The birth of the church in Dem Land
By Natalie Holsten
In the early months of this year, while the world was consumed with the chaos of global events, something amazing was happening in Bina, a small hamlet in the mountains of Papua, Indonesia.
A church was born.
The Dem people, one of many isolated tribes in the range of mountains that traverses the island of New Guinea, were living in spiritual darkness. They did not have the Bible in their own language. They lived in bondage to beliefs about spirits, fearing them and attempting to appease them.
“We have seen the Holy Spirit change the entire demeanor of some of our friends who have lived in fear their whole lives and now have put their faith in Christ and have hope,” shared Jeremiah, one of the expatriate Christian workers serving in Bina.
He, along with his family and three other families, moved as a team into Bina in 2013 to reach the people with the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of the ruggedness of the terrain, the only way in or out of the area is by foot or airplane.
MAF has assisted these families and the Dem people from the beginning of their ministry there, bringing in building supplies, food, and the families themselves.
“It’s been a privilege to be working alongside of the team there in Bina,” MAF Papua program director Mike Brown said. “It has been over eight years getting to this point, and MAF has been part of supporting them all along.”
My husband David made dozens of flights into Bina, and I was always anxious to hear how the families, who had become our friends, were doing as they progressed in learning the language and culture of the Dem.
“I would often fly into Bina following a flight into another village where there was already a gospel understanding. And the contrast was stark,” David said. “There was this pervasive sense of brokenness that was palatable. All of us were united by a sense of faith that in the future God, in his timing, would bring light to that area.”
Our family visited Bina several years ago, after diverting there when our original destination was covered by clouds. I was glad for the chance to visit and see the place I had heard so much about. As I stood with my friends on the grass airstrip, we looked across the valley to where a completely different people group lived. My friend explained how even though geographically it’s not that far, the languages are vastly different.
For the families who moved in to work with the Dem, the process of church planting is a long haul, a “marathon, not a sprint,” one of them related. Step one was to master the language, while also absorbing the culture. As the team learned enough language, they translated portions of scripture, checking them with Dem language helpers for clarity and accuracy. They also held literacy classes to teach the Dem to read and write in their heart language.
This whole process took eight years, until the day arrived when they could begin a chronological teaching of 70 lessons that cover “creation to Christ.” The teaching would take three and a half months, starting in Genesis and concluding with the ascension of Christ and the early church.
In anticipation of the teaching, last December two MAF families, the Hamstras and the Browns, flew to Bina to assist in building a “meeting place” or teaching facility that would become the hub of activity for the team as they shared the story of God’s love and plan for this fallen world.
“It was amazing to see the Dem people so curious about what was going on,” shared Angie Hamstra. “The families had been telling them that this new gathering place was for them. They would be teaching ‘God’s talk’ and that these words are for everyone. These words are for every person, whether they have more than one wife, those who don’t have ‘church clothes,’ those who smoke, those who are poor and those who are rich. The Dem people have had a skewed vision on Christianity and church in the past, so they are not calling this a church. It is a gathering place. It is free and it will tell them about true freedom in Christ.”
The teaching launched mid-January with an estimated 500 in attendance. Many of the Dem tribe live in outlying villages and hiked miles over muddy mountain trails to hear the teaching. Special MP3 recorders were used to record the teachings and were distributed among the people to enable those who couldn’t attend to hear the lessons, and for others to listen again to “God’s talk” in their huts or as they take a break in their gardens.
Several of the lessons brought immediate responses from the Dem, evidence of the light beginning to break through the darkness. The teachings started with the creation of the world, and after the lesson about how God created man and woman, the men responded. The idea of woman being lovingly created by God as a companion for man is totally counter to what Dem culture believes.
The team members report that the men say women are like animals or don’t have brains so it’s ok to beat them if they don’t have food ready for their husbands. “In the past we were lied to,” the Dem men said. But now they were hearing the “true talk.”
Jeremiah shared how the Dem think a certain frog is a “spirit” and they fear it and won’t touch it. “After the teaching…one of these frogs jumped out next to me and they started calling it a spirit again until one tribal guy came up and said, ‘No, It’s not a spirit. Remember what we have been learning? All these things were created by the Creator, and when he created them, He did not create them with a soul or spirit. They are just animals. We do not need to be afraid of them.’ Of course, I was thrilled to hear this, and the man was still afraid to touch it, but baby steps here are very encouraging. Little nuggets of truth planted in their minds, causing them to question what they’ve believed their whole lives is all we are doing, and letting the Holy Spirit do what He does.”
After the lesson on John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, a Dem man came up and said to team member Dylan, “I don’t speak for the other people here, but I am a bad person. I just do bad things all the time.” He started to cry and then said, “I want Jesus’ blood to wash away my sins!” Dylan was in tears as he put his arm around him and told him to just wait and he’ll see what happened.
Dylan’s wife Angie shared about another Dem, an elderly man named Kayus who has been a ‘pastor’ in the Dem region for decades. “He had attended a school in a different tribe as a young man and learned some things about the Bible, but it was all in a completely different language than his and he has some very skewed ideas about the Bible now,” she said. “We were really praying that he would respond well to the teaching and not be offended by the things he was hearing as they were quite opposite to what he’s been teaching for years. This week he said, ‘A long time ago I went to school and I heard, but I didn’t really understand. Now I am hearing, and I understand!’”
One Dem man, Mese, testified to how the teaching was affecting his everyday life. He told Dylan, “I remember you told us to talk about God wherever we are, not just in the teaching time. The other day I was fixing my fence and it stopped raining and I saw a rainbow and I remembered God’s promise to Noah. And last week I was walking to Sinak with my friends and for the first hour we just talked about random things, but then I said, ‘Let’s talk about God.’ So we spoke about God’s talk for the next four hours.”
Then Mese said, “We Dem people are like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but God sent you four (families) to us to tell us about Him so we can be saved. You told us that God told you to come to Papua and then you said, ‘Where should we go?’ and God showed you the Dem people so that you could tell us about Him. If you hadn’t told us, we would die like the people back then, but if we believe God’s talk, He saves us.”
After the teaching on Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, Angie said her friend Joragal left after the lesson but showed up at their house several hours later, “just beaming and telling us how she believed Jesus suffered and died for her to save her. She would go from tears over remembering what Jesus suffered to big smiles saying, ‘He led me here to hear this talk and He saved me! I’m just so happy!’”
It’s the prayer of many that the Dem church will continue to grow, and believers will be added and discipled into maturity. MAF will continue to be there for them, providing the necessary flights to continue the work.
“MAF has been an incredible blessing to us families living interior,” Dem team member Melanie said. “From regular flights of supplies, flights in and out of the tribe, to medevacs. We are so very thankful to have a mission organization that backs us up and that we trust for safety for our families’ and tribal friends’ flights.”