It’s anything but a quiet study hall in the library of Roesler Memorial Bible School, where a rumble of spoken Indonesian rises from every table, each student reading scriptures and assignments out loud, unfazed by the chatter of the others. The murmuring is, perhaps, the sound of cultures clashing, tribal students learning new material in a relatively new language in a city not their own.
Yaimo Perew sits at a table against the wall, reading out of his workbook. The Indonesian is basic and the questions purposefully simple. “Did Jesus fear the evil spirits?” he reads. Answering himself with his next breath, “No.”
Construction on the Roesler Memorial Bible School began in 2001 just outside Merauke, the largest city on the south coast in the Indonesian province of Papua. The first class enrolled in 2003. Two TEAM missionary families, the Huberts and the Prestons, work closely with the Bible School. They share responsibilities such as teaching Bible courses, running separate classes for women and children, and operating a small clinic on the school’s campus. The student body is seven students from six separate villages and four separate tribes, so their task is not just to teach Scripture, but to teach their students how to interpret and apply Scripture across diverse cultures and disparate educational backgrounds.
Perew and his family arrived at the Bible School in 2012 from the village of Ayam, located in the Asmat tribal region in the southwest portion of Papua. “I have been studying God’s word here from Genesis on and into the Epistles of Paul,” he says. Perew is now a second-year student and he sees his studies as his work.
Living on the school’s campus — more than two miles outside the city presents new challenges for Perew, his wife Orpah, and their three children. “I’m learning about the difference between life in the village and life in the city,” he says.
While it is a simple way of life in both locations, distinct differences between the two settings bring new struggles for families at the Bible school. Relationships are easily strained as students, usually bringing their immediate family, live in a small two-room apartment next to families from tribes they are not accustomed to associating with. Finding food sources can also be difficult. The tribes of Papua tend to be hunters and gatherers, and near a city there are few opportunities to live this way. The families are given rice each week, but meals are usually filled out with edible greens picked around the two-and-a-half-acre campus, or fish from a nearby freshwater creek. Students recently started raising chickens on the campus. “Our life on campus is basically live, study, hunt for food,” Perew says.
There is a definite routine to Perew’s life at the Bible School. Each morning he attends a 5 a.m. prayer time in the chapel followed by classes that start at 7:30 a.m. Around 12:30 p.m., the students go back to their homes at the back of the Bible school property to eat and rest. After lunch, Perew might be found working around the campus, playing volleyball with other students, or fishing for food for the evening meal. At 7 p.m., the students are asked to attend a two-hour study hall where they will continue the struggle to understand the day’s lessons and practice reading their assignments.
Teaching students who can barely read and understand another language requires creativity on the part of the school’s professors. They have found simple Bible stories are the best way to help students get a solid grasp of the gospel and begin to communicate it to others. “The vision [of the Bible School] is to prepare pastors and leaders of churches...to go back and lead their people in the truth of God’s word and not forget the Great Commission, which is to evangelize and bring people to Christ,” says Yohanes Nouboray, the Bible school’s head master.
The three-year program starts at the literal beginning of it all, creation. Each tribe has its own version of a creation story of how it came to be, so starting with the Biblical creation story helps set the foundation for tribal students. “From there we try to explain the gospel and ground them in scripture as much as we can,” Preston says. It is not uncommon for students to come to the school without knowing the gospel.
Along with the biblical basics, Indonesian classes are required for all students because many of them are only comfortable conversing in their tribal languages, not the national language, Indonesian.
Education is not encouraged in the tribal societies of Papua, and children are not expected or required to go to school in the villages. So it is difficult for students to transition into a posture of learning and studying as an adult when their way life has been mostly hunting and fishing in the jungle, something that may be more attractive to some than the structured demands of academia. Preston speculates that there is also an attitude of malaise that keeps many of the church leaders from studying the scriptures. It would take a real step of faith for a villager to leave a very comfortable and predictable life to embrace an educational lifestyle that is completely foreign to them.
Head Master Nuboray recalls the first time he met Perew in his village during an Easter activity. “There was a challenge to serve the Lord and [Perew] approached me and said that he would really like to come to the school to learn more,” Nuboray says. “Before coming here, [Perew] had already demonstrated leadership in his village, and while he is not technically a leader in the school, he definitely stands out as one who is a good example and shows leadership among the students.”
Not only does Perew live a good testimony on the campus, but his performance in the classroom is notable as well. When asked to take Biblical stories and extract truths about God, students often struggle with the concept. Perew has been an exception. “Perew and one other student were head and shoulders above the others when they first arrived,” Preston says. “Perew seemed to understand the gospel, and really have a heart for the Lord. He seemed to demonstrate he knew Christ and has a desire to go back to his people.”
Citing the book of John as his favorite part of the Bible, Perew finds great inspiration from John 3:16. “This has really impressed me, and I need to take this Gospel message back to my people,” he says.
Returning to his village will have challenges that Perew has already come to recognize. Churches in many villages often mesh Christianity with practices from old religions steeped in devil worship and appeasing evil spirits. “In the church we stand against [devil worship],” he says. “I am wanting to go back and take to my people what I am learning here at school.”
For Perew, though, introducing the gospel to someone is as simple as a three-minute walk from the classroom. His wife is not a believer.
Perew leaves the classroom every day and heads home for a time of study and prayer with his family. “One of the big problems for the students is that their wives are by and large illiterate, not understanding Indonesian as well as the men do,” Nuboray says. “We hope that Yaimo can take the truth of the Word of God...and teach her in their own language so that she can understand the gospel as well.”
So in their tiny two-room apartment, after morning classes have come to a close, Perew is doing just that. The family sits together and listens quietly as he presents the truth to them. It will be another year before they are living permanently in their home village. But until then, Perew has a mission field gathered around him on the concrete floor.
- Written and Photography by Robert JohnsonDownload This Issue of TEAMHorizons