Interview with Don Richardson, Part II

II. Into the Jungle


When I taught at a secular university in Japan, I sometimes gave Peace Child to some of my better students to read. It’s a great story! How many copies are in print, now?


Well over 400,000, maybe getting close to half a million. And that in, last I heard, 27 languages.


What is the most obscure language that it’s been translated into?


Latvian. In January, almost a year ago, Christians in Latvia invited me to Riga, the capital city, to teach 70 Latvian students preparing for cross-cultural ministry in the southern part of the Soviet Union.


Among Muslims?


Uh-huh. And they had me fly there to instruct them for four days. On the weekend, I spoke in a city-wide missions conference and forty more young Latvian men and women came forward in the invitation . . .


I noticed it was a missionary named John McCain who originally assigned you to the Sawi people. Did he get into politics later on?


Here’s the amazing thing. My colleague John McCain not only had the same name, he even looked like a twin brother. Maybe a little taller, but his facial features were almost identical – and he had the same name. He was from Florida – I don’t know whether they were twins, and separated . . .


The Sawi people were cannibals and headhunters, and you also lived among snakes and crocodiles and mosquitoes. I can understand how a young man looking for adventure would want to live in a place like that, but why did your wife go along with that?


My wife Carol – when I knew I was called as a foreign missionary, and knew I would probably go to a pretty wild place, I was at 17 years of age of course interested in girls. And I said, ‘Lord, there’s probably not many pretty girls that would be willing to go to the kind of place I think I’m going to some day somewhere in the world. But if you can find for me a young woman who loves you at least as much as I do, and is willing to go anywhere You would call us, and if You know she’s right for me, and I’m right for her, would you please triangulate us together, and enable us to recognize each other when we meet.’ And I said, ‘And if she could be really pretty, that would be nice, too.’ And God heard that prayer!


Carol Soderstrom from Oklahoma, a pastor’s daughter, who was called to missionary service from ten years of age. She had met missionaries who were graduates of Prairie Bible Institute, in Alberta, Canada. She and her parents, her mother and pastor father, were very impressed, saying, ‘That school produces people that don’t just look for the easy places. They’re willing to go where it’s tough and they stick to the job and get the job done.’


So they drove her all the way from Oklahoma, when she graduated from high school, to Prairie Bible Institute as it was called at the time. And we were in the same class. And by the time we were juniors, I really (felt) drawn to her. And I began to sense from her smiles that she liked me, too. And so we began to converse and some times talking together. You couldn’t have a lot of dating on that campus – there were limitations. But we fell in love.


I wanted to get married right after graduation – go straight out to New Guinea. Ebennezar Vine, of what is now called World Team, had come to our campus and pleaded for workers to go into the interior of a big island north of Australia called New Guinea – the Netherlands New Guinea part of that 1500 mile island. And there were tribes in the interior that were completely uncontacted. The Netherlands government had given Ebeneezar Vine permission to send missionaries in, as long as they wouldn’t require Dutch policemen and soldiers to go with them to protect them. And Mr. Vine said, ‘No – no – no, we don’t need that. Being eaten by cannibals is a missionaries’ occupational hazard, we accept it.’ So he had permission to send workers in. Carol and I were among a group that volunteered.


Did you have to swallow a few times and pray an extra amount before you brought your kids along?


Well actually, we were both single when we decided to go.


But when you went to the Sawis.


We didn’t go right away because God called Carol to take 3 years of nurses’ training. And that stunned me. I thought, ‘I’ve already been in love for two years, now I have to wait another three years – who am I, Jacob?’


But God gave me grace to wait for her. I pastured and did youth work. Then we were married . . . by the time we went out to the field across the Pacific, we had our first-born son, little Steven. Now all our colleagues of World Team were working in the mountains among the Dani tribe. In the mountains of New Guinea the people were welcoming. I mean, they had their wars among themselves. But they welcomed these light-skinned strangers who brought steel tools and medicine and other things that the people thought were great. And they were already beginning to respond to the Gospel. So there was already a lot of work to be done among the Danis. And the temperature there is pleasant, its’ moderate.


