A Letter From Papua New Guinea

A Coral Reef in the Clouds

IT’S five o’clock on a sultry Tuesday morning in Lae, Papua New Guinea (PNG). My wife and I are preparing to travel to Lengbati, up in Mount Rawlinson in Morobe Province, to visit a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses there.

Our flight takes only about 30 minutes in the four-seater single engine airplane. I often sit beside the pilot on these flights, and over the roar of the engine, we chat via the headset intercom. Pointing at gauges and instruments on the panel in front of us, he explains their purpose and jokes that if anything should happen to him, I will have to fly the plane. Instantly, I recall the story of another traveling minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses here in PNG. When the pilot lost consciousness mid-flight, they were left circling in the air on autopilot until the pilot regained consciousness and was able to land the plane. Happily, our flight is smooth and uneventful.

We are now flying parallel with the mountain range when, suddenly, we turn through a break in the clouds and cross the brow of a mountain peak, clearing it by only 300 feet [100 m] or so. Lying in front of us is the village of Lengbati, a cluster of houses with thick grass roofs and built from bush materials. The pilot looks down at the airstrip as we fly over it, visually checking its condition and ensuring that village children are not playing soccer on it. He also looks for holes that pigs might have dug in it since the last time he was here. As he turns back into the valley, he says, “It looks OK; we’ll try for a landing.” We circle around and descend to land on the short airstrip, which the local villagers have cut into the side of the mountain and recently resurfaced with crushed coral limestone cut out of a mountain nearby.

On previous trips here, I have looked at the broken coral limestone and wondered just how old this mountain range really is. Just imagine the powerful forces involved in pushing this former coral reef hundreds of miles in length up out of the ocean and two and a half miles [4 km] into the air! Stepping from the plane, we stand on what I call a coral reef in the clouds.

As always, villagers come running from every direction when they hear the sound of the plane coming in to land. As the pilot shuts off the engine, I see a man step out of the crowd and walk toward the plane. It is Zung. He is one of the men who have been assigned locally to care for the weekly teaching programs held by Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. He is known among his people as a clean-living man, honest and reliable. He admits that he learned to be that way by applying Bible principles in his life. After greetings and handshakes, we walk with Zung and other Witnesses a little way down the mountain. Youngsters trail behind us, eagerly disputing with one another over who is going to carry our backpacks.

We arrive at a small wooden house that the local Witnesses built for the traveling minister when he comes every six months or so. Though PNG is a tropical country, it gets quite cool up here because of the elevation. At night when we light our kerosene lamp, I often see the clouds—which have been floating slowly up the mountain from the valley below during the afternoon—sneak into the house through the loosely fitted floor boards. It feels a bit strange to be putting on a ski jacket and jeans for warmth, when just a few hours ago, we were sweltering in tropical heat down on the coast.

In the mid-1980’s, a man from here studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lae. Returning here to his village, he and a few others built a small meeting place, which they were very proud of. Then the pastor of the local Lutheran church along with his supporters burned the meeting place to the ground. The arsonists proudly declared that this was exclusively a Lutheran area. Since then, and despite continuing opposition, the Witnesses have built another meeting place, and their numbers have steadily grown to about 50 active proclaimers of the good news. Some of those who formerly opposed the work of the Witnesses are now zealously involved in it themselves.

These days, the local villagers often welcome visits of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who teach them from the Bible. Though few in the village can read, most of the local Witnesses have learned to do so in order to share the Bible’s message with others. As many as 200 come to the meetings held in their Kingdom Hall each week.

There is no electricity. In the evenings, we all huddle around the fire in the cookhouse. Together we eat, talk, and laugh. The joy of serving Jehovah is plainly evident in the beaming faces of our friends, illuminated in the soft light of the fire. Then gradually, as it gets late, some take out of the fire a bombom, or piece of burning palm leaf, which they hope will burn slowly enough for them to have some light as they run along the bush tracks back to their own houses.

While walking back to the house, we sense how quiet it is here. We are enveloped by the sounds of nature. Before retiring for the night, we take a last look up at the clear night sky and marvel at how many stars are visible from this elevation.

A week goes by quickly, and we anticipate the return of the plane tomorrow. One more cool night in the clouds of Lengbati, and then for us, it’s back to the heat and humidity of the coast.