feelings of rejection at loss of contact. But people asking “Where have the Australians gone?” and “Why have you left us?” provided wonderful opportunities for us to hear each others’ concerns, hurts and sadness, to share stories and give thanks to God for the amazing things He has done.

As fellow followers of Jesus, we also looked to new ways of partnering. My visits to Menyamya and Siassi became journeys of reconciliation and healing. Siassi and Menyamya Districts have been part of the mission story of the LCA (formerly known as the “Australian Lutheran Mission” in Papua New Guinea) for more than 73 (Siassi) and 58 (Menyamya) years.

Stories shared by the many people who returned to Australia from these PNG districts inspired people of all ages to follow a “missionary” life of service overseas – or in Australia. The Australian Lutheran connection to the people of PNG began when Rev Johann Flierl landed on the shores at Simbang on the 12th July 1886. In the years that followed, hundreds of Australians left the comforts of home to give their lives to serve God as they shared the message of his love with PNG – not only in words, but in many practical acts of love and service.

This love of Jesus, lived out through the lives of Australians in Siassi, Menyamya and many other remote and challenging places in PNG, is etched deeply into the life of the people there. Australians remain their family – and they are our family.

To begin reconciliation and healing with the people of Siassi, my visit could not take place from a distance but needed to be experienced. The 20-hour boat trip on the crowded, upper deck of the MV Rita did nothing to deter the expectancy and excitement I had as the boat sailed along the coastal shore of the island and eventually drew close to the wharf at Lablab station – and the waiting crowd. Hundreds of people crowded onto that wharf to meet family, warmly welcome us with singing and floral lays, or just gather to watch, buy local produce and chew buai (betel nut). After unloading much of its cargo of goods and people, and collecting equally as much of the same, the MV Rita returned to Gasam beach – our drop-off point.

Due to mooring some distance offshore, we had to awkwardly clamber aboard a flotilla of small boats which carried us to an awaiting group of local women, men and the inquiring stares of smiling children. A pattern of hospitality and help for our weeklong walkabout was set as soon as we began our climb up the mountain tracks to our first night in the village of Oropot. Women took our weighty luggage and supplies in bilums (PNG string bags used to carry cargo – and babies) on their heads, while men walked ahead to clear the path with machetes. Others followed behind, walking bare-foot over rough, overgrown tracks. Their steadying hands were always reaching out to hold us up when we began to slide on the steep, wet and slippery paths.

Part of the track to Gasam village (on the way to Oropot) had freshly cut grass edges. However, throughout the island, roads which were once the cleared tracks for mission four-wheel drives and makeshift vehicles long had been washed away. They had become narrow waterways and walkways, overgrown with lush tropical vegetation. Throughout the week, the distant tones of drums and the shrill sounds of men and women singing in preparation for our visit alerted us to each traditional welcome singsing we received in each village.

Embraced by the generous gift for hospitality which Papua New Guineans are so well known for, we came together for worship, shared stories and prayer.

“When will the Australians come back to help us with our buildings?” was a common question, and allowed us to talk about new ways to be in partnership. The buildings and infrastructure of past mission endeavours had long fallen into ruin. In some cases, the rotting, termiteeaten “shells” remained as testament to another time. I was able to assure the faithful people of Siassi that despite the poor, neglected and sometimes desolate buildings and mission stations in their villages, the Church of God – that is, the Body of Christ – had grown beyond all human expectation and understanding among them.

All praise to God, who has taken our offering of time and money and personal sacrifice to grow His kingdom. The people in Siassi and Menyamya need us to pray for them. The loss of contact with their Australian “family” has taken its toll, physically and spiritually. In some cases, the PNG people have been influenced by old “spirit” practices; in other places, fervent minority religious groups have pulled families and churches apart with fanatical teaching and practice.

Even government infrastructure is woefully neglected in these remote PNG areas, highlighting the important, continued role LCA can play in assisting Siassi and Menyamya people with their needs.

This story was also published in the October 2009 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

Many of our partner churches are working in new territory for the kingdom of God; therefore, spiritual attack is their everyday reality. As a member of a congregation, school, or family, or a couple or individual, you are invited to commit to praying for our partners in mission. For regular prayer point updates, go to www.lca.org.au/international-mission/act-now/pray

Read more stories about our partner church in Papua New Guinea at http://www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/international-partners/papua-new-guinea/