by Maxine McDonald
It took four days, three ferries, two motorbikes, and a giant motorized canoe to reach an island community of fishermen and pearl farmers.
IT TOOK FOUR DAYS, three ferries, two motorbikes, and a giant motorized canoe to reach an island community of fishermen and pearl farmers. I saw so many things on that trip. Sunrise over flooded rice paddies. Miles of picket fences painted white and blue. Curled up puppies and cow pies dotting the sunny blacktop. Fishing boats with nets on poles like wings. WWE wrestling on a ferry boat with cable TV. Old men playing chess beside the docks. A yellow-banded sea krait.
Four of us foreigners went to the little seaside community to find a family none of us knew. Some of us knew a relative of theirs on another island hundreds of miles away. From the dock all the way into town, families spilled out of brightly painted houses to watch us walk by. The friend who sent us used to spend his days fishing and his income on alcohol. He heard stories from my friends, recordings in his own language on their cell phones, and started to follow Jesus. He stopped beating his wife and prayed that his family would hear the same stories. He didn’t have the money to travel, so he asked us to come on his behalf when we visited the area.
The children on the streets of the fishing town had learned an addition to the usual greeting for white people, which is “Hey Mister!” These children added their own fun, following us through the village yelling, “Hey Mister Rius! Hey Mister Rius!”
They yelled it many times because finding the right house was a challenge. People here commonly have several names, nicknames, or the same names, so it took a dozen people’s opinions and memories to identify a little girl in a purple dress who led us to the home of the family for whom we were searching.
While we didn’t know where we were going, they knew we were coming. Our friend had called ahead. As soon as we, and our escort of more than a dozen children, entered their yard, a teenager was dispatched to call the matriarch of the family, our friend’s mother, in from the garden. Someone else was sent to pick coconuts.
It was a hot afternoon and our sweat-soaked shirts adhered to the fake leather of the orange couches in the living room. The children jostled in the doorway and one of my friends invited them to sing common kids songs as we waited. My favorite was about lizards hunting mosquitos since my ankles were welting with fresh bites from the haze of bloodsuckers lurking under the orange couches.
Eventually, the mother arrived—a gentle-looking woman in a purple housedress and black head covering. We asked if she would like to hear one of the stories that had changed her son’s life. She said yes. We gave her a cell phone playing a simplified version of Genesis 1 in her local language and turned the volume up high. She held the phone and listened intently as the world was created and populated.
A few adults ventured out from the cool of the inner rooms to perch on plastic chairs. God rested. We started to wonder how far they had gone to find the coconuts. Adam and Eve sinned. The children drifted away in twos and threes, the littlest ones in the arms of older siblings.
We stopped the recording somewhere in the middle of Genesis 3 as interest waned and the coconuts arrived—one giant fruit for each of us with the tops cut off and red straws poking out. The mother and other adults began to wander from the room as we sucked down the sweet coconut water, trying to be both polite and efficient about it because the afternoon was wearing on.
Soon, only one man remained with us. He was in his early twenties and had talked to our fisherman friend about the sudden changes in his life. One of the foreigners with me shared that his story is much the same as the fisherman’s. He used to drink, he was angry, and he had no purpose for his life. Then, he became a follower of Jesus the Messiah and God took away his desire for alcohol and gave him a reason to live. The young man leaned forward eagerly as my friend spoke. He barely waited for the story to end before telling his own. He was also an alcoholic. Periodically, he quit drinking, but it never lasted. He didn’t have the strength. By that time, the coconuts were empty and some teenagers took them outside.
My friend who had told his story lived close by. From his living room windows he could see that little island across the channel. He offered to come back to talk again to the earnest searcher so they can learn from each other. The young man said he had friends with the same questions and emptiness in their lives. The local religion is full of secrets. He and his friends were looking for a truth they could understand. They seek a God who reveals himself, not one who hides in secrecy. The coconuts were soon returned to us, sliced in half, with spoons instead of straws. We carved out chunks of cool, slippery coconut meat and sucked them down.
It was a familiar experience: the boats, houses, playful children, mosquito clouds, and generous servings of food. The things that mattered most that day couldn’t be seen: the power of a story told in someone’s heart language, the fisherman’s faith, the witness of a changed life, the urge to spread the truth he had found, the longing for hope, the creativity of a God who sends his gospel across islands and generations by any means he chooses, including foreigners and ferry boats and cell phones and canoes. And then he hides it all behind a veil of heat, crowds, confusion, coconut water, and children crying, “Mysterious! Hey Mister Rius!”
. . . .
Maxine McDonald (pseudonym) leads a language and orientation team for Pioneers, launching new workers to unengaged and unreached peoples in Southeast Asia.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.