As promised, we are writing today with an update about the tragedy that happened at the Guam River just feet from our back porch this past month. As you read this, please pray for Anton and his family as they continue to grieve for their lost adopted son.
December 4th, Tuesday – Anton, our main translation helper and one of our Itutang church elders, hiked over to the village of Bogan with Bill and a few of the other elders and deacons to meet with the Bogan church leadership, listen to their reports, and to encourage them and to teach through the book of Jude. The time together was excellent and all around encouraging. One of the Bogan elders shared some of his “heavies” that he has endured in the past months – including being beat up with a stick for standing up for justice in the community. As they walked home, Anton thought about what the Bogan elder had shared. He shared thoughtfully with Bill, saying, “You know, all these years that I have been a believer and a leader in the church, I haven’t really been tested. I haven’t had any really big heavies like that.”
Exactly one week later, December 11, Tuesday afternoon – Anton was helping the young men build a grand stand area for the upcoming soccer tournament that our village would be hosting this year. There would be 14 soccer teams and 12 volleyball teams from all over the Ramu Valley descending onto our little village. Many prayers had gone up for weeks now for safety and peace among the players…and for LIGHT. The believers were praying that God’s light would be seen by those who had not yet heard the Good News in their own language yet. The soccer field was ready and the trophies had been bought in town and were ready to be placed in the grandstand. We were thankful for Anton and his concern for the young men of the community and the way he used his time to connect with them even though he himself doesn’t play soccer. He went out early Tuesday morning and began working beside the boys. His wife, Ogagarasem, had worked with Anton and the rest of the family to wash additional sago, the local staple, to have on hand for the number of visitors coming over the weekend and now she was going out to their swampland to try and bring additional fish to the menu as well. She took along her 12 year old daughter, Lydia, as well.
The day started as any other. Ogagarasem’s younger sister, Jorjina, a caring and usually meticulous caregiver was watching Anton’s other three smaller children. Denəva, was working around the house with Jorjina, doing what little girls do. Darin, 7 years old, was following a neighbor and using his round net to try and catch small fish to use for bait later. The river was high and running fast and he kept close to the edge as he threw the fish he caught into the dugout canoe nearby. Sarəstən, their 3 year old son was in the stilted cooking house with the older girls, but cried to go down the ladder to watch Darin catch fish. Sarəstən was adopted when he was only a few months old from an island called Karkar. He was a bright and friendly soul and would call out and offer food to people who were passing by. He knew people’s names – including ours, but he liked to call Bill “Mangi” which means, “little boy” in the national creole.
The neighbor got permission to let him down and then left as Jorjina was headed down after him. As with many accidents, the next moments were blurred and only God knows which story is the one that truly happened next.
I left the metal classroom building with one of our teachers, Markus. We had been going over the diagnostics that we were using to test the grade 6 and 7 students there. He followed me to my house, which sits next to Anton’s, and then he went down to see Anton’s children (his nieces and nephews) before heading home. As I stood on the porch, I heard the older girls begin to ask if he had seen Sarəstən. I went back down to the river edge and we began to call for him. We looked along the bank, in the houses, around the school area. Markus ran to get Anton and make sure that Sarəstən hadn’t taken off with someone to see his dad at the soccer field. Nothing.
It seems the last one to see him was his brother, Darin, who said that Sarəstən had been standing on the bank and was watching him catch fish and then went back up on the bank a little. The best guess is that he walked over to the canoe to take a look at the fish that had already been caught and slipped into the rushing water between the bank and the canoe…and entered eternity. It was two hours before they could get to his mom and bring her back home where the village full on wailing and searching.
I cancelled school testing. The young men cancelled tournament practice and drills. Work stopped all over the village and people came together to comb the water. They searched the clear areas and then began breaking up the logs jams as they checked in them. For three days, we searched. Nothing.
Meanwhile, without any closure, the mourning was ongoing day and night. As unbelievers also came to search and mourn, they brought their stories with them. Consider the grief of losing a child this way, no idea of what actually happened, no body, no closure. Then, add to this the great animistic skill of hypothesizing and storytelling…it’s brutal. Anton and Ogagarasem heard accusations that they were bad parents leaving their children at home (although they were left in very capable hands and did nothing that every other family in the village doesn’t do every single day). They heard that they were to blame because they weren’t there. Jealous accusations came and they heard that they were to blame because they stay at the house too much like a white man (Anton had saved his money up several years ago and has a tin roof and water tank for his family to have fresh water, but still is on of the hardest workers with one of the biggest gardens in our area.) They heard that it was Ogagarasem’s little sister’s fault and that she should beaten and they heard threats that she would be killed. They heard that he wasn’t really in the water, that he would be like another village story that happened over a decade ago, where the boy showed up five days later, just lost in a garden. They heard that it was the spirit of another girl who drowned about 7 years ago in the same river and that she pulled him in. Days and days of lies compounding the pain of losing a child to this fast flowing body of water. I watched them sit at the bank and weep helplessly looking at the place where he was last seen. I could only imagine the sifting that was going on in their hearts and minds and wondered, “What would be sifted out as lies and what would prevail as truth? What will this do to their faith?” Mourning went on through the night for days. Our bed is only 50 feet from their house and so when a new round of wailing hit the night air, we would wake and pray quietly in our beds, begging God for strength and mercy for Anton and his family.
