Most people love the idea of Mission trips and look forward to going away, but for me it wasn’t quite like that. I volunteer for an international Catholic youth movement called Jesus Youth. It works all over the world and does quite some amazing work with young people. The movement originated in Kerala, India; it has been in Australia for ten years and is present in all the major cities of Australia.
Jesus Youth began its missions to Papua New Guinea early last year and this year, Jesus Youth gave me the option of being part of the mission trip. When it comes to church-related stuff, I generally don’t say no. I tend to think that if God wants me there, he will take me there; otherwise it won’t happen. This pattern of thinking is usually supported with prayer. I was trying to avoid the mission trip, not because PNG was a risky place to be, but because I thought someone else could do better at preaching and being a missionary. This probably is the story of all our lives. We quite often leave the preaching, teaching, sharing of Jesus’ message to the experts and carry on with our ordinary lives.
I was hoping my leave wouldn’t be approved, and since it was occurring at the end of the financial year, I was sure there was no way my manager would approve it. But surprisingly, it was approved, the first sign that God probably wanted me to go. I was still making excuses so that someone else would go, but no matter what I tried, the mission kept coming back to me.
Eventually, after a time of prayer with a priest friend, I came to a realisation that God was actually calling me to the mission and I felt a sense of courage and peace. Still, I prepared myself for the worst case scenario. I had heard many stories about the cannibals in the highlands of PNG, thefts, murders and the country being listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world! If this was to be my last trip with Jesus in this world, so be it.
I had to fly to Brisbane, then to Port Moresby, and I stayed in Brisbane with my friend who was travelling with me to PNG. He is a father to four girls, aged 3-11 years. He is also the mission’s co-ordinator. It made me think, here I am, a bachelor, thinking I was taking a huge risk. This man was leaving his wife and children to preach the good news. I was impressed with the commitment and support his family gives him. I am sure their prayers are one of the reasons I am able to share my story today.
We landed in PNG the next afternoon and were going through immigration where the officer looked at my passport, then looked at my face. He asked, “Mattappallil?” This is my middle name so I said “yes”. He then said, “In my language, ‘Mattappallil’ means ‘one who has his eyes focused on something’.” I was excited, because I had something in common with the people of PNG, a name that probably says that we were all one people, and also because I am here as a lay missionary and this name added meaning to the task at hand. I wanted to be the one who has his eyes on the Lord.
We were collected by a Capuchin brother who thought we were priests and was holding a board which read ‘Fr Sid and Fr Shibu’. I thought this was a plan to keep us safe from any attacks but then realised that it was a genuine mistake. For a moment I did enjoy having the title ‘Fr Sid’.
We stayed at the Capuchin seminary in Bomana, Port Moresby. My initial reaction to Port Moresby was that it felt like India, my homeland. Potholes on the road, dogs running around on the streets, people all over the place, no road rules – but it had an additional fear factor because there was a high level of theft and killing. This puts you on the edge, but then again when you go out as a missionary, you seldom worry about your life. At the seminary I did meet an Aussie priest who has lived in PNG since his late 20s. He is probably now in his early 60s, a remarkable priest with many interesting experiences to share. His family is in Dungog, NSW and so we bonded over the Newcastle Knights and being Maitland-Newcastle ‘locals’.
The following day we woke at 5am and headed to the airport for our flight to Tari in the Mendi Diocese. We were picked up by a priest from the congregation of St Therese of Lisieux. While we drove we saw people walking with machetes and they all had the practice of waving at you. I learned that if you ran over a pig, you would be in grave danger unless you could compensate the owner with maybe 30 pigs if the pig was a sow with the potential to have piglets. There is also the practice of the dowry where the man has to give the in-laws many pigs if he wants to be married. The local people were ahead of me in money matters and already knew how to forecast quite well.
As we approached the place where we were to stay, via flooded roads, I was starting to feel anxious, thinking, how I am going to preach to these people? Will they understand English? Do I know my topics well enough to preach? I had all these mixed emotions but there was no turning back now. I had powerpoint presentations and videos prepared but on arrival I noticed that there was no electricity! The government doesn’t provide electricity because the houses are made of hay and it’s likely that they would catch fire. The houses are designed to have a night fire burning in the centre to keep the house warm while the family sleeps around the fire.
Since I could no longer use my computer, I had to resort to my only other option – the Bible. My first talk was on God’s love and I was reminded of Romans 8,30: “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” I did find it hard to preach to them because they were proud of their culture of clan wars. If someone attacked your family member, you retaliated with a lot more destruction. My preaching challenged this violence, using scripture to remind the people that God loves them and calls them to love their enemies.
There was some disagreement in the crowd when I preached about forgiving your enemies but that’s the gospel: it challenges us to live radical lives. I am no good at singing but I was meant to teach worship songs and so I had to sing. It was an easier group to teach because the people didn’t know how the song was supposed to sound!
As the days passed, we saw the participants begin to respond to God’s calling. We closed each night with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a lot of the participants were beginning to find comfort, hope, healing and love in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord.
On our last day at Tari, we gave the people some material on how to run prayer meetings and so on, they sang farewell songs and sent us on our way. We drove for about two hours through the forests where another priest, Fr Thomas, lives. He, and other priests, would walk for days and sleep in the forests at night, risking their lives to reach a church where they would say Mass and then continue walking to the next Mass centre. People can only participate in Mass once a month because there are no roads to these remote places.
We flew back to Port Moresby and met with the Archbishop of Port Moresby, Most Reverend John Ribat and the secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. They were really happy that we were engaged in such mission work and encouraged us to continue. The following day we conducted a one-day retreat for 300+ participants. It was a lot harder working with city kids, we had to use different methods to capture their attention. But in the end, during adoration, we could see their hearts turning toward God. It was a beautiful experience and many participants told us they wanted us to come back and give them a longer retreat experience.
That night was my last in PNG and so my fellow missionary and I prayed and thanked God for all the good things he did for us and for the many people whom he brought to our care.
Despite my initial misgivings, mission experience is great and I would recommend it, especially for youth. It is something that takes you out of your comfort zone, combined with the experience of God’s love. It transforms both the person on the receiving end and our inner selves and adds a new meaning to the purpose of our lives. If you have read this far, I ask you to pray for all Christian missionaries in the world. All glory and praise to Jesus!
If you enjoyed Sid’s story, you will enjoy reading the story of Pauline Randall, missionary for 45 years in PNG, in the August edition of Aurora.