Feature

A Noise of Many Voices

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A “loud noise of many voices” resounding through the Borneo wilds aroused the curiosity of newly arrived missionary John Willfinger. His more experienced colleague explained that it was probably the villagers mourning the recent death of a government teacher. But as the voices became more distinct, a smile brightened his face; these voices were not mourning death but celebrating life! A throng of Dyaks was announcing its arrival for the Easter celebrations! As the group crowded onto the missionary property, a new song was raised to welcome the new missionary.

That Easter of 1939—worship with 700 Dyak Christians, and the baptism of 108 new believers—brought such joy to the young missionary that he wrote that the people have “found a place in . . . my heart; . . . nothing is too difficult or demanding to bring them into closer fellowship with Christ.”

The urgency of his brief ministry seemed derived from a feeling that his love might eventually demand great sacrifice. He soon learned the language, enabling him to preach to large gatherings. His conviction, however, that one-on-one ministry was most valuable allowed him little free time. Even when traveling rugged trails to reach new villages, he carried a typewriter to use in translating Scriptures and hymns into the language of the Murat people, once feared headhunters but now receptive to the gospel.

But change came on March 8, 1942. After the Japanese conquered Borneo, the soldiers ordered all missionaries to come out of the interior to surrender. Aware of the treatment of others who had fallen into the hands of the Japanese, Willfinger realized his life was in jeopardy. But the order added that “anyone who tried to help [the missionaries] would be punished.” This meant the many friends volunteering to hide him would also be imperiled, spiritually and physically. Hiding him would force them to lie to the searching Japanese. “I did not come here to ‘drag people into sin’ by lying,” he reasoned. He’d not do that even if it cost him his life! And, if his hiding place were discovered by the Japanese, his friends could be among the thousands cruelly put to death. Struggling prayerfully through Scripture for guidance, he identified with His Savior, “the good shepherd [who] gives his life for his sheep,” who prayed “not my will, but yours be done.” “Because of Jesus Christ and his sheep . . . ,” he wrote to colleagues in the United States, “I have decided to go to the enemy, trusting God as to the ultimate results. . . . [K]indly send my love . . . to my family and my sweetheart, Miss Mary McIlrath.”

Surrendering to the Japanese, he endured the hardships of internment for two months until on Christmas Eve 1942, having just turned 32, he was escorted out of the camp and executed four days later.

John Willfinger’s voice was silenced, but “a loud sound of many voices” still resounded through the Borneo wilds—his translated hymns were joyfully sung, touching many Murat lives in continuing revival.

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