“You’re not a visitor, you are family!”

Karkar, or ‘High Island’, is an island about 40km north east of Madang, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The community of 90,000 people is nestled around a dormant volcano. German and Australian churches have provided support to the people on Karkar Island and, in particular, for Gaubin hospital which serves the local community.

During my recent visit I couldn’t help but reflect on Karkar’s history with Europeans, although its more recent history has it becoming known as an entry point for drug smuggling and counterfeit products into PNG.

In 1946 an Australian Lutheran, Edwin Tscharke, was sent to Karkar Island by the Lutheran church to set up and run a hospital on behalf of the Lutheran Medical Services. With a population of around 8,000 people at the time, tropical diseases were rife and mortality rates were high. A challenging start to a mission!  By the time he retired in 1988, 41 years later, the island had a 200 bed hospital and a population of 30,000. Edwin had indeed made an impact on the island and its people. Edwin Tscharke received many awards for his service including an M.B.E., an Honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Papua New Guinea and an Order of Australia.

My arrival on the island for this visit was in one of the dozen small, motorised “tinnies” that make the island journey each day. Our captain, ironically named Jonah, steered our boat load of 10 locals, including a nurse, a sleeping baby and a visiting Australian, to shore. My first steps on the island gave me an idyllic view. The sun was setting and the community had gathered under palm trees to watch the small wooden fishing boats sail close to shore. The scene was completed by a pod of 40 dolphins that met us during the journey across the waters. There is a certain rhythm to living life on the equator.

In a few short steps to the hospital, with Yunz Letag, my host and the administrator of the hospital, I became aware of a strong community surrounding a hospital that was functioning but in disrepair. After dropping my backpack into the visitors’ house (built by Rotary clubs), Yunz and I paid a visit to the occupants of the old Tscharke house in the hospital complex. It is now home to a Madagascan family, Eli and Natascha Rekotoson and their children Mahery and Melele.

Eli, a doctor and a pastor, and his family have been on Karkar for almost 12 months. The family speak four languages although English, they said, is not their strongest tongue. Without hesitation, however, they offered us a meal and openly shared the struggles and joys of serving Jesus as missionaries. They spoke of the personal challenges – being far from home, immersed in an unfamiliar culture, and raising a family away from family; and of the current struggles in the local community around the prevalence of domestic violence. Our evening came to a close as the hours for power and water were almost over and the generator would soon be silent. When I thanked the family for their hospitality and welcoming a visitor, they assured me “You’re not a visitor, you are family”.

Grace and love are our daily gifts from God. It is humbling to see his children being able to give their lives to a community, across the globe. It is a reminder that the gospel touches lives, as strongly as it ever has, and connects the actions of yesterday’s missionaries of faith, with the actions of today’s missionaries of faith.

I reflected on the reason I came to Karkar. I had come at the request of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea who were seeking support for Gaubin hospital. The current needs are urgent: fixing, painting and repairing needs are obvious as you walk through the wards and the buildings. The government has promised to rebuild the hospital, but that is some time in the future.

Warren and Marianne Schirmer have since visited Gaubin with Colin and Ruth Hayter and Stan and Gwen Dugeon. Warren is providing mentoring for Yunz, as well as coordinating fund raising to help with the construction of a toilet block. The partnership won’t change the world or rebuild a hospital but it will provide an opportunity to help in practical ways. It will also build fellowship ties between our people and our cultures; ties that at one point in recent history, showed signs of unravelling.

We partner churches in mission in PNG and across Asia. We walk side by side in proclaiming the gospel to our communities. We learn from each other and share our God given gifts as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Footnote: The Urban dictionary says Karkar is… ‘the name given to a person who randomly appears out of nowhere in your life, and turns out to be really great.’

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/