Don Richardson pulled up on the shore of a remote village in New Guinea His wife, Carol, and baby son, Stephen, were tucked beneath a small canopy in the dugout for shade.
Don Richardson pulled up on the shore of a remote village in New Guinea His wife, Carol, and baby son, Stephen, were tucked beneath a small canopy in the dugout for shade.He had been sent to this village as a missionary to a people who spoke no English and were known for their practice of cannibalism.A few days earlier, he had been greeted by jubilation as the people celebrated the coming of a white man who brought the prospect of medicines and metal fishing hooks.They had helped him construct a hut for him and his family, and there had been feasting.But now, he was alarmed as he looked upon 400 grave countenances of the people, some wearing war paint and holding weapons.As Richardson, who was unarmed, went to lift his tiny son out of the dugout he wondered, “are we invited for dinner or are we dinner?”The gravity of the moment melted into acceptance and jubilation as the Sawi people shouted a welcome greeting followed by three days and three nights of feasting for the missionary and his family.Richardson recently recounted his 13 years among the isolated tribe during Mission Fest at Grace Community Church in Newton.Richardson spoke on the importance of finding culturally relevant symbolism in order to relate the teachings of the gospel to non-Christian cultures.When Richardson entered the Sawi village for the first time, he did not speak Sawi and none of the natives spoke English.He learned the language through the use of a crude sign language. He recalled pointing to items that first day in attempts to learn new words.Every time he pointed at something, the natives said the same word.In frustration he asked God, “Lord, have you led me half way around the world to learn a language that only has one word?”This went on for some time, until Richardson realized the Sawi were repeating the word for finger.From those first frustrating moments, Richardson would go on to design an alphabet suited to the Sawi language, authored 19 primers, taught the tribesmen to read in their native tongue and translated the entire New Testament.Richardson also did not know that first day in the swamps of New Guinea he had touched on the symbolism that would help him lead more than half of the Sawi people to Christ.“I had to find a gentle cultural compass that brought the gospel to people in culturally relevant and poignantly meaningful ways,” he said.Richardson and his family lived among the Sawi for some time in peace. His wife, a registered nurse, opened a clinic, and Sawi people from three tribes moved to the area to be near the white missionaries and their medicine. Before long, Carol was treating 2,600 patients per month at her clinic.They lived quite peacefully at first, until eventually the tribes, who had been long-time enemies, began to war against each other.Richardson struggled to bring the groups together peacefully to no avail. Finally, he suggested he move away from the village to bring peace back to the people.The village people were shocked and distraught the missionaries might leave them.The leader of the village, Kaiyo, decided to invoke an ancient Sawi ritual in attempts to make peace between the tribes.Without his wife’s knowledge, he gathered his precious only-son, Biakadon, in his arms. The infant mortality rate among the people was high. Two out of three babies did not reach the age of 5. The chief and his wife had tried for many years but only had been blessed with one child, Richardson said.Unarmed, Kaiyo ran toward the enemy village with his small son in his arms. His wife discovered what he had done and began screaming in anguish.Upon arriving in the enemy village, he presented his son to a father there.That child was to be brought up by the family in the enemy village. The tradition held, as long as that son lived, there would be peace between the villages.Richardson was struck my the sacrifice the father had made to preserve the peace and keep he and his family among the Sawi people, but he saw the loss as an opportunity.“I thought to myself, ‘I know how to proclaim Jesus,’” he said. “I had found a community key to fit the lock on their hearts.”Richardson told the Sawi that Christ was the ultimate peace child, given by God as a sacrifice for the peace of the world.That strong symbol had been interwoven in their culture for generations, and little did Richardson know when he had lifted his tiny son out of the dugout and presented in the village that first day he had been playing out a version of the ancient custom.“Guess what God has done. He has been seeding mankind in the gospel and preparing the way,” he said. “More and more missionaries have been clued in. In subtle ways, he has given people signs, and when the gospel comes, it opens eyes and touches hearts.”For more on Ricahrdson’s story, you can read his book “Peace Child” or the story of other missionaries in New Guinea in “Lords of the Earth.”