Changing History One Heart at a Time
A report by the South Pacific Division Report president
Think of a globe.
Divide its circumference into thirds in your mind.
Then imagine a division so immense that it stretches a third the circumference of that globe.
That is the South Pacific Division. It stretches almost 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), from the Cocos Islands in the west to Pitcairn Island in the east, and from the Antarctic in the south to above the equator in the north.
The South Pacific Division is not only the largest Adventist division by territory—it is also the most diverse. Papua New Guinea alone has about 850 languages. The division stretches from modern metropolises to some of the most isolated inhabited locations on earth. It includes the world’s most southern city, where cold winds from the Antarctic blow, through to consistently balmy tropical atolls. The division encompasses countries that are majority Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Caucasian. There are large Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Sudanese, and Chilean communities, among others, within its borders.
So how do Adventists reach a territory so immense and a population so diverse? By remembering that we have nothing to fear when we recall how God has led in Adventist history.
It was 1908 when the first three Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, Septimus and Edith Carr and Peni Tavodi, arrived in Port Moresby, capital of what is today Papua New Guinea. The governor had previously divided the area around Port Moresby between various Christian denominations. The Adventists met a “cool” reception from the other missionaries when they arrived. But they weren’t deterred. They headed out of Port Moresby to a remote area in the mountains to start their mission among the Koiari people.
From the start, it didn’t go well.
The Koiari were noted by early explorer Alexander Morton to be particularly warlike. They certainly weren’t interested in the gospel. The Adventists set up a mission station and labored in remote Bisiatabu for a full year without a single baptism. The next year also ended without a baptism. The same pattern repeated over the next three years.
Finally, in the sixth year, a teenage boy was baptized. Soon after, the boy’s father withdrew him from the Adventist mission, and that ended his association with the church.
If this beginning wasn’t discouraging enough, Peni Tavodi, who by then was married to Aliti, was bitten by a venomous snake in 1918. He died, but not before making a passionate appeal to the young men at the mission to give their lives to Jesus.
Imagine the scene after Peni died. Ten years of extraordinary labor, and all to show for it was one teenage boy who had abandoned the faith, one dead missionary, his widow, and his fatherless children. Would you wake up the next day and preach the gospel again?
It wasn’t until 1920—12 years after the first Adventist missionaries arrived and two years after Peni Tavodi died—that a boy named Baigani accepted the gospel. This time, however, things were different. Baigani served Jesus for many years and had a profound influence.
More missionaries followed. In 1924 Pastor William Lock baptized 11 young people in Bisiatabu. By the mid-1930s Adventist missionaries were in many new areas of the country. The Lock family moved along a rugged trail known as the Kokoda Track, inland to the village of Efogi. There they set up a mission school and clinic. All along the Kokoda Track the Adventist message was preached.
At the time, however, no one knew that in just a few short years the Kokoda Track would go from being an obscure trail in a forgotten part of the world to the center point of one of the greatest dramas in human history: the battle between imperial Japanese forces and the Australians, New Zealanders, and their allies.
Unlike most battles, the lasting symbolism of the Kokoda campaign is not a fighter, general, or weapon. Rather it is the Papuans who displayed remarkable kindness and selflessness in assisting wounded soldiers to safety. So impressed were the Australians by the Papuans that they called them “Kokoda angels.” Bert Buros, an Australian combat engineer, captured the admiration and thankfulness Australian soldiers felt to those who helped the wounded in a poem: “Many a lad will see his mother, and husbands see their wives, just because [Kokoda angels] carried them to save their lives.”
An Australian soldier put it this way: “Believe me, when this war is over and its history written, there is one chap that should get a large share of the praise. He is the [Papuan]. . . . He sometimes arrives with bleeding shoulders, puts the wounded gently down, shakes himself, grins, and off he goes for another trip.”
Speaking at the fiftieth anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in 1992, Australian prime minister P. J. Keating said: “Above all, we should honor and express our profound admiration for the Papua New Guinean carriers whose stalwart support was crucial to the final victory.”
In recent years academics have striven to demythologize the Papuans who saved wounded Australian and New Zealand soldiers. They note that many were coerced into service by the Australian military. While this provides texture and context for the story, it still fails to explain why people who were so mistreated were so kind in return. After all, the early accounts of the people were of a warlike, bloodthirsty culture. What changed?
