Papua New Guinea—Gospel Peace from a Cauldron of Difficulty

  Julia Mangelson

  • 21 June 2012

Sogere District baptisms in the Barmu River. Members keep watch for crocodiles.

“The marvellous conversion stories in The Book of Mormon capture our wonderment”, says Elder Terence Vinson of the Seventy, “but many are unaware that such miracles are occurring in our own day and in our own backyard. The land of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is having similar missionary results following its trial of faith.” 

Twenty-five years ago, four elders left their island home and headed to Australia. They were Papua New Guinea’s first missionaries and a prologue to the country’s story of faith.

 “The marvellous conversion stories in The Book of Mormon capture our wonderment”, says Elder Terence Vinson of the Seventy, “but many are unaware that such miracles are occurring in our own day and in our own backyard. The land of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is having similar missionary results following its trial of faith.”

When four elders accepted the country’s first mission calls twenty-five years ago, that trial of faith was just the beginning. The Church had been established there nine years earlier. At that time, there were more than seven hundred language groups in PNG, and Elders Ako, Ambuia, Idumi, and Woro all spoke different tongues. But they mustered up their courage and their basic knowledge of English and served honourably in the cities and towns of Queensland.

Reflecting back on their calls, Barney Ambuia says, “We were well prepared. All four of us were graduates of Seminary and Institute classes.”

Sue Owen of Brisbane was a young girl when one of those early missionaries served in her ward. “He was cold and wore two suits to keep warm. Brisbane was an entirely new world for him.”

Little did those four elders imagine the events soon to take place in their land.  Just five years later PNG became the home of the Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands Port Moresby Mission. After twenty years, the missionaries called to serve there still refer to it as, “The Most Different, Dangerous and Difficult Mission.”

A visit to the mission website* gives a glimpse of the slogan’s origin. A photo of members keeping watch for crocodiles at a riverside baptismal service is followed by one of missionaries at sea in a small crowded boat. Equally compelling is the storyline of faith that flashes on the screen.

More than fifty smiling elders pose in spotless white shirts and ties. In other photos, missionaries sit on the ground teaching investigators, and stand cameras in hand with their new converts. There are pictures of Helping Hands projects in progress, new districts being created, and celebrations of General Authorities’ visits all recorded there—footprints of faith.

Last year, PNG’s second stake was formed on the small island of Daru, which has a population of about 20,000, and a Church membership of 2,000. One ward in the new stake is on another island, a four hour dinghy or canoe ride away. Stake leaders and ward members, barely considering it a trial of faith, make the journey regularly, over rough seas with many predators.

2,386 people attended the Stake Conference, many of them making long and dangerous voyages. President Tom Songoro reported on the progress of the new stake five weeks later, saying that 116 people had been baptised.

“With the exception of Australia, PNG dwarfs the nations of the Pacific Area in land mass and population,” says Elder Vinson. “It is endowed with beauty and danger, and the people are sometimes torn in violent inter-tribal conflict. Though armed robbers, or “rascals”, can appear from nowhere, the great majority of people are kind and generous with their meagre possessions.”

“It is a land of heavy rainfall and massive rivers, yet the women walk for miles to collect water. The waterways harbour crocodiles up to twenty-feet in length, from whose jaws there is no escape. It is a land rich in mineral deposits but poor in infrastructure, health services, education and social services.”

PNG has nearly seven million people living in it—almost twice the population of New Zealand and a third that of Australia. Its challenges are many times greater than both those neighbouring countries.

Yet faith is written on the faces and in the hearts of the members. They walk or ride crude buses long distances to attend their meetings. The roads are dangerous, and are often traversed without shoes because many people don’t own shoes. Church leaders repeatedly cross open seas and paddle canoes upriver twelve hours to teach and gather information.

Missionaries, not able to reside in the remote bush lands, are sent out temporarily every few months to teach referrals. Mission President, Meli Fata, recently travelled to the interior, arriving a few days after one such advance group. The missionaries had already baptized 72 investigators; and before leaving the area, President Fata officiated at the baptism of 143 more villagers.

Pacific Area President James J. Hamula accompanied President Fata to the Mr Hagen area of the PNG Highlands to visit the Minj District, which has a population of 1,100 Saints. However, the District Conference, at which Elder Hamula presided, was attended by 2,029. The members had invited friends, neighbours, leaders of other churches and prominent citizens. The response of the guests was overwhelmingly positive.

The historic groundbreaking of the first chapel in the Western Highlands took place in December of 2011. In the Highlands, disputes between tribes and clans are typically resolved by fighting. Church members, however, testify that the Gospel has changed that.

 “The Gospel gives us the life that we want our children and their children to live—a life of peace and love we never knew before,” said President Michael Emp, of the Bilu Branch, which will be housed in the new structure. “I can feel the spirit of our forefathers celebrating this day with us, endorsing our decision to be members of the only true and living Church.”

Last year, Young Single Adult Conventions were held in Port Moresby, Daru, and Goroka (in the Highlands), with several hundred attendees at each.

 “The men slept on the ground in tents; the women slept on the hard classroom floors of the chapel,” reports Elder Vinson. “Yet they presented themselves beautifully and modestly dressed in Sunday attire for all activities except sports. Some may not have had shoes, but all are shod with love for the gospel and complete faith in its doctrines.”

 “The history of the Church in PNG is only beginning to be written,” says Elder Vinson, “but a preface of faith has been powerfully set down.” 

That preface of faith is evident in the life of Barney Ambuia, one of the first four missionaries. After his mission, Elder Ambuia hoped to marry a girl in Port Moresby and settle there. “But,” he says, “I became convinced I should leave behind my personal interests and go home to share the gospel with my own people in the Sepik Province.”

“I started with my own family members in Pinang Village,” he relates. “Within eight years I brought 400 souls unto the waters of baptism. The first official Branch was organized in 2003.”

Elder Ambuia is now President Ambuia of the Sepik River District. When asked about his calling, he says, “I watch over six ‘official branches’ and eight ‘unofficial branches.’ I am so grateful for the calling I have in the Church, and I am blessed with a sweetheart companion who supports me in building up the Kingdom in this vineyard.”

By the way, he did actually find his “sweetheart companion” in Port Moresby. So Sister Ambuia has no doubt also left behind her personal interests to help write PNG’s story of faith.

PNG at a glance:

Current Membership:  19, 398

1 in every 340 people in PNG is a Latter-day Saint

Congregations:  83

Number of meetinghouses:  34



PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of Barney Ambuia and used with permission.