When European exploration of Papua New Guinea began in earnest, the nineteenth-century explorers may have thought that they had stumbled upon descendants of those who built the Tower of Babel. That’s because about 850 languages—nearly one-third of the world’s total—are spoken on the Pacific islands that make up this nation.
Until this century, the many tribes who lived in Papua New Guinea were isolated from each other by high mountains, rugged terrain, dense tropical rain forests, deep mountain valleys, and winding rivers. In isolation, tribes developed and maintained their own languages.
But today, the Spirit is becoming a unifying force among numerous Papua New Guineans. The restored gospel is spreading throughout these isles of the sea, and people are beginning to heed the Lord’s latter-day call to hearken and listen together (see D&C 1:1).
Papua New Guinea is made up of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a thousand-mile-long chain of tropical islands that includes the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. It is located north of Australia and just south of the equator. It has a population of four million people.
Early Portuguese explorers dubbed their discovery “Island of the Papuas,” from the Malay word papuwah, or “fuzzy hairs”—a reference to the dark, woolly hair of the island’s Melanesian inhabitants. The Dutch later called the island New Guinea because of its resemblance to the African nation of Guinea. When the nation was granted its independence in 1975, the two names were combined.
Like the early explorers, the first Latter-day Saint missionaries visiting Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s were often met with suspicion. Misinformation about the Church abounds among the country’s largely Christian population, and opposition exists in some areas. But Papua New Guineans are friendly, generous, and spiritually sensitive; for many, curiosity about the Church has paved the way for conversion. Church membership has doubled since 1987 to more than 3,000 members.
Most of the Latter-day Saints in Papua New Guinea live in Port Moresby, a sprawling city whose population of 170,000 includes people from many of the nation’s cultures and tribes. The Church also has branches in several larger towns on the north coast of New Guinea; on the island of Daru; in Rabaul on the island of New Britain; and in a few villages, including Kuriva and neighboring Aroa, located on a coconut plantation. Missionaries have not yet reached the populous and fertile valleys of the mountains, home to one-third of Papua New Guinea’s population. But Highlanders, who had little contact with the outside world before the 1930s, are beginning to ask for missionaries.
In 1992 Nathan Siriga was a provincial planner for the government. He had heard unflattering rumors about the Church that were circulating in his town of Popondetta, located on the north coast. “I had the responsibility to investigate and make a report,” he recalls. “If those rumors were true, I, as a government agent, wanted to stop the Church.”
Nathan Siriga took his questions to a fellow government worker, Benson Ariembo, who was second counselor in the Papua New Guinea Mission presidency. Brother Siriga admits that his interest in the Church wasn’t strictly official. “For fifteen years, I had been looking for the truth,” he says. “One question led to another. After a few minutes, I found out that Latter-day Saints knew more than I did about life after death and about the second coming of Jesus Christ.”
After studying the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants for several months, Brother Siriga decided to be baptized. The evening before his baptism, he prayed about the truthfulness of the doctrines. That night, he dreamed that he was surrounded by people in white who were praying for him. “I was in the middle of them,” he recalls, “filled with joy, praying and crying at the same time. I felt like I was in the middle of the company of heaven.”
Brother Siriga, now second counselor in the Popondetta Branch, works hard to share his testimony of the gospel and to dispel rumors about the Church. “I had never experienced the feelings of the Spirit that I do with Church members or in sacrament meetings,” he says. “We have the duty and responsibility to tell our people about the Church.”
Many Papua New Guinean Latter-day Saints have embraced the gospel because of dreams or spiritual promptings, says President Joseph J. Grigg, first president of the three-year-old Papua New Guinea Mission. “The Lord is preparing them, and they accept the gospel readily. The members have testimonies, and they bear them regularly.”
Kinship ties also contribute to Church growth in Papua New Guinea. Wantoks (literally, “one talks”) are people from the same village, often family and friends, who speak the same language. Members of extended families usually live near one another and share resources. As a result, Papua New Guinea’s cities are often a collection of linguistic and cultural enclaves.
