This experience took place in the wild jungles of Papua New Guinea. The year was 1993 and I was 32 years old. I had been asked to go into one of the most remote valleys in the Milne Bay Provence to do some lecturing at three affiliated churches. I spoke 59 times in 19 days. They worked me like a dog!
Denewa Valley is about 30 km long, with a branch valley to the south leading to the province’s highest mountain, Mt Simpson. That’s where you will find it on Google Maps. The only way in is by foot and it takes two days to get to the top of the valley. That’s a story in itself. I was only the 15th European ever to venture into the valley and the first to enter via the ridge as the river was flooded.
After three grueling weeks I was exhausted and ready to leave the valley. On the last night several villages came together and we had a Moo Moo, where a pig was slaughtered and we all feasted. That night I interviewed eighty-something year old Uncle Willy while many listened in to his now famous story. Between his recollections and the stories supplied by my friend and student, Robin, this is what happened:
Many years before an Anglican priest had entered the valley and shared a watered down version of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some had converted and a small Anglican Mission was established. However, syncretic religion had crept into the valley as well and was locally called the Cargo Cult. This belief system held that everything in the Bible was within 50 km of Denewa Valley. For a people having little experience of the outside world this was understandable. They also held to an extremely liberal view of sexuality that had caused great pain and suffering to family life and children.
A few years earlier a young man (lets call him George) from the valley traveled to Port Moresby for work and heard the true gospel of salvation in Christ. He then hurried back to the valley and began sharing the good news. A small church was established and demonic influence began to be challenged for the first time. But there was much resistance from both local shamanism and the Cargo Cult. One of the converts was a young and very spiritually sensitive man by the name of Robin.
One day one of the men from the highest village was working in his field up on a high slope when he suddenly took ill and died. His name was Willy. These people know death much better than we westerners. When someone dies, they know they are dead. Willy head been a porter for the Australians during World War Two and told me several hair-raising stories of his times whit the Aussies. Again, they are for another time.
Immediately word echoed out across the valley and a crowd gathered outside the hut where he lay. Grieving and burial is completed in hours up in the tropics, and the grieving is like nothing you have ever witnessed before in your life. I was not present at the grieving of Uncle Willy, but was present in the background on the Trobriand Islands some time later when 3-400 people were grieving the sudden death of the Paramount Chiefs nephew. Its a truly deafening dusty and scary experience. Once again that is material for another story.
About an hour after the death, a crowd had arrived at the hut and the grieving began. In the middle of the riotous, crazy mayhem of the hundred or so villagers grieving for their lost friend and family member, Robin and George arrived at the hut. The noise of the wailing and screaming was deafening. They pushed their way to the hut and managed somehow to get to the body. They began to pray, asking Jesus what they should do. After a few minutes George said to Robin that he just saw a movie of Uncle Willy coming back down a set of stairs into the hut. Was it a message that they were to pray for Willy to come back. Being of simple faith they did just that. About five minutes later, and out of the blue, Willy sat straight up and called fro a glass of water as he was extremely thirsty!
The Jet-engine like roar of the grieving process stopped in its tracks. There was dead silence for a whole minute as everyone took stock of what should not be happening. Into that silence Geoge jumped up and explained to the Hundred or so people present that they had just prayed to Jesus for Willy to come back and he had. He then preached the good news of salvation through Christ. They all joined on the spot. By the end of the day some 300 people from the valley had become believers in Jesus.
Three new village churches were established that day. These were the three I visited while in the valley. A third of my students at the small thatched-roofed Bible school I was running in Alatou were from the valley, sponsored by Two Singaporeian SIL translators who were teaching the Denewa people how to read their own language.
Willy told me that he thought he was asleep. While asleep he found himself in the middle of a large grassy field. On both sides stood an army charging toward him. He knew each side wanted him but was helplessly stuck in the middle waiting to see which side would reach him first. The he woke up and asked for water.
The telling of the story once again around the fire after feasting on roast pig was probably the umpteenth time the people of the valley had heard the story, but they loved each telling just as much as the last. It was the transformative event of their lives.
This is a true story. I lived it. I was there. I met the eyewitnesses and Robin was my student. They estimated Willy had been dead about two hours. Evidence doesn’t get much stronger than that.