Imagine a cluster of idyllic tropical islands: coconut palms, endless beaches, rugged jungle trails and thatched-hut villages to explore, and loads of friendly smiling people, nearly all of whom are Lutheran. Before you rush out to buy your plane ticket, though, you need to know that the islands are a touch on the rustic side. […]
Imagine a cluster of idyllic tropical islands: coconut palms, endless beaches, rugged jungle trails and thatched-hut villages to explore, and loads of friendly smiling people, nearly all of whom are Lutheran.
Before you rush out to buy your plane ticket, though, you need to know that the islands are a touch on the rustic side. There are no roads – but that means you’ll get fit walking the mountain trails from village to village. Telephones are scarce and unreliable, and don’t bother packing your mobile phone or internet stick.
Welcome to Siassi, an archipelago of 25 islands – only seven of which are inhabited – situated between mainland Papua New Guinea (PNG) and New Britain. The islands are home to around 15,000 people. The largest island, Umboi (Rooke in whitefella language) is 56 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide. The smallest inhabited island, Aromot, is just a bit bigger than a suburban allotment, only a quarter of an acre.
But it was on Aromot that Rev Georg Bamler, a missionary from Neuendettelsau in Germany, landed on 28 April 1911. He had discovered the Siassi islands while posted at Tami Island near Finschhafen on New Guinea’s north coast. He had observed trading partners coming via canoes from the north. He befriended them and eventually visited their home – a canoe trip of 90 kilometres across unkind seas.
Bamler established the first Lutheran mission on Siassi. He was blessed to serve for 17 years in the fruitful mission field, before being killed by a fallen tree in 1928.
In 1936 the Australian Lutherans took over the mission work on Siassi. At that time the population of Siassi was around 6000, of whom 1500 were baptised Christians. There were thirteen indigenous teachers, seven evangelists, several hundred pupils in village schools and 45 boys in the Lutheran school.
Over the decades the mission work thrived. Lutheran churches, schools and medical centres sprang up all over the islands, thousands of people were baptised, and dozens trained as evangelists, pastors and teachers. Many Siassi people of that era went on to become leaders in PNG in government, education and industry.
But it all came to an end during the 1970s when foreign missionaries were asked to leave the newly independent Papua New Guinea in order to allow the people to self-govern.
Across Siassi the people grieved over the loss of their beloved Australian missionaries. To this day they refer to the Australian Lutheran church as ‘our mother’. The loss has been deeply painful for many. So, when the Siassi people marked 100 years since the coming of the gospel, they were especially glad to share their celebrations with 16 Australian Lutherans – former missionaries, some accompanied by spouses or adult children, and two Lutheran teachers.
From 27 April to 1 May, long and lavish celebrations, often featuring colourful traditional dances, took place in eleven places of historical prominence across the islands.
The Australians were deeply moved by the experience, many saying they were amazed how much the Siassi people still loved them. Colin Hayter expressed the feelings of other former missionaries: ‘We are part of their story, their folklore, and warmly embraced as family. One young woman said as she grabbed me by the hands, “I know all about Colin Hayter, and now for the first time I have met him. I’m so happy that I have seen you now, and know what you look like”.
‘That is deeply moving, heart-searching and humbling.’
Graeme Schilling was astonished to discover that the skills he taught ‘his carpenter boys’ (who have since died) have been passed on to their sons. ‘(They) said to me that I taught their fathers to be good carpenters, which left me speechless, knowing that the skills I taught 40 years ago were still being used today’.
While the trip was physically taxing for Pastor Jim Klein, it was worth every exhausting step, he said. ‘I have grown old, and the young pastor who worked there 40 years ago had difficulty climbing the small mountain from the beach to the village. I did make it, though, and received a welcome fit for a king, even though I could scarcely move!
‘In Lae I was met and welcomed by a huge crowd of Siassi people who had come to welcome and show respect and love for this old man pastor whom they had loved.’
For the adult children of the missionaries, this was a trip of discovery – of their roots and of the deep love the Siassis still hold for their parents. Graeme’s son Chris expressed it this way: ‘I’d seen the slide shows and heard the stories, but what you can’t see in pictures is the warmth of the people and the respect they have for the work done by my parents and grandparents.
‘There is a church named after my grandfather. There were people, 40 years on, remembering being taught by my mum and thanking me for her efforts. It was very, very humbling.’
Michael Friebel explains, ‘many, many times I saw the slides and heard the stories from Mum and Dad about their time on Siassi in the 60s. These were relived when Siassi servants visited the farm over the years, or we kids were dragged to the occasional reunion.
‘For me, this trip was about identity, though I didn’t really understand that until I returned. I was able to see the hospital where I was born, the tropical paradise where I lived for a short time and the church where I was baptised. I met people who worked with and for Dad, and I was able to have my godfather bring extra life and meaning to the sights and sounds as we travelled.
‘There was also a feeling of guilt – because it should have been Mum and Dad experiencing this amazing outpouring of love and hospitality. They and many others planted and watered the seeds, and I was one of the few people able to see the harvest. The amazing and outward faith in Jesus shown by the people who have so little is truly a humbling experience. The sound of a hundred children at Barim singing to Jesus still makes my eyes water. O how the people sing!
‘My prayer for the Siassi people is that they will continue to feel the love of Jesus through those who serve there. My prayer for me and my family is that we look beyond the trappings of materialism and into the heart of Christ.’
Colin reflects, ‘The Siassis were given hope by our being there. Our return to them means that we have not forgotten them. Relationships are restored and they feel hope for the future through the joy and encouragement our presence gives them’.
For Jim, too, there is a deep sense of hope for the Siassi people. ‘I was amazed at how the people had passed on to their children not only the stories about our years there, but also the life-saving Bible stories that were at the centre of all the celebrations.
‘And throughout our visit, wherever I went I saw people worshipping in evening devotions and services, all giving thanks and praise to God, who had brought them to the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
‘It took me 40 years to return, but I was finally home with the people I loved.
‘I know for sure that the work all the missionaries did on Siassi and in other parts of PNG, and the word that was shared there, have borne much fruit and continue to influence the lives of many.
‘To God by the glory!’
Many of our partner churches are working in new territory for the kingdom of God; therefore, spiritual attack is their everyday reality. As a member of a congregation, school, or family, or a couple or individual, you are invited to commit to praying for our partners in mission. For regular prayer point updates, go to www.lca.org.au/international-mission/act-now/pray
Read more stories about our partner church in Papua New Guinea at https://www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/international-partners/papua-new-guinea/