Lessons From the Dinangat Tribe

For the first time this week, we were able to see a tribal church! We stayed a few extra days in the highlands waiting for a plane to take us to Dinangat. We had met the missionaries to Dinangat (the Schlegel family) last week at conference, and they had offered to give us a tour of their tribe. So on Wednesday, we once again boarded a tiny prop plane ready to take on the mountains.

squeeeezed in
squeeeezed in

Let me just say, I am not the biggest fan of flying through mountainous regions on prop planes where you can feel every little bump and wind burst.  Jacob had to keep asking me to loosen my grip on his hand haha. The views were absolutely breathtaking though, and we were stunned at the majesty of the scenery.

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When we were a few minutes out from reaching Dinangat, the pilot pointed out his window.  I leaned over Jacob to see our destination.  Tucked away at the bottom of a bowl up in the mountains lay a small strip of grass.  Jacob informed me that this was our landing site.  My stomach sank.  How could the pilot possibly avoid hitting all these mountains to successfully land on that bumpy, banana shaped airstrip?!

see that tiny thing?!
see that tiny thing?!

As he began to descend, he circled two fist clenching times and touched down.  We bounced (literally) down the runway before coming to a stop right before a wall of bushes.  I was very happy to have my feet firmly planted on the earth again. (seems to be a theme for me this trip…). Jacob LOVED every minute of the plane ride! Maybe I need to ride more roller coasters to prepare myself for one day being back on the field and flying in small aircrafts.

at the end of the airstrip
at the end of the airstrip

We were greeted by the Schlegel family and some members of their tribe.  Unlike other tribes we’ve seen so far here in PNG, the Dinangat people are much more reserved.  We had to initiate conversation (in the trade language Tok Pisin) with them. But they were still all smiles and were happy we were there. Ralf Schlegel introduced us to some of the bible teachers in the tribe.

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Us with the Schlegel family!
Us with the Schlegel family!

Ralf gave us a brief overview of the Dinangat work:

The airstrip in Dinangat was built by the people in the 1980’s so they could have more access to the outside world.  With that access came a lot of other influences including many different, and mixed up beliefs claiming to be “Christian.” The Dinangat people never heard a message of salvation that made sense to them (since it was never presented in their heart language or in a clear manner) so they did not understand who God was.  They added him to their spirit list and did some things they thought would earn his favor, like singing songs to him and going to “church” on Sunday.  When the Schlegel’s and two other missionary families went in in the early 2000s, they began learning the Dinangat tribal language.  After they learned the language, they began literacy training with the Dinangat people.  Literacy is a crucial step because you are not only teaching them to read and write in their own language, you are modeling how to teach and disciple people.  You are opening the door for them to be able to actually read God’s word for themselves someday.

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The literacy teaching room

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After literacy, the missionaries began translating Bible stories.  Once they were translated, they began teaching.  The key to a proper understanding of the Bible, especially for tribal people who have no framework for knowing who God is, is to teach the Bible from beginning to end.  Chronological teaching is hugely important.  God’s story, his word given to us, is ONE story, with a common theme running through the whole book: redemption.  After months of teaching, the missionaries explained to the Dinangat tribe the importance of Jesus: who he is and how his death paid the penalty for our sin so we, imperfect people, could be right with a perfect God. Many in the Dinangat tribe believed and were saved!! They are now working on the Bible translation and have many books from the New Testament translated and distributed for the people to read.  The Schlegels told us that sometimes they will be walking around the village and see the people sitting outside reading their Bibles and clicking their tongues (a cultural signal that something is really good).

Ralf reading us a section of Romans in the Dinangat language
Ralf reading us a section of the Bible in the Dinangat language
Their church building where believers gather throughout the week
Their church building where believers gather throughout the week

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Jacob has more to tell about our time spent with some tribal believers:

While we were in Diangat, we got to hear the testimony of one of the Bible teachers: Lucas.

Lucas
Lucas

Lucas shared with us about how he and all of the villagers used to live in fear of the spirits.  They believed that spirits were involved in everything, and they were especially afraid of spirits with ill intent.  Because of this, all of the villagers made their houses with extremely small windows.  Most of the windows were less than a foot wide and a foot high.  As you could imagine, their homes were very dark.  The reason for the small windows was because they believed that evil spirits would come into their houses at night via the windows.  Their reasoning was that if they made the windows small enough, then the spirits would be less likely to get in.  As Lucas shared with us he drew our attention to a new house that he was building.  As we looked at this new house we noticed that the windows were very large.  Lucas triumphantly declared that he was no longer afraid of the spirits since he had learned the truth about God.  Now he makes his windows large as a testimony to his trust in God.  Lucas now knows that he does not have to fear evil spirits.  His God is big enough to take care of him.

The big windows on his new house!
The big windows on his new house!

