The Motivation for Conversion to Christianity of the Momina People

by Les Henson

Why did the Momina people of the southern lowlands of West Papua, Indonesia, convert to Christianity? What were the cultural and social forces that precipitated the people movement among the Momina? I would suggest that seven recognizable motivating factors led to the conversion of the Momina people of the village of Sumo, and subsequently to the majority of this people group.1


Why did the Momina people of the southern lowlands of West Papua, Indonesia, convert to Christianity? What were the cultural and social forces that precipitated the people movement among the Momina? I would suggest that seven recognizable motivating factors led to the conversion of the Momina people of the village of Sumo, and subsequently to the majority of this people group.1

#1. New Revelation

In March 1979, my wife, Wapke, and I, along with Joel, our 4-week-old son, went to live among the Momina people of the village of Sumo. A man named Moorookoo prepared them for our coming and for hearing the gospel. He had a dream which foretold the coming of the white people with a new revelation. 

One evening, about ten to fifteen years prior to the first contact with RBMU International2 missionaries in 1974, Moorookoo fell asleep after a hard day’s hunting. As he slept, he dreamed of being taken up to the dwelling place of the “people who shed their skin” (ke keeaeema mee nya) in the sky. 

He was looking around trying to get his bearings when he was confronted by the sky “people who shed their skin.” They informed him that at a future time people with white skins and straight hair like a cassowary would come to his village with a new revelation that they must obey. They also told him that these outsiders would fell the trees at the junction of the Sumo and the Akiin Rivers. When he awoke, he shared his dream with the people of his longhouse. They took what he said very seriously and remembered it.

One year before the first mission contact was made, Moorookoo went into the jungle with two men named Sooai and Obaee from the Sumo longhouse. After some time in the jungle, Moorookoo saw a ladder reaching up to the sky. At the top of the ladder, he saw the sky people who were calling him to come and join them. Sooai and Obaee, however, could not see the ladder and were mystified when he told them that he was going to leave them to go to the place in the sky. 

Not wanting him to leave them, Sooai and Obaee responded by physically restraining him and dragging him back to the village against his will. Within two days, Moorookoo died of no apparent cause. For several nights, the people of the longhouse talked among themselves trying to figure out the meaning of these events.

When Bruno de Leeuw and John Wilson trekked into the Sumo area from the Yali village of Ninia between February 4 and 14 of 1974 to establish the first expatriate missionary contact with the Momina people, the Momina agreed that these must be the white people of whom Moorookoo had spoken. 

Three years later, when the trees were cut down at the junction of the Sumo and Akiin Rivers to build the Sumo airstrip, the rest of the dream began to fall into place. Finally, when my family and I moved to Sumo after overseeing the work from the Yali village of Holuwon during the previous year, we were identified as the bearers of the new revelation.

Thus, Moorookoo’s dream foretelling the coming of the white people with a new revelation both prepared and predisposed the Momina people of Sumo towards the acceptance of the Christian message. This is arguably the single most important factor in their initial acceptance of Christianity. The fact that Moorookoo’s dream involved the sky “people who shed their skin” and thus have eternal life, gave this revelation genuine credibility. It created a sense of expectancy, with respect to the restoration of communication and the regaining of eternal life, which had been lost because of the breaking of the primeval prohibition.

Application: In mission, it is important to recognize that God gets there before we do. He is at work in the lives of communities and individuals before the missionary arrives on the scene. As we enter new situations, we need to be open to what God is already doing and endeavor to appropriately reconcile our mission with his mission.

#2. Relevance of the Initial Message

The Christian message was initially, yet unwittingly, presented to the Momina as the way to eternal life. This touched them at the point of their deepest longing and was an important motivating factor in their acceptance of the message. Although during the early stages of my time among the Momina I was ignorant of the Momina myth concerning the fall and the loss of eternal life and the many life motifs within their spirit cosmology, they were not and they reinterpreted the message in light of their longing and expectation.

