Papua New Guinea and Me

I'm ten years old. It's Wednesday night in the throes of Texas summer, and I am at church. My mother has just delivered me to my classroom where I normally attend Pioneer Girls, a Christian Girl Scout lookalike organization. We all gather Indian-style on the floor to wait for our plan of action for the evening when our teacher, a jolly lady with a moon face, claps her hands and says, "Girls! We have such a treat for you tonight! A missionary is visiting from Wycliffe Bible Translators, and we are all going to join the big people in the sanctuary to watch a movie about the exciting things the Lord is doing in Papua New Guinea!" We all look at each other, trying to decide if this is an exciting development or not. One one hand, it's something different, and it's a movie, and when you got to watch a movie in school it was always fun. On the other hand, it's a movie about missionaries. We aren't really that excited as the realization sinks in that this is probably a "big people" movie, and our "big people" Pioneer Girls leaders are only taking us in to participate because they want to see the "big people" movie; thus we will be bored to tears.

We enter the sanctuary quietly, herded in by our leader who is shushing us all the way down the aisle, and file, giggling and whispering into the only remaining row -- the front row. The sanctuary looks weird to me, because it is dark and cool, the narrow windows blacked out by fabric, the late summer evening glow still oozing through the gaps like liquid gold.

The movie, projected on a portable reel-to-reel machine, flickers the story of this lone missionary woman who lives with the natives in Papua New Guinea, learning their strange language that has no written form. This missionary's job is to learn the language, and then to create an alphabet and a written language for them so that the Bible can be translated into their language and, ultimately, they can be taught to read about Jesus.

The missionary is a wisp in the tribe. She is small, and ghostly white against the beautiful espresso-black of the people she is trying to reach. The grainy film sputters and stutters as it shows her eating with them -- grubs and ants and some sort of white paste out of a leaf -- and walking among them, holding their children, listening to their stories, trying to understand their tongue. The language barrier is great, but she manages to live as a fairly accepted citizen among these strangers. She stands out in her missionary clothes, a long skirt and a long-sleeved canvas shirt, while loincloths and black breasts and naked little children's buttocks fill the movie screen. We giggle at the nudity. Breasts being shown in church! We are embarrassed because we know our parents are somewhere in the room. They know we have seen the naked people. We squirm at the thought.

"The lack of common language can be frustrating and often heartbreaking," says the missionary in a voice-over. "One night, I was awakened by the sound of wailing. Neemaw, a grandmother, has been sick with fever. Her family was now wailing in the night in the hut next to mine. I rushed out of my hut and asked what was happening." The movie shows half-naked women weeping and wailing and the white lady trying to communicate, but they are not hearing her. She continues, "One of the women finally told me that Neemaw had died, and they must bury her. I rushed over to where Neemaw was lying, and, upon closer look find that she was still alive, but in a deep coma. She was certainly breathing. I tell this to the women, but they do not listen, but continue to cry for Neemaw."

The movie shows pandemonium as the crowd presses in, a sea of people crying and mourning as they place Neemaw on a stretcher and raise her still-alive body on a makeshift stretcher. She is haphazardly waving one of her hands around like some sort of crazy conductor, directing the throng as they wail their funeral song, delirious, eyes lolling back in her head, mouth open and drooling, obviously still alive. Then the movie depicts, to my horror, the whole crowd lowering Neemaw into a hole in the ground, Neemaw still flailing her hands around, the missionary woman in the back of the tribe screaming, desperately begging them to understand that she is alive. The crowd doesn't listen, but begins to throw dirt into the hole, covering Neemaw's face and body, until her hand stops moving. Soon she is completely covered with dirt and still. The missionary woman is crying and tearing her way into the center of the crowd, but she is too late.

The movie screen cuts to black as the missionary narrates the horrible words:

"...and Neemaw...was buried....alive."

I am sickened, horrified, my young mind terrorized by the travesty of Neemaw and by the savage stupidity of these naked natives on the missionary's film. I look down the row at my fellow Pioneer Girls; some are sleeping, some are giggling, one is drawing on an offering envelope. I feel guilty and weird at my reaction to the film. I am, apparently, the only one who is really bothered by Neemaw and her mean family.

This is one of those moments in which a tiny sliver of the slab of childhood is chipped away, another part of innocence lost forever; this, the process by which we become adults. When enough of the marble has been chiseled and cracked and broken off throughout our childhood, we find that underneath is an adult person who has been both hewn and uncovered by this process. Sometimes it is brutal; other times it's just mildly shocking.

Many of my moments of "minor" chiseling came from films like these: bad 1970's church films about the Rapture; "safety" films at school about fiery bus crashes and about predators who wanted to sell us all LSD-laced Mickey Mouse stickers that would make us jump out of windows and kill ourselves; horror films I was forced to watch while spending the night with friends; that made-for-TV movie called "The Day After" that came out when I was in 5th grade about the Commies nuking us; and Driver's Ed films from the Ohio Highway Patrol that depicted bad drivers ending up in fiery crashes with steering wheels impaling their bodies. It was very traumatic growing up during the 80's -- the adult world was apparently obsessed with all things apocalyptic, and felt it was necessary to frighten us all into good behavior. I was constantly ambushed by these films, and they surprised and traumatized my feeble, trusting, sheltered mind each time. It's a wonder that I didn't turn out to be, at worst, a psychotic lunatic bent on mass destruction, and at best, an anxiety-riddled freak afraid of her own shadow (well, okay, maybe the last part is true). Each scene stole another tiny piece of my innocence, and each time, I came away feeling sick and regretful...as well as a little ticked off that I had been duped again. And these movies certainly didn't help my already-neurotic, anxiety-ridden thoughts which had begun to plague me at that time in my life due to my father's battle with an unknown illness.

Punky is wired like me -- innocent, wide-eyed, and not a little fearful of disastrous things. I see the same chipping away at his marble slab happening before my very eyes these days. As an adult who experienced the same innocent horrors of childhood, I am torn between wanting to constantly cover his eyes and wondering if too much sheltering could turn him into a weirdo later. We do our best to balance his fears by instilling faith in God, but he still hasn't quite figured out how his faith will protect him from tornadoes and Osama Bin Laden. I don't think that component in our faith walk comes into play until later, maybe, and the small chiselings are baby steps in faith; maybe in realizing that our house is not going to be taken over by Islamic terrorists who come through our bedroom windows at night and steal our toys, we learn to trust in God with the real stuff. Maybe by the time we get to the real stuff, we're ready for it because our faith has been hewn out of the stuff of apocalyptic-missionary-Driver's Ed-films, and as adults, our fear of the unreal is replaced by a faith in that which is Real. It's a confusing way to grow up: having to practice trust in an unseen-yet-real God while trying to understand that all the rest of the stuff we worry about is imaginary, unrealistic, and unlikely.

My childish fears were quickly replaced by the harsh realities of life when I turned 11 and found out that my dad was going to die. Neemaw and the Rapture films quickly became impotent against the very real knowledge that my very worst fear was coming true, and I was thrust into the deep waters of trusting God, sink or swim. I can't help but think, though, that Neemaw and her cinematic cronies were early lessons in faith for a fearful swimmer like me.


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