Thus began TEAM’s ministry of bringing the gospel
of Jesus Christ to what is now called Papua, Indonesia. It was a wild, unexplored Pacific island of isolated primitive tribes located in dense jungles and rugged mountains.
New missionaries opened interior stations, built their own houses and began language studies specific to each tribe. The missionary casualty rate in sickness was high due to malaria and other tropical diseases. They gladly committed their lives to Bible translation, medical ministries and education. The challenges of living there and presenting the gospel in an understandable way seemed insurmountable. Over the years, they were able to bridge the gap between the Stone Age and the coming technology age as the church grew.
The focus of missions in the early days was reaching the interior tribes. TEAM worked on the north and south coasts, while other missions spread out in the vast central highlands. Walter Erikson (one year in New Guinea) and Ed Tritt (only three months on the field) established a base in the town of Manokwari on the north coast. Missionaries who followed them studied the Malay and Indonesian languages before moving on to interior stations and translating the Scriptures into the local languages.
A fledgling church was also begun in town. Dominggus Mayor was one of the first converts, and it is his story that best shows how the church grew in Papua. He helped survey, build airstrips or minister in other ways in most of the tribes entered by the missionaries. He began as a teenager and still preaches today.
“Before I knew the Lord, I was a drunkard, and I worked every day in a tavern. Then I met missionaries Mick and Dorothy Thorsby, who came to my town right after the two missionaries were killed. They showed me much love and care, and even visited me when I was sick with malaria. “I received the Lord as my Savior in 1954. My attitude changed, and I quit my job in the bar. Every day, I sat on the steps of Mr. Mick’s office, and he gave me yard work to do. He also began telling me more about Jesus. On Sunday mornings, they took a motor boat across the bay to meet with a group of Hatam tribesmen who were coming to know Jesus. I started running the boat for [the] Thorsbys. They treated me like their own child. “The missionaries held Sunday morning services on the steps of the mission office. My brothers and I also went to mid-week Bible classes. Our group grew so big that we borrowed an old tent with holes in it. Later, we built a permanent church and named it Erikson- Tritt church. “In 1955, the Thorsbys asked me to go with them on a survey trip to the area of the Meyah tribe. We trekked in the mountains for 10 days. When we got to Testega, Mrs. Dorothy broke her leg, and the Dutch doctor hiked in to set it. Then we helped her walk over to Anggi Lake, where the mission float plane came to fly us out. After that, I went on two more surveys with the missionaries. We walked up to Anggi Lake where I stayed to help build the airstrip. Soon after, missionary Dick Griffith and I flew into Anggi and trekked over the mountains to Minyambou to build an airstrip.”
After seven years of little response in the three mountain tribes, the Sougb, Hatam and Meyah decided to receive the gospel, en masse. They had huge burnings of their fetishes and black magic articles, which indicated their desire to take God’s path. This turning was immediately followed by a general rebellion against the change from Dutch to Indonesian rule. This conflict weeded out non-believers, and the true followers returned to churches where they grew in numbers and in faith. The missionaries translated and taught church leader seminars. Literacy programs, village clinics and Sunday schools were started.
Over time, Bible schools opened in all three tribes, and they function to this day.
Over time, Bible schools opened in all three tribes, and they function to this day. Many other tribes were still unreached. Doug Miller, from Minyambou, had a vision for contacting the Moskona. He first heard of the storied tribe who built houses high in the trees in 1960. People even said they had tails. It wasn’t until 1972-1973 that Miller went on an extensive survey and made contact with them. On New Year’s Eve in 1976, the Hatam church took up the challenge and ordained five missionary- evangelists to go. The Moskona received them, and the church is thriving today.
Years later, the Sougb people sent out their first missionary couple. Today, there are 10 Sougb families serving in six different language groups. Dominggus continues: “Other mission groups asked me to go with them on a long survey through the central highlands to locate possible sites to open mission stations. We walked from the east to the west. One friendly group brought us a pig to eat. Others were more hostile and stole our machetes, put rocks in our cooking pots of rice, threatened us with their spears and even chopped our plane to pieces in the last place. But we also built a number of airstrips.
“When I returned from that trip, I went to my home village on the island of Numfor and married my wife, Anna. Then the mission Bible school opened, and the Thorsbys sponsored me. In my second year, I was assigned a practical work experience on the south coast. Anna and I first went to help in the Asmat tribal area with Dr. Ken and Mrs. Sylvia Dresser. They combined medical work with evangelism in a boat ministry to the villages. “Then Dr. Ken took us in the boat to Saman and dropped us off. We knew we were in a world we could hardly imagine. The people there were completely naked. We did not understand their language or culture, but we accepted living there as our burden to take up the cross. For a whole month, Anna did not come out of the house.