Wednesday and Thursday – these days were a blur, but Bill and Promise and I along with other believers all took turns speaking words of comfort and truth and encouragement, but these were hard, sifting days. One believing friend came and reminded Anton of the pain of King David when he lost a child and reminded him that God gives life and takes it away – no one else. He encouraged them to eat something. About 30 minutes later, Anton asked for a plate of corn that had been cooked to be brought over and they ate it. A woman came by and spoke to them and reminded them of the suffering of Job. She reminded them that Job was blameless and yet was tried and, in the end, blessed. She encouraged them toward belief in God’s goodness as well as his sovereignty in this hard pain.
This tragedy was a blow – a swift and painful one. The impact left this sweet couple wounded, raw, and open…and all eyes were on Anton and his wife. Would they blame the sister? Would they call for her to be beaten or killed? Would they blame God? Would Anton forsake the sovereign and good God that he always preaches about to others? The spiritual battle roared over our village for 4 days as we searched for a little brown body…and prayed..and waited.
December 14th, Friday morning about 10am – Anton and his wife walked over and said that they wanted us to eat with them. We said that of course we would and asked why. They said that they wanted to cook for the village and that we were invited. We offered to help with the cooking and donated some food as well. That night, as the sun sank over our village, 4 days after the river had swept a village son from all of us, we gathered in silence to hear Anton speak and to eat with the grieving family. Work and play had stopped out of respect for the family, but the soccer tournament officials had already begun to arrive and were also gathered with us now. Everyone was here waiting to hear what would happen next.
December 14th, Friday afternoon – The food was put into plates and placed between their sleeping and cook houses. Anton stood beside the mass of plates and began to speak. His speech is paraphrased here:
Thank you all for coming to eat with us tonight. You know that we have had a big heavy come to our family. It is a very hard thing to have a son taken from us like this and not to have a body to bury. I don’t know why this happened to us, but I have heard many stories from some of you. I want you to hear this well. When you come to my house, don’t be talking about how you think he died or about him at all. It hurts too much. Some of you are saying that a sanguma got him or that the spirit of the water took him. I don’t believe these stories. You who are believers in Jesus know what God’s Word says. God is the only one who gives life and he is the only one who takes it away. God took Sarəstən. He doesn’t tell us in his Word exactly what happens to little ones like this who are too young to understand their sin and the Good News. But, Sarəstən, at his mark, knew who God was. He asked me last week who made the water as we were walking through the bush and I told him God did. God gives life and God takes life. Last week, I was walking with Bill and telling him that I haven’t had any hard heavies come up in my life. This was true. Now, Ogagarasem and I have had this very painful heavy come up in our life and it is good that we are tested. I have spoken strongly with many of you about the goodness and power of God and I am going to stand up on God’s Word still. I am not angry at anyone. Although, I may not come to the games, I want you boys to resume practice and to play. I also want to tell you boys thank you for taking time to help me search for my son. Play your soccer games and play well and don’t be worried about playing while this heavy is still with us. I want the rest of you all to go back to work. Sarəstən is in God’s hands.
The speech was not without tears and moments of silence and afterwards Anton came over and held our hands as he talked with Promise and Bill and I. He thanked us for praying for him these past days. He said that he knew that many people were praying because even though many people spoke truth to him, it hadn’t help him rein in his thoughts and doubts. He was really struggling with the goodness and sovereignty of God for the past three days. But then, that Thursday night, he was alone and he said God just assured him through his Word that this was in his hands and He could trust him. Nothing about God had changed since Tuesday. God was the same.
There were many more moments that made us stand in awe of the power of God and to give praise that He gives His Holy Spirit to indwell and to help and empower mere mortals to fight these spiritual battles. And, later that next week, Bill was moved to see Anton out on the soccer field with all the young men around him as he prayed for them before their game. There is light here in the Ramu Valley. Light that brings peace that passes all understanding. What a blessing to know these people. To see their raw lives that cling unashamedly to Christ. To see true faith in a community in action. To see the Spotlight of Suffering reflected and magnified to honor Christ as the tragic story was spread along to the neighboring people groups who came to see a soccer game, but brushed up against an ambassador of Light of the World.
Pray that Anton and his family’s grief will be comforted and that they will use this experience to comfort others as the Spotlight of Suffering singles out the true children of the Suffering Servant and allows those who believe to experience the momentary afflictions and prepare for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparisons. Anton was an animist eleven years ago. Today he is one of my spiritual heroes and mentors.
Today – When the spotlight of suffering shines on you, what will you do?
Only By God’s Grace,
Bill and Kelley and the Itutang Church Community