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Return to Paniai

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From 1979–1989, my wife, Wendy, and I served as Alliance international workers in Papua, Indonesia, training pastors in the Paniai region. In several ways the Lord then shut the door for us to return to Papua.

Nearly 13 years ago, long after our departure, a painful church split occurred in the Papuan District of the Indonesian Alliance church (GKII). Almost half of the churches separated from the GKII, claiming to be the true expression of The Alliance in Papua.

Fueled by political and financial motivations, the breakaway movement was not content to leave quietly but instead insisted the remaining churches and pastors join its cause. This resulted in years of violence, broken relationships, and intimidation.

People all over the globe have begged God for a miracle. Many former pioneer international workers have returned to speak truth into the misunderstandings the breakaway group holds about the gospel. Attempts by the Alliance World Fellowship, the C&MA in the United States and Canada, and countless others have failed to reconcile the two groups.

Church members and pastors remaining loyal to the GKII have turned the other cheek and chosen to focus on the ministry. They continue to pray earnestly for hostilities to cease and persecution to end in order to return to undistracted gospel ministry. In recent years “a cloud the size of a man’s hand” (1 Kings 18:44) has appeared in the distance; a thaw has appeared to be on its way.

The Invitation

Government structures have also changed since we lived there, with elected leaders overseeing regencies within the many provinces of Indonesia. Like all regencies, the Paniai now holds public elections every five years. In October 2018 we learned that a young friend from our past—one who had played with our daughters during their childhood—had been elected regent of Paniai.

The day before his inauguration as regent, Meki Nawipa washes John Raszmann’s feet at a service of reconciliation. Meki’s wife, Ida, washes Wendy Raszmann’s feet. Photo courtesy of John Raszmann.

To our great delight, he invited a group of retired C&MA workers to his inauguration: my wife and I with our two daughters, Pat Worsley, and Jeannie Burkhart with two of her sons, as well as Mike and Eva Brooks from SIL International.

As the plans progressed, we found the regent-elect was planning more than an inauguration. He wanted to soak the occasion with prayer and renewal, spending a day in reconciliation before the inauguration. I was to give an appropriate message. I chose Colossians 1:20–23 and prepared it in Indonesian. About 10 years ago, I began reading daily from my Indonesian Bible, not knowing that someday God would open a door to use the language again.

Pre-Inauguration Events

Returning to Enarotali, located in the Paniai highlands of Papua, was an experience beyond our imagination. Years ago, as we concluded our ministry, we had left behind a rather primitive community. In my journal from our recent trip, I wrote,

Hundreds of people were at the airstrip to greet us. A short meeting was held . . . where I met my old friend Yehuda Bunai, who is now the district superintendent of the GKII. We were also swamped by a throng of paparazzi. Next, they loaded us up in a 15-passenger van and drove us . . . to the [former mission] house on paved roads. The streets were lined with hundreds [of] . . . people.

When morning came, we were taken to the center of town where the meeting was being held in a public square. The music was very good—up-tempo, a mix of the old with contemporary. As the interdenominational service continued, I became increasingly aware this might be the most important message of my life.

Again, from my journal:

At one point they took us down to ground level where someone took each of us by the hand. They went into a slow version of their tribal dance. . . . We circulated around that circle with 3,000 or more people and returned to the stage. A little [later], a long offering was taken up with a large number of that throng contributing.

When I stepped to the podium, I was confident God was in control of the day; I was only a channel. The flow of the language spilled out smoothly as though I had never been away.

If that was not emotional enough for me, there was more. I journaled:

A little while after I sat down, they brought out basins and proceeded to wash our feet. The regent-elect washed my feet while his wife washed my wife, Wendy’s. It was so moving to realize the political leader of the regency was washing my feet . . . and I wept with humility and joy.

At the end of the program, they called all of us up to the front and brought out huge bags from the offering. With expressions of gratitude, they handed the bags to us, saying it was their love offering for the generations of missionaries who brought them the gospel and did so much for them over the years.*

Absorbing the significance of this event took a while, for we felt somewhat embarrassed to receive such an offering. But we finally saw they now realize what their lives would have been like if the missionaries had not come. Moreover, they understand what their lives would have become if the first ones to arrive to them had not been Christians.

At the end of the day, we recognized peace between the GKII and the breakaway group in this Paniai area will take time, but we were very aware the door had been opened and we must wait on God for the full results.

A Blessing and Honor

Although the inauguration day was a nearly eight-hour event filled with formality and a lot of worship, it was a blessing and honor to be part of it!

The following day we met at the lake to board designated boats. Our instructions were to cross the lake and to pray at various key locations that God would guide, bless, and change the hearts of those who were fighting what God wants to do. In the afternoon, at the regent’s government offices, we went from room to room, praying for God’s blessing on the routine activities that would be carried out there.

The day following the inauguration, a group of retired Alliance international workers and Indonesian church members got in boats to cross the lake and pray at various locations. Photo courtesy of John Raszmann

It took much negotiation to determine who was to preach on Sunday and where, including whether we would go to church at all, given the division between the two groups claiming Alliance affiliation. Finally, my friend Yehuda Bunai, the GKII district superintendent, took responsibility and, to honor the regent’s peace-making efforts, decided how it would be done.

I spoke in a GKII church, preaching a message of encouragement to a persecuted church. Pat Worsley spoke in a church of the breakaway group. Using Mark 12:28–31 and 1 Corinthians 13, he stressed the need of the Holy Spirit for us to live a Christ-like life. At the end, 29 people in this breakaway church came forward for salvation, and a good many more came to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It ended up being a four-hour service.

On Monday our group of 10 left Paniai to return to our homes. We were filled with gratitude, humility, and praise for growth in Christ’s Paniai Body and in our own hearts.

How You Can Pray

For the Paniai area of Papua that God will open the people’s eyes to see clearly where truth is being preached.

For the newly inaugurated regent, that he will remain wise, be faithful, and not be susceptible to the temptations of power and greed.

For GKII leaders Daniel Ronda (national church president) and Yehuda Bunai (district superintendent) as they continue the work of peacemaking and truth telling.

2 responses to Return to Paniai

  1. When John told me about the trip I started to pray for him and the others. This is a great beginning to the peace process that this area had needed for many years.
    Gordon Swenson
    Retired Missionary from the west side of Indonesia.

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