Application: We must work hard at discovering the significant worldview themes and motifs that act as bridges over which the gospel may flow. We may stumble upon these at first, but eventually we must develop these themes and motifs in a comprehensive manner if the gospel is to take root in a society.

#3. Desire for Peace

Christianity came to the people of Sumo at a point in time when they were decreasing numerically because of the raiding of the Citak people to the south and the internal feuding among themselves. They were tired of this cycle of events from which they could find no escape. This lifestyle of conflict, violence, and fear can best be illustrated by offering three examples of events that occurred during our early years of living among the Momina: 

First, a man from the Momina village of Morokoo was living among his traditional enemies in the Citak village of Wemeni. Three years earlier, he had married into this longhouse community in an attempt to secure peace between the two warring parties.3 He had lived there for those three years and the peace had been maintained. One night in November 1979, just seven months after we had moved to Sumo, he arose in the middle of the night while everyone was sleeping and broke the arrow tips of the men living in that longhouse. 

Just before dawn, he signalled to the men from his own village of Morokoo to commence the raid. They moved in silently and attacked, killing seven men and causing the rest to flee into the jungle by way of escape. During the raid, they captured eight women who were taken by the raiders as wives. Several children were also captured and adopted into the group.

Second, in the Momina village of Rekai a woman was killed by the villagers. She had been one of the four wives of a leading man called Bobe, who had died the previous year. The people of the village believed that she was responsible for her late husband’s death, having killed him by means of sorcery. For several nights, they discussed this among themselves. 

Then, one day in June 1983, they decided to take revenge. As a group, they went to the woman’s house early in the morning. Dragging her outside, they bound her arms and legs with vines and proceeded to beat her with sticks until her arms and legs were broken. After this, they took her to river and threw her into the fast-flowing water to her death.

Third, in September 1985 a man from the Momina village of Kei Kye decided he wanted to take another man’s wife as his own. He persuaded his own wife to commit adultery with the other man. When she had done so, she reported back to her husband who pretended to become very angry. He demanded that the other man make payment for his wrongdoing. 

After receiving three pigs, he still pretended not to be satisfied and persuaded five younger male relatives to seek out the man and kill him. Finding him at his jungle house, where he had gone to escape the demands of the angry husband, they made a surprise attack and filled the man full of arrows. Later, the husband who had arranged the killing claimed the dead man’s wife as his own.

One of the leading men at Sumo, Kotakenee, who became a prime advocate for the acceptance of Christianity, had five of his six brothers killed by the neighboring village of Makoo. So when the Dani evangelists bore witness of how the acceptance of Christianity had brought peace, the result was that Kotakenee and others viewed Christianity as a vehicle for bringing peace to their strife-torn community. 

Application: Christianity never enters a vacuum; there are always socio-cultural and political factors that either contribute to or hinder the acceptance of the Christian faith. It is important to understand these factors if the gospel is to be presented in a way that has the best possibility of acceptance.

#4. Material Advantages

The Momina associated the coming of Western material goods with the arrival of the Christian message. I remember talking to a man named Ake about two years after we had moved to Sumo. He asked me, “Resee (Les), did your people have axes, machetes, and clothes before you became Christians?” 

He was quite shocked when I explained that we had all those things before we became Christians. He had associated these Western material goods with the acceptance of Christianity. Clearly, many of the Sumo people were at least partly motivated in their acceptance of Christianity by their desire for Western goods. While the Momina have not participated in a cargo-type movement, they, like many other Melanesians, are cargoistic in their thinking. Darrell Whiteman is correct when he writes:

The traditional religion of Melanesians was a pragmatic one, and so concern with social and economic well-being was of paramount importance in religious beliefs and ritual. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that their interpretation of Christianity would be similar. That is, the obvious wealth and power of the European was related to his practice of Christianity. (1980, 190)

In the eyes of the Momina, there is a definite linkage between adopting Christianity and economic and material well-being.

Application: It is important to be aware of the mixture of motives that individuals or communities have in coming to faith in Christ. Misunderstanding and misperceptions can only be addressed if they are recognised and brought out into the open.