Strong family ties, along with the transient lifestyle of many Papua New Guineans, have proved to be both a bane and a blessing to Church growth. While most branches have grown steadily in recent years, Sunday attendance fluctuates in the cities because members often travel to their home villages for extended visits. But the steady movement of people to and from the villages, coupled with the national pastime of sitting and talking, has helped spark gospel interest in areas where the Church has yet to establish branches.
People in many villages are asking for missionaries, but thus far, the small force of full-time missionaries has been concentrated in “centers of strength” that the Church is developing in the more heavily populated areas. In these areas, members are being trained as they study gospel doctrine and serve in Church callings. In some villages, however, interest in the gospel has been so great that branches have been established there, too.
John Oii introduced his small ancestral village of Kuriva to the gospel in September 1986 when he returned from Port Moresby to bury his son, who had died from a snakebite. During a traditional two-month mourning period, Brother Oii shared stories of Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. So many villagers were interested that Brother Oii requested missionaries to teach the eager listeners while he acted as interpreter.
By March 1987, 40 Kurivans had been baptized, and a small branch had been organized. That same month, Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated a one-room, thatched-roof chapel that members had built out of local materials. Membership in the branch has more than quadrupled since 1987. With help from the seminary program, 15 young men have prepared for missions. Most of them have served in Papua New Guinea.
“The stone is rolling forth and is getting bigger,” says Robert Gandia, seminary teacher in Kuriva. Brother Gandia’s class of 26 students is often joined by adults interested in increasing their gospel knowledge; young women are happy to teach English or interpret lessons for their “older mothers” who do not speak English.
“It is great to work with the youth of the Church,” Brother Gandia says. “I feel great joy teaching them. They are vital to the Church, and they are the leaders of tomorrow. Our students are good, they respond, and they learn their scriptures. The Spirit is working with them.”
Like approximately 85 percent of his countrymen, Brother Gandia lives off the land. When he is not gardening, fishing, or hunting, he serves his brothers and sisters and teaches the gospel to his family and seminary students.
“We don’t sit idle,” he says. “The gospel helps people understand the importance of work and sacrifice.” Village life may be simple and modest, but gospel knowledge and Church service fill it with high purpose.
Church growth in Papua New Guinea, as in other areas of the world, is a sifting. Some members endure, some do not. But thanks to increased strength in membership and leadership, many of those who have lost their way are finding the gospel again.
Responding to inquiries about the gospel in 1990, missionaries began proselyting on the small island of Daru, located west of Port Moresby in the Gulf of Papua. Three months later a branch was established with more than 150 members. Despite initial missionary success, activation dropped as the branch struggled with organization and as some members returned to their nearby mainland villages.
Branch membership now exceeds 300, and activation has increased because branch leaders, with help from missionary couples, are involving less-active members. The growing branch, which dedicated a chapel in February 1993, is drawing increasing interest from the nearby mainland.
“On the mainland across from Daru, people in 10 villages are already asking for the missionaries,” says former branch president Charles Garry. “People learn from our members who return to their villages. Then they come over here to church, they listen, and they become very interested. Our teachings are new to them, and they are opening up their hearts. They want the Church to move faster to their villages.”
Most Papua New Guineans speak several languages, but many do not read or write. About half the children begin elementary school, but only 15 percent attend high school. Nevertheless, an increasing number of young people are making their way to the nation’s two universities and to the small colleges found in most of the provinces.
“We’re happy for all the opportunities to learn provided by the gospel,” says Esther Kairi, who teaches seminary and literacy classes in the Gerehu Branch in Port Moresby. Members are especially thankful for programs like the Gospel Literacy Effort, which helps them develop reading and writing skills.
The first books Doreen Huena wanted to read after she and her husband, Winceslas Huena, joined the Church in 1990 were the Book of Mormon and the Bible. With her baptism, she says, came a spiritual peace and a strong desire to study the scriptures for herself.