For that, you have to go all the way back to 1908. Those 12 long years struggling to find a single person to accept the gospel had born fruit by the time of the Kokoda campaign. “By the time World War II erupted, every village along the Kokoda Trail had come under some measure of Adventist mission influence, with baptized members in most village,” Alan Smith wrote in Adventist Record on September 9, 1995. “The Koiaris had become so transformed that when the Japanese penetrated the area in their advance toward Port Moresby, the Koiaris decided to remain loyal to their missionary friends.”
Steven Barna, an Adventist pastor in villages along the Kokoda Track whose grandfather was a “Kokoda angel,” confirms that the kindness was linked to Christianity. “It was love that drove the hearts of the people to help,” he says.
Firsthand accounts back this up.
Pastor Lock, in his book Locks That Open Doors, tells of receiving a letter of thanks from Lieutenant R. I. McIlray, who wrote: “I am writing this letter to tell you of the grand job done by the [Papuans] of your mission . . . the good work of your people who apparently have by your example and teachings reached a stage where they can teach us something of Christian ideals.”
Perhaps an even more extraordinary report came from Australian commando Robin Sydney McKary, who said in an interview with Daniel Connell: “You had your loyal and your disloyal [Papuans]. . . . Without being in any way sectarian, we found that the Seventh-day Adventists were by far outstanding in loyalty. I know of not one Seventh-day Adventist adherent who was any way disloyal. I don’t know what it is, but it just worked out that way. . . . The other religions could be one way or the other, but the Seventh-day Adventists for some reason were particularly loyal and . . . well, they always were a cleaner people, they taught them cleanliness and respect and loyalty and cheerfulness. And, you know, I’ve got no beef for the Seventh-day Adventists . . . [but] if you had to rely on a [Papuan] without knowing him, or knowing the circumstances, you know, the fact that he was a Seventh-day Adventist would swing you.”
In a time of greatest trial, the change the gospel makes in people’s lives came through.
Today about 10 percent of Papua New Guineans identify themselves as Seventh-day Adventists in the national census. That is almost a half million more people claiming to be Adventists than the church counts as members. Maybe it is linked to the tremendous influence that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has in the country today. Adventists occupy many high government offices. More than 50 percent of the students studying medicine in the country are Adventists. Adventist run a respected education and health network around the country. Pacific Adventist University is among the most selective universities in the world.
And Papua New Guinea is only one part of the South Pacific Division, where the gospel is still changing history one heart at a time.
According to national censuses, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is now the fastest growing multiethnic church in both New Zealand and Australia.
In both countries Adventists run the premier health and wellness companies, which organize the biggest children’s triathlon series in the world and produces the most trusted breakfast food.
Avondale College of Higher Education continues to gain recognition. Two Adventist grade schools surpassed 7,600 competitors to make it into the top 100 academic schools in Australia. Sydney Adventist Hospital is the largest private hospital in Australia. And Adventist Media is widely recognized as the leading Christian media organization in the region.
Across the Trans-Pacific, Mission to the Cities initiatives have resulted in exceptional growth. In 2014, baptisms in Vanuatu soared by more than 550 percent, and baptisms in the Solomon islands rose by more than 250 percent. Baptisms in Samoa increased by 400 percent in 2013.
Is the growth real? Jesus said that where our money is, that’s where our hearts are. So let’s look at dollars and cents.
During the past five years, the division’s tithe is up by 24 percent, growing at more than twice the increase in cost of living in four of the five years. The division now gives the highest world mission offerings as a percentage of tithe of any division in the world. Australia, with its small population, today is the fourth-highest tithe-paying nation in the world, with Australians averaging almost 50 percent more tithe per member than North Americans.
Is it all good news? No. The Adventist Church in the South Pacific is in desperate need of the Holy Spirit. Our only hope is Jesus. The same Jesus who walked with those early missionaries out of Port Moresby and down the Kokoda Track. The same Jesus who lived in the hearts of the Koiaris as they carried broken men back to safety. The same Jesus who today continues to change history across the South Pacific, one heart at a time.