#5. Christianity: A Religion of Power

The Sumo people, like most other Melanesians, are concerned with the acquisition of power. Since Western material goods were esteemed and Western medicine was regarded as superior, it was not unnatural for them to assume that Western religion must be more powerful and therefore desired. 

Through modern medicine and prayer, the sick were healed in ways that the shaman could not do. The introduction of new crops and better methods of agriculture showed power over the environment. Contact with me and my family made them realize that there was a world out there of which they knew little, and precipitated in them a thirst for knowledge of and contact with the outside world. Planes, radios, and other products of our technology were considered instruments of power. 

However, it would be wrong to overemphasize the identification of Western power and wealth with Christianity in the minds of the Momina. Parallel to their encounter with Western mission, there was an almost simultaneous, yet periodic, encounter with a variety of non-Christian westerners, including German tourists, Indonesian government officials, commercial pilots, and a Japanese television crew which distributed large quantities of material goods in a very indiscriminant fashion. The Momina soon realized that all white people were not the same; neither did they all subscribe to Christian beliefs and practices. 

We must also take into account the fact that power encounters played a significant role in the conversion of the Momina. The first of these was precipitated by the Dani evangelists. On one of my visits towards the end of 1978, the Dani evangelists explained that the Sumo people wanted to destroy their fetishes. They told how they had advised them to wait until I moved there permanently, and other Momina groups agreed, so that several Momina villages could do it together at a large fetish-burning ceremony in true Dani style. 

However, that was not the Momina approach, and sometime during our first few months in Sumo they decided as a community to dispose of their fetishes. After an extended period of consultation among themselves, they simply threw them in the river without any ceremony or fuss. The Dani evangelists had advocated this change by their witness to what had happened among their own people, while the Sumo people responded positively to this new idea by destroying their fetishes. 

This was their first step in the process of conversion to Christianity. In destroying their fetishes they were rejecting their old primal religion as a system and accepting Christianity. They were both saying and proving by this act of faith that the God of Christianity was in a significant way stronger than the spirits of their primal religion. 

At this point, their knowledge of the God of Christianity or his Son Jesus Christ was very limited, but they acted on that limited knowledge and experienced God to be powerful in this authentic life encounter. This was the first of many subsequent steps in the process of what Alan Tippett calls multi-individual conversion. In talking with a number of the older men of the village a few months after this event, they explained that when they threw their fetishes into the river, they visibly saw the spirits depart from the village.

Over the coming months, many visitors from other villages came to visit their kinsmen. I became aware that they were taking off their fetishes prior to entering the village. Out of curiosity, I questioned one of the visitors as to why they were acting in this way. His reply took me by surprise: “This is God’s place, we don’t need them here.” 

The destruction of the fetishes and the associated change in allegiance precipitated a process of gradual reassessment in many areas of Momina life. This reassessment is particularly evident in the way that the Sumo people handled the issue of taboos. Shortly after the destruction of the fetishes, several of the leading women in the village began to ignore important food taboos and started to eat the red pandanus fruit and pork which had previously been forbidden. 

Initially, this caused quite a stir and some of the men became angry because they had not been consulted by the women taking this action. The women responded by stating, “The Dani women do not obey these taboos (weetee) and they follow the Jesus trail, so why should we obey them?” 

One of the older men, Kotakenee, advised the men to wait and see what happened, which they agreed to do. When it became obvious that the women experienced no negative consequences because of eating the forbidden food, other women began to follow suit. The men, after much discussion, also began to break their own food taboos. It was through many similar power encounters in which the Momina people trusted God for protection that other taboos were laid aside. The fact that Christianity was regarded as a religion of power was an important motivating factor in their acceptance of Christianity.

Application: In taking the gospel to the primal peoples of the world, there are two aspects of power that we need to take into consideration. The first is the power differential that exists between Western missionaries and the primal people they serve. This power differential can easily distort the gospel and result in a misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Second, power encounter should be orchestrated by God and not deliberately precipitated by the missionary.  