This is such a beautiful picture of God’s truth.   As I have reflected upon this, it is amazing that God’s Word is not just truth, but that it is a beautiful truth.  Truth is truth whether it seems good or bad.  It is true that Hitler orchestrated mass killings of Jews in the 20th century even though we wish it was not true.  But the truth of God is truth that brings light and not darkness.  The truth of God eradicates fear.  The truth of God brings life and light.  The God of the Bible came down and made a way for humans to come back to Him.  Though some gawk at this notion, it is the one thing that sets Christianity apart from all other worldviews.  The sad truth about humans is that we are all lost in sin and darkness.  This is truth whether we accept it or not.  We are all trapped in our sin and our depraved thinking, and we all need a savior.   Christianity looks outside of one’s self for this savior and looks to Christ.  God has made a way: what a beautiful truth.

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As I reflect on Lucas’ story I am also forced to conclude that God’s truth is transformative.  There is a common misconception today that is quite destructive: this is the notion that tribal people are happy with the way they live, and that they should just be left alone.  When tribal people in PNG are told that some people in the west think this way they are literally dumbfounded.  Just ask Lucas.  He lived in a world of fear and falsehood before he understood the gospel.  Everything he did was out of fear.  He was not happy with his life.  NTM missionaries frequently receive letters from tribes begging to receive missionaries, because they see how God’s Word has positively effected other tribes.  The goal of missions is not to change the culture of tribal people.  We do not want to see the entire world become westernized.  Rather the goal is to present the gospel and allow God’s Word to effect change wherever change needs to occur.  There are aspects of some tribal cultures that clearly need to be transformed.  Those that argue that tribal cultures should be left untouched do not know about marking women as witches and burning them at the stake.  They do not know that in some tribes here, when twins are born, one twin is buried in a termite mound because they believe it has a bad spirit that needs to be tortured and killed so it never returns to the village.  They do not know that women are treated as property and therefore a husband can beat his wife to death with her father watching on in approval.  They do not know that parents beat their children because they know of no other way to discipline.  They do not know that some tribes will offer human sacrifices to appease the spirits.  They do not know that cannibals eat other humans because they think they will gain the power of the person they eat.  Tribal people are not innocent humans who live a happy existence.  They need the Word of God, and we need to bring it to them.

Lucas' wife (who is also a believer) and their children
Lucas’ wife (who is also a believer) and their children

As we have been in PNG we have witnessed some of these beliefs firsthand.  We have seen the fear that animists live in.  We have talked to people who are deathly afraid of sanguma (evil spirits).  We have seen parents beating their children.  We have met those with multiple wives because the women are looked at as property only.  Bare in mind that I am not attempting to bash tribal culture, but rather to draw attention to the need of the transformative power of God’s Word.

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Me again 🙂  One of the most amazing things we’ve heard during our time here in PNG is the testimonies of both missionaries and tribal believers who talk of the visible transformation the Holy Spirit creates in the lives of tribal believers.  Somehow we forget as we go about our busy lives in America that the Holy Spirit has the power to actually change us.  Not just change our minds but change our actions as well.  How many of us wish we could be better in certain areas of our lives? This visible demonstration of Gods power in changing the heart of these tribal believers is something that has encouraged me since being here to get on my knees and actually pray for God to CHANGE me.  One thing Bill Housley always says is that planting a tribal church was like watching the book of Acts play out in front of him.  Change is not easy. Just read the book of Acts and see the growing pains everyone experienced, both the missionaries and the churches.  But that pain in growth produces life.  It produces a refined character and closer relationship to God. We are privileged to be here and to be reminded of God’s transformative power in the lives of ALL who put their faith in Him.

Ralf showing us the teaching the people did all on their own showing how old testament stories pointed to Jesus.
Ralf showing us the Dinangat teaching they did on their own showing how old testament stories pointed to Jesus.

We had an amazing time in Dinangat hearing from tribal believers. One thing that really struck me as we were flying home to Madang was seeing the tiny pockets of villages tucked away in the mountains.  I realized that this was truly what unreached people groups look like.  There were no roads to get in or out, no airstrips for planes to get in, and there was extreme terrain and days-long hikes to prevent easy walking access from a town. This is how some people can go their whole lives without ever hearing the name Jesus, how they will never get the Bible translated into their own language, and how they will live and die without knowing God.  These are people just like you and I who, because of their geographic location, are some of the last to hear of God.  But God loves these people too.  This is why He commands us to “GO and make disciples of ALL nations.” Both Jacob and I feel so privileged to have grown up with access to God’s word, and to be a part of God’s plan for reaching the world.

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We are back in Madang now, reconnecting with our friends in the villages and feeling very strange about it being our last full week in PNG!

Picture taken while we were still in the highlands
Picture taken while we were still in the highlands

Prayer requests:

– For excellent last experiences with our friends in the village, and that the goodbyes will go well.

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