The Sawi people (of New Guinea) were cannibals and headhunters, and you also lived among snakes and crocodiles and mosquitoes. I can understand how a young man looking for adventure would want to live in a place like that, but why did your wife go along? . . .
Carol Soderstrom from Oklahoma, a pastor’s daughter, was called to missionary service from ten years of age. She had met missionaries who were graduates of Prairie Bible Institute, in Alberta, Canada. She and her parents, her mother and pastor father, were very impressed, saying, ‘That school produces people that don’t just look for the easy places. They’re willing to go where it’s tough and they stick to the job and get the job done' . . .
I wanted to get married right after graduation. Ebennezar Vine, of what is now called World Team, had come to our campus and pleaded for workers to go into the interior of a big island north of Australia called New Guinea. There were tribes in the interior that were completely uncontacted. The Netherlands government had given Ebeneezar Vine permission to send missionaries in, as long as they wouldn’t require Dutch policemen and soldiers to go with them to protect them. And Mr. Vine said, ‘No – no – no, we don’t need that. Being eaten by cannibals is a missionaries’ occupational hazard.’ Carol and I were among a group that volunteered.
Did you have to swallow a few times and pray an extra amount before you brought your kids along?
Well actually, we were both single when we decided to go.
But when you went to the Sawis.
We didn’t go right away because God called Carol to take three years of nurses’ training. That stunned me. I thought, ‘I’ve already been in love for two years, now I have to wait another three years – who am I, Jacob?’
But God gave me grace to wait for her. Then we were married . . . by the time we went out to the field across the Pacific, we had our first-born son, little Steven. Now all our colleagues of World Team were working in the mountains among the Dani tribe. In the mountains of New Guinea the people were welcoming. I mean, they had their wars among themselves. But they welcomed these light-skinned strangers who brought steel tools and medicine and other things that the people thought were great. And they were already beginning to respond to the Gospel. So there was already a lot of work to be done among the Danis. And the temperature there is pleasant.
I get the feeling from Lords of the Earth that you enjoy hiking in the mountains.
I do, I do! And there wasn’t even any malaria there! It was going to come in when aircraft began to come in – mosquitoes would hitch a ride. So it was like a Garden of Eden, except for the violence of the people. The missionaries said, ‘You and Carol are welcome to work with us here! There’s lots to be done. But,’ they said, ‘there is a new tribe that’s been discovered in the swamps way to the south. We just want to let you know, if you do feel God wants you to go where no one else has ever gone – there is that tribe.’
I felt God whispering to my heart saying, ‘Don, go to that tribe!’ ‘They’re the ones,’ He said, ‘that I’ve prepared for you to bare witness among for me.’ And I said to the Lord, ‘You know it’s hot and humid, there’s malaria there, there’s crocodiles in the river, there’s tropical diseases, and the people are cannibals and headhunters. The Danis who were in the area where World Team was working warred among themselves, but they were not cannibals, nor were they headhunters. They were violent, but that was the end of it. But the Sawi were known to be cannibals AND headhunters, which is a rare combination.
I said ‘Carol is a pastor’s daughter from Cincinnati, Ohio.’ (Previously Oklahoma.) I said, ‘She’s been on a camping trip or two, but never anything like this. So you’ll have to give her your own personal assurance, because I can’t force her to go with me to that wild place against her will.’
God gave her assurance. She said, ‘I think God wants us to go there.’ And we went among them with peace. It was like God was saying, ‘I know they’re headhunters, I know they’re cannibals – don’t worry, I’ve taken care of everything. Just go among them, and I’ve got a ministry match made in heaven, waiting for you, and you have to go among them to find it.’
I like the way you begin the story of Peace Child in their world. Stone Age life was – as Thomas Hobbes put it, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Living among people who had lived that way for so many centuries – did you ever doubt God’s love for them, or why He would allow them to live that way for so long?
No. I was convinced that every human being is made in the image of God. And that image of God is there to be restored, redeemed, brought back to relationship with the owner of that image. So there was no question that God loved them. And I knew that he loved Carol and loved Stephen – and we went among them with this assurance.
All the tribes of New Guinea are black-skinned, and some of them had never seen a white-skinned person.
