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From Stone Age to Golden Age in 50 years

Mission work in Papua New Guinea has long-term impact

The Rev. Bob Holst, fourth from the right, had served as missionary to the Ipili people in Papau New Guinea in the early 1960s. Late in 2012, he returned to a much-changed village. Photos provided by Bob Holst

The Ipili people in Papua New Guinea in 1962 hunted with bows, arrows, and spears, as they did their mountainous subsistence gardening with wooden digging tools and newly acquired metal shovels. Fifty years later the people live under the influence of one of the world’s largest gold mining operations. Literally tons of gold have already been mined from a nearby mountain, bringing great blessings and burdens of rapid change to the once isolated people.

In 1962, the Australian government, as part of its responsibility in the United Nations Trust Territory, de-restricted the area inhabited by about 5,000 people with a unique language and culture. Expatriates could then freely enter the area. The Rev. Bob Holst together with his wife Lynne Holst and infant son Mark were the first Lutheran expatriates to live as missionaries with the Ipili in the isolated mountainous rain forests. In November and December of 2012, the pastor returned on an oral history project to learn how life had changed for the Ipili and what the people remembered as significant.

Holst quickly saw that three factors had changed the peoples’ lives, culture, and self-understanding. National independence with democratic impulses, Christian teachings, and the modern development of a gold mine created forceful change.

The introduction of national democracy and the coming of independence continue to challenge the traditional collective power of tribal bonds. Holst recalled that already in the 1960s, the Ipili feared the impact of voting. “We talk until we reach a consensus” they told him. “It is wrong for a majority to impose their will on a minority.”

This was the Anga tribe church in the village where Bob and Lynne Holst lived in the early 1960s.

Despite the challenges, one person told Holst, “Our faith was weak [before the present problems]; now our faith is strong.”

To some extent, their fears have proven valid as the independent government cannot meet the needs and expectations of all. “Money and individual power are now more important than unity and consensus,” was the common opinion of many.

For good … or for ill

The introduction of Christianity also brought great change. “For Christians, gone are the fears of departed ancestors and the power of malevolent spirits near rivers or in forested mountains,” Holst told Metro Lutheran. Christianity has widely replaced the “animistic” world view. “God is love and strong,” Holst heard from a community leader.

Holst expressed amazement at how freely people talked about former religious practices. “Such information was absolutely secret in the ’60s,” he noted. Lifestyles changed. Husband and wife now live in the same house with their children because fearful gender-isolating taboos have disappeared. At birth, a baby need not have a little finger removed to permit an evil spirit to get out.

In the past, a woman who had given birth to a girl could not walk in public for some time because hostile spirits might attack her. “Now women can walk any time because angels protect them,” said Holst, recounting an Ipili leader. One man listed prayer as the most important change that Christianity brought: “We can now talk with God.”

Unfortunately, the Christian faith has not eliminated tribal fighting. Several Lutheran churches were burned in the last decade. Two years ago, a church, two school buildings, and several homes were completely destroyed at the place where the Holsts lived and began mission work. At a different site, when a hostile tribe attacked in October of 2012, the indigenous Lutheran pastor met them with the words, “I am an old man. If you must kill someone, kill me.” Sadly, they did kill him and two other people before burning the church and other houses.

An elderly Ipili woman who had served with her husband as evangelists in a distant tribe reported how they had hid in the “bush” for five days without food as people hunted to kill them. Despite these challenges, one person told Holst, “Our faith was weak [before the present problems]; now our faith is strong.”

Holst’s eyes fill with tears as he read a “farewell” letter that came with a gift from a poor Ipili widow. In her own words and spelling in English she wrote, “I have nothing much to appreciate you for you hard working before to help us when we are in darkness. You came as missionary to help us a life and now we are free and happy.”

‘Gold is now god’

The impact of international gold mining dramatically affects both people and culture. On the positive side, people celebrate having a hospital, high school, and a road all the way to the coastal town of Lae.

Pastor Pes Ivi, waring a Concordia University, St. Paul, sweatshirt, was the first Ipili baptized. He has been a pastor there for 40 years.

There is now disparity of wealth. Land disputes can lead to destruction and death.

There is electricity for some and cell phones for many. Life in the ’60s included no cars, roads, health service, schools, or electricity. Today, neither children nor pigs struggle with the malnutrition that was so common 50 years ago.

On the negative side, gambling abounds. Drugs are available. There is now some drunkenness whereas alcohol was prohibited under Australian rule. Prostitution and other sexual immorality exist, which Holst notes as a radical change. He remembered that in the culture and traditional spiritual values of the 1960s, sexual immorality was a capital crime — as in the Old Testament.

There is now disparity of wealth. Land values and relocation of homes present big problems in a culture where ancestral property cannot be bought and sold. Land is an inheritance to be valued, protected, and held in the family, like that of Naboth’s vineyard from 1 Kings 21:3. Land disputes can lead to destruction and death as noted above.

The gold mine has taken an entire mountain and relocated many homes, with the threat and insecurity of more relocations. In addition, the gold mine has created a town of 45,000 people so that the Ipili now live as a minority in their own ancestral lands.

Ipili is a minority language as many Ipili speak other languages as well. Some workers at the mine even speak fluent English. Grass skirts for the women and loin clothes and leaves for the men have been replaced with western-style clothing, good shoes, and even painted toe nails.

“For many, gold is now god,” Holst says. But he notes that for many “Gold is a blessing from God.”

Despite this rapid, dramatic change, Holst describes the character of the people as intelligent, wise, cordial, and caring. He says that he felt honored as guest and friend living in the home of an Ipili pastor and his wife. In 1966, they were the first two Ipili to be baptized, and their lives of faith are exemplary.

Holst summarizes his oral history project by saying, “Once again, I learned much from the Ipili and they blessed my faith and life.”

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