“I prayed and fasted that I would be able to read the Book of Mormon and Bible,” recalls Sister Huena, a counselor in the Popondetta Primary presidency. But because she had received only one year of formal schooling, “it was hard for me to read and understand the Lord’s words.” Through prayer, persistence, and help from the missionaries, she was soon reading and understanding the scriptures.
Edna Amburo also had difficulty reading the Book of Mormon at first—not just because she found it hard to understand, but because friends told her she was “going to the fire” for reading it. “All my friends told me to burn the book,” she says, “but I decided not to burn it because I felt the Book of Mormon was the word of God.”
Edna was baptized in 1990. Shortly thereafter, she was called to teach the Book of Mormon to seminary students.
“I said, ‘How am I going to teach? I am not an educated woman. I am not a good speaker in English, and I am not a good writer. I left school in grade five.’”
Branch members and the full-time missionaries encouraged Sister Amburo to ask the Lord for help. She took the suggestion seriously and spent a tearful two weeks fasting and praying that the Lord would help her to become an effective teacher.
“I found Moroni 10:4–5 [Moro. 10:4–5] and exercised it,” she says. “I saw it was true. I got peace in my heart. I got joy. And I was happy that I was going to teach seminary. I really love the Book of Mormon. I understand it now.”
Sister Amburo attributes her spiritual and intellectual growth to help from her Heavenly Father. In addition to teaching seminary, she teaches Sunday School and serves as a counselor in the Popondetta Branch Relief Society presidency.
“Step by step I came along. The Church has helped me a lot. It is a learning church.”
The lives of Latter-day Saints in Papua New Guinea provide a striking contrast to the primitive lifestyle of their forefathers and of some isolated islanders today. Bright countenances, Sunday attire, and gospel service attest to the gospel’s power of spiritual rebirth.
Christian missionaries, who began 100 years ago, have helped prepare the people for the restored gospel. Most Papua New Guineans consider themselves Christian, but some beliefs and practices antithetical to the gospel persist within the tribal cultures and villages.
For many people—surrounded by hostile and suspicious neighbors who speak another language—the concept of “love thy neighbor” is a novel one. Wantoks who watch out for each other in the village might have no qualms about stealing from a rival tribe or from a stranger in a city, where jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, and where the unity of village life has been lost.
The restored gospel, however, is helping to build a spiritual cohesiveness among Church members in the cities and is strengthening existing bonds within villages. “I used to find that I was lonely,” says Loka Hui, first counselor in the Popondetta Branch presidency. “But when I joined the Church, I knew that I had found a family here that loves and cares for others. From the missionaries and the members, I have learned what love is. I know that I belong to the family of Jesus Christ.”
“Humble people are building the Church and laying its foundation here,” says Port Moresby District President Vaiba Rome. “We have our weaknesses, but the Lord is blessing us. The Church offers the programs and knowledge our people need to lift themselves above traditions that have held them back and have kept them from progressing,” he says. “I see a lot of work in the future, but I also see a lot of success. We are receiving the strength we need to move forward together.”
President Rome has served in many Church callings since he and his wife, Mauveri, became some of the first Papua New Guinean converts in 1981. In 1984 they traveled to the New Zealand Temple to become the first couple from Papua New Guinea to be sealed, and in 1991 they led a group of 138 members to the Sydney Australia Temple.
“Members are realizing how important the gospel is to their families,” he says. “Men are stepping forward, assuming responsibilities, and taking care of their wives and children. Women are being recognized, treated right, and respected. They are proud of their husbands, and we are proud of our wives and our children. They are an important part of our church. We feel that women are recognized more in the Church than by any other organization in Papua New Guinea.”
Papua New Guinean Latter-day Saints are confident that the Church will progress despite the challenges of illiteracy, tradition, and occasional opposition. They are even optimistic that the barriers posed by their nation’s many languages will be overcome. After all, the voice of the Spirit is mutually comprehensible. For those who have heard and heeded that voice, their language of faith is one. They are, as Paul said, “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:19)—even one heart, one mind, and “one talk.”