But the reports about white-skinned persons called tuans were positive, because wherever tuans went, they brought ovat, which means medicine, and garum, . . . steel tools to replace stone tools, nylon fish line, fish hooks, etc. So they were saying wistfully, asking other tribes a little closer to civilization, ‘Are there any spare tuans around? We think we’d like to welcome one.’ Only to have the other tribes responded nastily saying, ‘A tuan live among you? Who do you think you are? They’re a scarce commodity. They’re choosy where they live – don’t get your hopes up, you wretched Sawi!’
Hearing these insulting comments, the Sawi people said, ‘Perhaps they’re right, we’ll never be favored.’ They also said, ‘Just in case a tuan finds out that we live here, and decides he wants to come and live among us – when we find out that that tuan has chosen us, we will let that tuan know in no uncertain terms we choose him. He’ll be our tuan, we’ll be his tribe.
The kind of white people who went among them were apparently not the traders or soldiers so many primitive tribes have experienced.
Yes – policemen, soldiers, or land-grabbers, or loggers . . .
Why did it help the Sawi tribesmen to get their first experience of the outside world from missionaries?
Well, because we brought the medicine, we brought steel tools. And we didn’t give things out – we gave medicine free, but we didn’t give hardware out free. Because if you give one man a free steel ax that costs you several dollars, and there’s several thousand men – you’re in trouble. If you don’t give every man a steel ax – which is going to cost you quite a bit – then, ‘Oh, you don’t love us.’ And it also makes grown men into children. It transforms these men who are able to survive in that wilderness so marvelously – it makes them like dependent beggars. You don’t want to do that.
So I had to set a certain number of days for a steel ax, and a certain amount of freshly-killed pork from a wild pig for a knife or a machete, and a certain amount of salt for a fish. And the people liked that. And so it was mutual – they’d bring us food, we’d pay them with things they wanted. They’d bring us firewood for our stove; we’d pay them with things they wanted.
In the modern world, we’ve seen a lot of stories like this. Not just primitive tribes – in the Democracy Movement in 1989, there was a group of Chinese intellectuals who made a TV series called The River Elegy. They used the metaphor of the Yellow River that rises in the Western Highlands of Asia and flows to the ocean – they said China is like that river. It’s been depending on itself, feeding itself, for thousands of years. But in the modern era, it needs to “flow to the deep blue sea,” as they put it, to mix with other nations. And that’s what the Sawi people have done through your work.
David, some of the young men are already graduating from university in Eastern Indonesia. Some of them are Christian government employees in a Muslim nation, Indonesia.
One of the things that’s striking about your story is, here these people are living in New Guinea by themselves. They don’t know much about the outside world, they might have seen an airplane flying overhead once in a while . . .
They thought it was about 60 miles wide.
And then suddenly they’re part of the human race. And you’re the conduit – someone’s going to come and someone’s going to be the conduit . . .
It’s inevitable. You just have to pray, ‘May the most beneficial outside influence get there first.’
What is their general status in Indonesia? How are they doing economically? I imagine it’s a lot different from when you were living there?
Oh, my, yes, very different. Once that former Dutch colony became the easternmost province of Indonesia, it was inevitable that brown skinned Indonesian people speaking the Indonesian language would come flooding in, bringing the Muslim religion and bringing outside world economics. So I had to train the Sawi about economics, otherwise an Indonesian who looked down upon them as inferior because of their black skin and kinky hair, might say, ‘I wanna buy your chicken,’ and give them some paper money, that if the tribesman doesn’t know the value of different denominations of currency, he might sell a chicken that’s worth 500 rupees, but only get 10 rupees, and won’t even buy a fishhook for a chicken. (Or) even take over the land. People think to get them in debt, and then ask to have sex with their daughter, to pay a debt. And they introduce sexual diseases . . .
Does the Gospel help you see the experience of different tribes and different peoples around the world as a single unified story?
Yes . . . I am working on the idea that, just as there was a redemptive analogy for the Sawi, there was a ‘peace child,’ and the Yali through places of refuge, and through the upside down tree in India, I began to think, ‘What about an all-encompassing redemptive analogy for the scientific mind, for people who demand logic to the nth degree? . . .