Yes, I get the feeling from Lords of the Earth that you enjoy hiking up in the mountains.


I do, I do! And there wasn’t even any malaria there! It was going to come in when aircraft began to come in – mosquitoes would hitch a ride. So it was like a Garden of Eden, except for the violence of the people. And so the missionaries said, ‘You and Carol are welcome to work with us here! There’s lots to be done. But,’ they said, ‘there is a new tribe that’s been discovered in the swamps way to the south. And we just want to let you know, if you do feel God wants you to go where no one else has ever gone --- be a crosser of a new frontier – there is that tribe.


I was praying, and I felt God whispering to my heart saying, ‘Don, go to that tribe!’ They were believed to be called the Sawi. ‘They’re the ones,’ He said, ‘that I’ve prepared for you to bare witness among for me.’ And I said to the Lord, ‘You know it’s hot and humid, there’s malaria there, there’s crocodiles in the river, there’s tropical diseases, and the people are cannibals and headhunters. The Danis who were in the area where World Team was working warred among themselves, but they were not cannibals, nor were they headhunters. They were violent, but that was the end of it. But the Sawi were known to be cannibals AND headhunters, which is a rare combination.


I said ‘Carol is a pastor’s daughter from Cincinnati, Ohio.’ (Previously Oklahoma.) I said, ‘She’s been on a camping trip or two, but never anything like this. So you’ll have to give her your own personal assurance, because I can’t force her to go with me to that wild place against her will.’


God gave her assurance. She said, ‘I think God wants us to go there.’ And we went among them with peace. It was like God was saying, ‘I know they’re headhunters, I know they’re cannibals – don’t worry, I’ve taken care of everything. Just go among them, and I’ve got a ministry match made in heaven, waiting for you, and you have to go among them to find it.’


I like the way you begin the story of Peace Child in their world, starting with a very vicious place. Stone Age culture was – as Thomas Hobbes put it, life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.’ Did you ever – living among people who had lived that way for so many centuries – did you ever doubt God’s love for them, or why He would allow them to live that way for so long?


No, I knew – I mean, I was so convinced that every human being is made in the image of God. And that image of God is there to be restored, redeemed, brought back to relationship with the owner of that image. So there was no question that God loved them. And I knew that he loved Carol and loved Stephen – and we went among them with this assurance.


What I tell you, though, after I’d gone in first, and built a house – see, they’d been hearing positive reports about tall, pale, sickly-looking beings called ‘tuans,’ – all the tribes of New Guinea are black-skinned, and some of them had never seen a white-skinned person.


But the reports about white-skinned persons called tuans were positive, because wherever tuans went, they brought ‘ovat,’ which means medicine, and ‘garum,’ . . . steel tools to replace stone tools, nylon fish line, fish hooks, etc. So they were saying wistfully, asking other tribes a little closer to civilization, ‘Are there any spare tuans around? We think we’d like to welcome one.’ Only to have the other tribes responded nastily saying, ‘A tuan live among you? Who do you think you are? They’re a scarce commodity. They’re choosy where they live, who they live among – don’t get your hopes up, you wretched Sawi, you’ll never be favored by the presence of one of these amazing beings!’


Hearing these insulting comments, the Sawi people said, ‘Perhaps they’re right, we’ll never be favored.’ They also said, ‘Just in case a tuan finds out that we live here, and decides he wants to come and live among us – when we find out that that tuan has chosen us, we will let that tuan know in no uncertain terms we choose him. He’ll be our tuan, we’ll be his tribe.


The kind of white people who went among them were apparently not the average traders or soldiers like so many primitive tribes have experienced.


Yes – policemen, soldiers, or land-grabbers, or loggers . . .


Why did it help the Sawi tribesmen to get their first experience of the outside world from missionaries?