#6. Influence of Papuan and Expatriate Missionaries

Undoubtedly, some of those who became Christians were influenced in their decision through personal friendship with both Papuan and expatriate missionaries. Daniel Woin, who is today one of the most influential leaders within the Momina church, looks back upon his life and identifies the time when he agreed to help Hans Doyapo, our Papuan co-worker, chop firewood on a regular basis as the most significant turning point in his Christian life. The result of that commitment and friendship was that he became serious about the things of God.

The Anaboin clan, who moved to Sumo at the end of 1979, were strongly influenced for the gospel by the love that my wife, Wapke, showed them in caring for the children of the Oomatena, the daughter of the clan headman. On one occasion, Oomatena brought her son, Markoo, to our house. He was very sick with dysentery and diarrhea, which was going through the village at that time. 

Wapke and I had spent about three hours dripping drops of dehydration fluid into Markoo’s mouth. When I went into the kitchen to prepare an injection of penicillin, Markoo made a huge mess all over the back porch. Wapke calmly cleaned it up and when I returned Oomatena turned to me and said, “See, she loves me so much she would do that for me and my child.” We treated Oomatena’s five children on many occasions and it was incidents like this that opened the Anaboin clan to the gospel.

Application: I would suggest that the primary vehicle of the gospel is the missionary—“The missionary is the message.” We must be careful that we do not substitute programs for relationship. It is through weak fragile human beings that the gospel comes most powerfully.

#7. Vernacular Approach

Teaching, preaching, and literacy in the vernacular language played an important role in the communication of the Christian message to the Sumo people. It gave the message an inherent credibility because it came to them in their own language and facilitated a clear understanding on their part. 

The communication of God’s word in the vernacular language enhanced the value and status of language in the eyes of the Momina people. This was important, because the Momina were a dejected and declining people prior to the coming of the gospel. While it is incorrect to call this a motivating factor, it certainly was a factor which caused them to be receptive to the Christian message.

Application: There is no substitute for the communication of the gospel in the heart language of the people to whom it is being communicated. Therefore, it is imperative that cross-cultural missionaries learn both the language and culture of the people they serve.

Summing Up

The Momina chose to innovate and adopt Christianity from a complex basis of multiple motivations, both latent and manifest. These seven motivating factors functioned together as a whole and not in isolation from each other. 

Because of their holistic worldview, it is unlikely that they would separate one particular part from the whole package. The motivating factors in the conversion of the Momina were mixed and complex, as they always are. No one comes to Christ out of pure motives. The motives for conversion became the issues that needed dealing with during the discipling process so that they did not become obstacles to further growth in the faith and a deepening of relationship with Jesus Christ.

1. Darrell L. Whiteman deals with this same issue in the broader Melanesian context writing, “It is important, however, to note that what motivates one islander to adopt Christianity may be quite different from that which motivates another. In addition, the level of understanding as to what was being adopted, and what the potential benefits and responsibilities of the new religion entail varied considerably from one convert to another” (1980, 188). 

2. RBMU International was previously known as Regions Beyond Missionary Union. It traces its roots to Harley Bible College in London, founded in 1873 by Irish revivalist H. Grattan Guinness. In June 1995, World Team and RBMU International amalgamated to form World Team. However, in West Papua the mission is still known as RBMU International for legal purposes.

3. For the Momina, peace was established between two warring parties, either through the exchange of women in marriage, usually in the form of sibling exchange, or the exchange of children in similar fashion to that practiced by the Sawi in their “peace child” ceremony (cf. Richardson 1974).

Richardson. Don. 1974. Peace Child. Glendal, Calif.: Regal Books.
Whiteman, Darrell. 1980. Melanesians and Missionaries. Pasadena, Calif.: William CareyLibrary.


Les Henson spent nineteen years church planting in West Papua with World Team. He is senior lecturer in intercultural and mission studies at Tabor Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 152-160. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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