Christian Short Stories
They Ain't Got a Clue
By Web Ruble
Web writes: "For two or so years I was a religion writer for a metropolitan West Coast newspaper and in that time I heard some bizarre stories about the mission field. This is one of them."
I couldn’t believe what he said. ‘Twas incredible.
“Former missionary Robert Goodwin will be in to see you at 1:30,” said the preamble note in my typewriter.
Well, I have visitors all the time, but not many missionaries. So I made sure I was there at 1:30.
Mr. Goodwin was prompt. I didn’t know what he wanted. But it didn’t matter. I was the religion writer for The Oregonian (newspaper), and I was prepared for just about anything. Religion -- most of it non-Christian, however – was invading and exploding everywhere. And I was trying to referee it all, and record some of it.
However, what Goodwin said when he sat down I was NOT prepared for:
“I’m quitting the missionary field. Do you want to know why?”
Most missionaries I had encountered exuded enthusiasm and usually were seeking dollars -- through the press -- to expand God’s work in places like Africa or China.
Not this one. He was quitting. Flat out. Hmmm. Interesting. Yes, I should learn why.
- - - -
Goodwin, you see, was a “missionary” in a standard denomination’s mission program for some islands in the South Pacific.
To say he was a “missionary” might be stretching it. Rather he was a Christian pilot hired by some missionaries who periodically would “fly in” to certain islands in the vast region between Fiji and Singapore.
The mission program islands were in two groups: 1) Some rather larger, close-in islands that the missionaries would visit often and nurture the resident Christians on a routine basis, and 2) Some remote outer islands that Christian-mission-bound workers would visit less frequently – say once a year.
Mr. Goodwin said it was his last visit (1970) to the remote islands that convinced him to abandon the missionary field.
He told this yarn, incredible as it is:
He landed his sea plane on the inside-the-reef bay of this certain island -- call it Kuukavalt -- and taxied the 1-2 miles into the pier.
However, as they approached the pier he noticed that only one from the local Christian community was there to meet the missionaries. Moreover, he noticed the village behind the pier appeared vacant.
The man on the dock was dutiful, meeting the missionary sea plane, tethering it to the dock, and making sure the group got ashore safely.
Usually on these visits a committee from the local Christian community would meet the plane and rally cohorts for the annual meeting. This local Christian committee was comprised of converted Christians the original missionaries left behind years earlier. The local Christians would tend to God’s work until the missionaries could return.
But this time there was no one, save the dock hand.
Goodwin, who spoke the native tongue, asked the smiling dock hand, “Where is everybody?”
“They aren’t here.”
“I can see that . . . but where are they? Has disease struck this place and has everyone died?”
“No. They are here, but not right here. They are up at the old abandoned airfield on top of the mountain.”
“Up on the mountain?”
“Well, we heard that you were coming. (News apparently travels fast in the Pacific islands). And we knew it was the right time of year, too…so . . .”
“But why wait for us up at the mountain-top airfield, when we always come here to the dock on the bay?”
“Don’t know exactly. But I have a jeep. Let’s drive up there and you can talk to them.”
So the five -- Goodwin, the three missionaries, and the dock hand -- all crammed into the jeep for the lurching, bumping, wrenching mud-and-rock trip up through the jungle to the mountain top.
When they got there, they found the dock hand had understated it.
Hundreds of local folk were fringing the airfield, which the creeping jungle had reduced by half over the 25-plus years the airstrip had been out of use.
Around the airfield they had placed coconuts – simulating the night lights the GIs had used during WWII to guide-in the cargo planes.
What’s more the island population -- most of it from the local Christian community -- was crouching around the jungled edge of the air field in an attitude of prayer.
It became obvious to Goodwin and the missionary trio that the native folk were praying for all the goodies – such as candy, gum and cigarettes – that used to come in with the military supplies on the cargo planes -- 25 years earlier.
Goodwin asked the dock hand if that were true.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you know that before we came up here?”
“Yes. I thought you might not believe me and that you should see for yourself. Disgusting isn’t it?”
Utterances like, “Oh, oh, oh, ow, ow, ow,” were voiced by Goodwin and the missionaries.
They slowly climbed back into the jeep and bumped down the mountain to the village. Stunned, they tried to discuss the situation intelligently and cosmically. It didn’t work. They switched to every day thinking.
When they got to the village they congregated in the dock hand’s hut to strategize and decide how to proceed. One of the missionaries, who was used to setbacks when it came to nurturing local Christians in remote places -- said the local population “just isn’t ready. They miss the whole point.”
The dock hand -- call him Vengri -- tried to explain, but gave up. Finally he said, “Why don’t you all just forget this place until some appointed day in the future?”
"All we were doing was confusing them,” Goodwin told me. “Until we Christians came they were happy in their way of life. Now this Christian stuff made ‘em miserable, because it conflicted with the old ways they hadn’t quite surrendered yet. They got confused. Then when missionaries showed up again it just piled more misery on top of the confusion and the misery that already existed.”
Goodwin said that after verbal wrangling the missionary group and the dock hand decided to call a meeting -- a revival. Restart the process. “They sorely needed to get the Christian community there to come to grips with what was really important. You see, they were still pagans -- sort of.
“However, I (Goodwin) had had enough. More than 20 diligent years and nothing. We weren’t making progress. If anything, we were stalemated or going backwards. The GIs will never return with their cargo planes. And even if they did so what? That has nothing to do with conversion. The natives there were putting the accENT on the wrong syllAble (sil-ABL).
“The next day, after getting the folks back down off the air strip, they assembled them and conducted a revival meeting. But I was sure the local folk did not get the point.
When I got back to our base (in New Guinea), I told ‘em I was done. Goodbye. I also told them they were wasting their time. I sold my plane and left. I vowed to spread the word to church headquarters in the United States when I returned, and that was to include comments I give to the press. So here I am.”
It was grim to me the religion writer. However, I had little choice. I had to go with it. The editor liked the story theme and was expecting a good one. I wrote Goodwin’s yarn. We went with it -- headlines on the religion page.
I had gone along with it, anticipating (and dreading) lots of reaction from the Pacific Northwest’s Christian community. Oh, I got a few telephone calls, a couple of letters, and a very angry note from that denomination’s local office.
But, the most salient comment came from a pastor I knew.
Over lunch, the Rev. Paul Nethers, who seldom pulled verbal punches, said, “Well, I doubt if that guy (Goodwin, the pilot) is a very good Christian. God would not encourage such a failure . . .I hope it was not enough for the church to abandon the program. If they did, they would be going against God’s will.”
(© 2011 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)
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