Well, because we brought the medicine, we brought steel tools. And we didn’t give things out – we gave medicine free, but we didn’t give hardware out free. Because if you give one man a free steel ax that costs you several dollars, and there’s several thousand men – you’re in trouble. If you don’t give every man a steel ax – which is going to cost you quite a bit – then, ‘Oh, you don’t love us.’ And it also makes grown men into children. It transforms these men who are able to survive in that wilderness so marvelously – it makes them like dependent beggars. You don’t want to do that.


So I had to set a certain number of days for a steal ax, and a certain amount of freshly-killed pork from a wild pig for a knife or a machete, and a certain amount of salt for a fish. And the people liked that. And so it was mutual – they’d bring us food, we’d pay them with things they wanted. They’d bring us firewood for our stove; we’d pay them with things they wanted. And this way, they were like each one treating the other like an equal.


One of the things I’m getting at is, in the modern world, we’ve seen a lot of stories like this. Not just primitive tribes – the Chinese in the Democracy Movement in 1989, there was a group of Chinese intellectuals who made a TV series called The River Elegy. They used the metaphor of the Yellow River that rises in the Western Highlands of Asia and flows to the ocean – they said China is like that river. It’s been depending on itself, feeding itself, for thousands of years. But in the modern era, it needs to ‘flow to the deep blue sea,’ as they put it, to mix with other nations. And that’s what the Sawi people have done through your work.


David, some of the young men are already graduating from university in Eastern Indonesia. Some of them are Christian government employees in a Muslim nation, Indonesia.


What is their general status in Indonesia? How are they doing economically? I imagine it’s a lot different from when you were living there?


Oh, my, yes, very different. Once that former Dutch colony became the easternmost province of Indonesia, it was inevitable that brown skinned Indonesian people speaking the Indonesian language would come flooding in, bringing the Muslim religion and bringing outside world economics. So I had to train the Sawi about economics, otherwise an Indonesia who really didn’t care for the people looked down upon them as inferior because of their black skin and kinky hair, might say, ‘I wanna buy your chicken,’ and give them some paper money, that if the tribesman doesn’t know the value of different denominations of currency, he might sell a chicken that’s worth 500 rupees, but he’s only got 10 rupees, and won’t even buy a fishhook for a chicken. (Or) even take over the land. People think to get them in debt, and then ask to have sex with their daughter, to pay a debt. And they introduce sexual diseases . . .


You saw a lot of that kind of thing in Taiwan, when I was living there . . .


What’s happening now, David – I’m getting e-mails warning that the Indonesian armed forces in what is now called Papua – it used to be called Dutch New Guinea, then it was called Irian Jaya, now it’s called Papua, the third name within a few decades – they’re opening brothels with prostitutes brought in from other parts of Indonesia. Prostitutes that they know are infected with AIDS. And they’re allowing young Papuan men to go in and have sex with these prostitutes for a very low price. The idea is to get them infected with AIDS, so that they’ll go home and infect their wives, and children will be born with it. And this is an inexpensive way of practicing genocide.


Is this from reliable sources?


Yes, there are more and more e-mails because there are people from Holland who are concerned about the Irianese because this used to be a Dutch colony. And there are a lot of people that lived in Indonesia who fled to Holland when the Indonesians became independent. And some UN personal – and there’s even a report that there are clinics where Papuans go to be treated for influenza, or some other regular disease – the common cold, toothache – and the medical personal give them injections that are not for the sickness, but are injections to make them sterile. The idea is to eradicate the Papuan race.


I guess my question is how reliable those sources are; that’s a pretty inflammatory charge.


I get so many e-mails saying that. And right here in the Orlando Sentinel, there was a report just a week ago, a news item, saying that Papua has ten times higher AIDS frequency than any other part of Indonesia. Why would it be ten times higher in that province?


Tribal peoples probably have the same social problems there that they do in other parts of the world, I would think.


But you see a lot of them are Christians. And sometimes the soldiers had to get a man drunk before he’ll go into those prostitutes. He just doesn’t want to.


(Note: I leave readers to discover for themselves the amazing story of how the Sawi became Christians, despite a penchant not only for cannibalism, but treatment of the cruelest treachery as a macho ideal.)