By signs with our hands and pointing, we began to learn words. The people were glad to have us and brought food, like sago and fish. They also carried in wood, and we built a combined church and school. “My wife and I returned to Manokwari for my final year. After graduating, I found a job in the shipyard in order to support my family. I also served in my church. Then missionary Ron Hill came and asked us to go back to work in the Asmat, but I said I already had a good job. Two days later, he asked me again. Anna and I talked for a long time. I thought about my three years in Bible school, and Matthew 28:18-20 also told me to go.
“So we went back to Saman as one of the first teacher- evangelists in the mission school. On weekends, the missionary and I took the boat out on the rivers to witness in the villages. When other teacher-evangelists came to live there, I was free to do only evangelism and preaching. Then I had a misunderstanding with the missionary, and Dr. Dresser asked me to come to Pirimapun to work with him. He trained me as a medical aid. We also traveled by boat to the villages where he treated people and we taught them about Jesus. We also had two Sunday services, one in Asmat and one for Indonesian speakers.”
Cal Roesler and Chuck Preston were the first to enter the cannibal land of the south coast. In fact, while they waited for their wives and children to come via boat, their village of Ayam went to war. Twenty-nine people were killed and eaten. Today, the Asmat remain warriors, fiercely independent and resistant to the gospel. Still, the New Testament was printed, and the Asmat church grows slowly, one person at a time. The Auyu, from the Nohon area, welcomed the missionaries, and they have several active churches in their district.
Translation in Auyu was started but never finished. Travel to Nohon and other areas was mostly by dugout canoe and river boats. Airstrips were few. Teacher-evangelists were the most effective in reaching outer villages. TEAM missionaries started work in the Mimika and Nefarpi tribes, but the jungles around were dangerous, hiding hostile rebel groups. A tragedy occurred in 1971 when Larry and Shirley Rascher ran into a storm at sea along the coast. They lost their two toddlers.
Not long after that, their house in Senggo burned down. Ministry in Papua was not without great sacrifice for them. Medicine was well received on the south coast and opened doors for people to listen to the gospel. The mission hospital was instrumental in healing people and in its witness about Jesus. Dominggus continues: “The hospital at Pirimapun was right by the ocean. But it had to be moved because the sea was eating away the beach near it. Dr. Dresser found higher ground in Senggo, and I helped to build the house, a hospital and airstrip. Anna and I lived in Senggo for many years and raised our seven children. I often preached in the Indonesian church. “Missionary Margaret Stringer came to Senggo to work as a linguist and Bible translator for the Chitak people. She invited me on a survey trip up the Brazza River to reach a tribe that also lived high in the trees. The people there spoke a different language than at Senggo. They were also a wicked people, and we nearly lost our lives, but the Lord delivered us.
God gave us entrance, and the people moved their houses closer to the rivers so we could teach them.
God gave us entrance, and the people moved their houses closer to the rivers so we could teach them. There are churches and schools built now, with many saved and baptized.” (It was during the years at Senggo that Dominggus and his wife suffered great personal sorrow. Their daughter, Yohana, was taken hostage from her husband and forced to live with rebels in the jungle for 22 years before her release was negotiated. We prayed all those years, and Yohana never lost her trust in the Lord.) Dominggus continues: “After years in Senggo, we moved back to the national church office in Manokwari because I was elected chairman of the national church. My term was for seven years. Then I felt a burden to encourage and help pastors. The missionaries presented me with a Vespa scooter so I could reach the churches along the coast. “I worked with TEAM missionaries for over 50 years. Then I built a retirement house close to Manokwari. I started a little church, and we met under the trees. We plan to build soon. During those years, I was also busy helping my wife, because she was nearly blind and had a stroke. I did not travel far from home until she passed away.”
The challenge for missionaries in Papua is to continue to educate and train ethnic people groups and, at the same time, reach out to the thousands of transmigrants moving from other islands and resettling in Papua. The majority of them are of Muslim persuasion. Today, there are no missionaries living in the interior. On the north coast, the national church is doing a good job of reaching its own. Missionaries occasionally visit to encourage church leaders and to teach seminars. A great need for new missionaries in the tribes still exists on the south coast to help with evangelism, discipling and maturing the church. Syncretism with old animistic beliefs and materialism too often invades weak churches, which stifles their growth. They need leadership and scriptural teaching to help them break completely with these forces.
Because there are so few TEAM missionaries, the main focus of ministry has shifted to working alongside national teachers in the Erikson Tritt Bible College and Theological Seminary in Manokwari and in the Roesler Memorial Bible School in Merauke. Both of these schools are open to male and female students from the interior tribes, as well as coastal Indonesian speakers. The other means of evangelism is through community centers in both towns. They serve a growing population of college students and migrant peoples with classes in English, instruction in computer technology and Bible classes. “We serve a great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Dominggus said. “Pray for us that the church in Papua will continue to grow.”