Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century by Don Richardson“Among the Sawi every demonstration of friendship was suspect except one. If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted! That, and that alone, was a proof of goodwill no shadow of cynicism could discredit.”
To be called by God to a foreign country as a missionary of the Gospel is a privilege and an awesome undertaking. But to be called as a missionary to a culture that is virtually untouched by the modern world, has no written language, and is based on violence and treachery as a lifestyle is almost unimaginable. This is exactly the kind of people that Don and Carol Richardson, with their eight-month old son, went to live among for the purpose of bringing them Christ. Richardson’s book, Peace Child, describes their introduction to and ministry among the Sawi people of New Guinea. After reading Richardson’s account of his experience among the tribal people in Irian Jaya, I can only say that surely God takes great care and consideration when He hand-picks His servants to carry out such an overwhelming task.
Don Richardson explains that as a fairly new believer at age twenty, he felt a strong urgency deep inside from the Lord to serve Him as a missionary; the only question for him was, Where? One day in 1955, as a student at Prairie Bible Institute in Canada, he heard this from a representative of Regions Beyond Missionary Union:
[You will find yourself in] the midst of entire tribes that have never known any kind of governmental control, where people are a law unto themselves and where savagery is a way of life. You must learn to make yourself and your message understood in the medium of languages never before learned by any outsider…You will encounter customs and beliefs which will baffle you, but which must be understood if you are to succeed…You must prepare to endure loneliness, weariness and frustration with fortitude. Most of all, you must be prepared, in the strength of the Lord to do battle with the prince of darkness, who…is not about to give them up without a fight!
Little did Don know at the time that this would describe his later ministry on the Indonesian island of New Guinea. For the next seven years, Don and Carol studied and prepared until the time would come that they would be assigned their field of service. He writes, “After years of preparing and waiting, just to hear the name of the people we would devote our lives to was exciting! The Sawi! I turned the name over in my mind. I could almost taste its savor on the tip of my tongue.” And so with this excitement they traveled to the place where they would make their home and raise three children for the next 15 years. (Wow, I thought, would I have been up to that challenge and sign up with the enthusiasm that Don and his wife did?)
Before their arrival, the Richardsons were warned that the Sawi were a society of cannibalistic headhunters, and that the many local tribes were at enmity and often at war with one another. The only reason they hadn’t killed themselves off is because they had broken into smaller tribes and settled in isolated villages. The natives were also suspicious and mistrustful of outsiders, but they had come to value the wealth (in the form of weapons, tools, and medicine) that they could acquire from the Tuan (white faces). Richardson describes the suspenseful moment when they are first met by the village representatives:
A meeting of culturally similar strangers is one thing, but a meeting of culturally dissimilar strangers is something else! Representing opposite ends of humanity’s wide-ranging cultural spectrum, we faced each other, and the very air between us seemed to crackle with tension.
As Don and Carol began living amongst the Sawi, learning their language, history, culture, and beliefs, they gradually gained the respect and trust of the natives. But the challenges were many. Adjusting to the primitive lifestyle was the least of their concerns. On several occasions the Richardsons’ lives were in danger as they got caught in the middle of violent tribal conflicts. The language was very complex, and as they worked on translating the Scriptures into the Sawi language they discovered that some of the concepts and words found in the Bible simply didn’t exist in the Sawi language. Additionally, some of their values directly opposed those of western civilization.
For example, Richardson learned that in the legends of the Sawi people, “the heroes are men who formed friendships with the express purpose of later betraying the befriended one to be killed and eaten,” a practice known as “fattening with friendship for the slaughter.” When he told the men the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, they were impressed with Judas’ evil treachery and actually admired him as a hero! This is just one example that shows how challenging it was for the Richardsons to share the Gospel with the Sawi people in a way that they could understand and relate to.
Don was determined to make the message of the Gospel accessible to the Sawi. “But the Sawi had no name for God. Nor even the concept of Him. No lamb sacrifice to teach the need for an atonement.” He recalled how often in the Bible Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles used metaphors and parables to explain the truths of God, so he prayed that the Holy Spirit would show him analogies from the life of the Sawi that he could use to communicate these life-changing truths to the them. Since the Sawi were so violent in nature, the aspect of the Gospel that Don was finally able to relate to them was their need for terms of peace, not just with their enemies, but more importantly with God. It was fascinating to read about the redemptive analogies God gave Don from Sawi practices and rituals to teach them about the sacrificial atonement and resurrection of Christ and how these events could apply to them.
The Richardsons knew that only the power and love of God would be able to break through the spiritual darkness and bondage. They had faith that God could do it — when and how, they didn’t know. But Don and Carol were willing to dedicate their lives to this purpose, trusting God with their lives and waiting patiently for Him to work. They were aware that they could end up being martyred like some of those who went before them, or like Jim Elliot and his friends in Ecuador. But God was gracious and allowed them to experience the joy of witnessing the penetration of God’s truth into this culture. Peace Child is the story of a people entrenched in violence, treachery, revenge, and superstition gradually coming to grasp who God is and why they needed what only He could provide for them – peace, forgiveness, and new life – through His eternal Son.
Note: This title is included on my list of biographies I believe every Christian should read.
Related sites and articles
- YouTube video interview with Don Richardson (youtube.com)
- Fifty years later, ‘Peace Child’ tribe still following Christ (www.mnnonline.org)
- Good Friday and the Peace Child (trainingrealmissionaries.wordpress.com)
- Why Don Richardson Says There’s No ‘Peace Child’ for Islam (www.christianitytoday.com)
- On Missions in Papua, Indonesia (reformedreader.wordpress.com)
- YembiYembi (www.challies.com)