There are many misconceptions about missionaries in general, and even more about our lives and ministry as “missionaries in a tribe.” Probably one of the most common misconceptions we run into is what people think life is like for us as missionaries who live in the jungle.
Since most of you reading this don’t live in the jungle, it’s not hard to see why you may have trouble imagining what it means to be a missionary in the jungle. So I won’t blame you if you’ve thought some of these things. But please, don’t blame me if I chuckle at some of the things you’ve thought. 🙂
Hearing the word “jungle” makes some people think that our job often requires hacking through thick rainforest undergrowth with a machete, swinging from vines, avoiding quicksand, and outrunning rhinos on occasion. Like we’re some sort of combination of Tarzan and David Livingstone, with maybe a little Indiana Jones thrown in. 🙂
While we have used a machete (called a bush knife here in PNG) to cut a few branches now and then, we don’t swing from vines, I’ve yet to see quicksand, and the largest land animal here is a pig, a crocodile, or a small type of emu (known as a cassowary), so……no rhinos. And no lions, tigers, or bears. (Oh my.) There aren’t even monkeys here.
Others, however, hear that we live on an island in the tropics, and instead of envisioning us with a machete and a pith helmet, their minds conjure up images similar to their memories of that weekend they spent in the Bahamas or some TV ad for a vacation in Fiji. They picture us lounging under umbrellas on the beach, sipping lemonade. Or maybe napping in hammocks and then drinking from coconuts with those little umbrella thingys in them. They imagine us sunbathing, snorkeling, and maybe going to a luau or two.
In the interest of full disclosure: we do have hammocks, and we do take naps in them sometimes. To try to sleep on a mattress in the middle of the day is like lying on a sponge under a heat lamp in a puddle of your own sweat. And we have gone snorkeling a time or two when we were on a break in the town of Madang.
But I rarely drink lemonade, and we don’t lay under umbrellas on the beach. There are no luaus, and it would be ridiculous to try to sunbathe here. We’re right off the equator. The sun is HOT here. It will cook you. If the humidity doesn’t dissolve you into a puddle first.
As far as coconuts go, we do drink coconut juice, but that’s from green coconuts, not the dry ones with the thick white flesh. And here, you either split a crack or carve a hole in the coconut to drink from it. There are no straws or little umbrellas involved. 🙂
So what is it actually like, being a missionary in the jungle?
Well, we live in the tropics. Which means, we have two basic seasons: rainy season and dry season. In rainy season, it rains. A lot. Like a couple weeks ago, we got 10 inches of rain in one week. And it’s cold – like a chilly 67 F on occasion. In dry season, it still rains, but not as often. Sometimes in dry season in our current bush location, we can go a whole week or two with nothing more than a sprinkle. But enough about the weather. Let’s talk about life.
We live in a village surrounded by jungle. The village is made up of a dozen or so hamlets, which are like neighborhoods. Hamlets consist of a handful or two of thatched roof houses, where families eat, sleep, and hang out. People hike to their gardens a few times a week to plant, weed, or dig up some roots to eat. They also spend time at the river; bathing, washing clothes, or looking for fish and crawdads. Their daily life consists mainly of finding food to eat.
How do we fit into this? Right now, our job description involves a lot of time with people. Our task in this season is to connect with the Mouk church and become Mouk so that we can be sent out as missionaries from the Mouk to the Anem people. So we’ve spent time learning the Mouk language, studying the Mouk culture, and building relationships with the believers.
That connection is initiated and facilitated by the believers here. They invite us out to different hamlets, where we sit, talk, cook, eat, and read Scripture together. We laugh together, we cry together, we pray together. We take part in each other’s daily lives so that a connection is forged that will continue even when we’ve moved on. We’ve spent time nurturing and developing a unity between us and the Mouk church, because our role is to be an extension of them.
So while it may not be as relaxing as lounging under an umbrella on the beach, connecting with other believers refuels us in a way that nothing else can. And though it’s (seemingly) not as exciting as swinging from vines or outrunning rhinos, it’s thrilling to us to be a part of Christ’s Body here.