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Closer Than a Wantok - Missionary Story From Papua New Guinea

Updated: May 29, 2023

I wrote this story a few years ago to be included in a collection of short missionary stories. The manuscript was not accepted, but the story is still worth telling. Rusta is a great example of the power of the gospel to change a life. I do want to note that everything in this story is based on real people and events, however, to conform to publishing standards, I have combined a couple of characters and events into one story. But make no mistake, Rusta, Obet, and the amazing power of the gospel in their lives is real and I want to introduce you to these brothers who are worth knowing and who are very dear to me.

Closer than a Wantok

By Shawn Smith

One of my earliest memories of Rusta was meeting him on one of the overgrown jungle trails near his home village of Yufungi in the Simbai tribe of Papua New Guinea. He was leading a war party – literally. He and his wantoks were going after a man that they felt was responsible for the death of one of their clansmen. A wantok literally translates “one talk” and refers to someone from your language group or clan. A wantok is your tribe – your family. That morning on the trail, Rusta assured us that we were safe. He considered us his wantoks and promised us safety. However, with his homemade rifle, and his spear-wielding gang, he was ready for war.

When I read the story of Abraham rescuing Lot, I don’t have to stretch my imagination much at all to be able to picture that moment. As soon as Abraham learned of Lot’s predicament, he would have bounded into action and rescued his wantok. That’s how it works. That’s how strong the family ties are in tribal cultures. That’s what Rusta would have done for us if someone had ever threatened us. Living in the tribe, I learned very quickly how powerful the wantok system was. Your wantok ALWAYS has your back.

Rusta was quite a character. He wasn’t like most of the others in Yufungi. He was one of the few people that had ever attempted the treacherous journey out of that primitive and remote mountain valley. After a few days of rugged hiking over the mountain and across the Asai valley, he made it to the Ramu River and eventually found passage to a coastal town. He knew and understood what living in a town was like. He had seen so much more than the simple grass huts clustered together throughout the valley. He realized that life offered more than simply tending the gardens and gathering enough food and firewood to get through to the next day.

For example, he knew what a road was. He had ridden in a vehicle. He understood electricity and running water. He learned about jobs, and money, and commerce. He had seen stores with a seemingly infinite supply of goods. He has seen banks and more importantly, he had seen people going into banks with no money, and coming out of banks with lots of money.

Papua New Guinean money

All of those things became very attractive to Rusta. He wanted what other people had, and unfortunately, he chose to get those things by becoming a thief. In a short time he had joined a gang, and together, they robbed people and businesses throughout the entire coastal region. With his big personality and fearless courage, Rusta quickly became the leader of his gang.

One evening, while committing armed robbery, Rusta’s life changed forever. He had been in scuffles before and his body bore the scars of various knife fights he had been in. On this night, though, Rusta faced the fight of his life. The police were alerted to the crime and arrived at the scene before Rusta and his gang could get out of the store they were robbing.

A gun battle ensued, and Rusta was shot twice. Panicked, he begged for help from his gang. One look at the blood seeping through his shirt and they abandoned him to fend for himself. He wasn’t their wantok. He wasn’t their responsibility. It dawned on him in that moment that all he ever was to them was an opportunity and now that he was helpless, they had no need of him.

Devastated by their treachery, Rusta realized he was on his own. He tried to move, but the pain in his side was too fierce. The shootout with the police was still intense and he heard one of his gang members cry out in agony after being hit. He knew there was no escape. With no hope and gasping for air, he slouched against the wall of the store and waited. If he didn’t die first, he knew he would spend the rest of his life in a squalid, dank jail.

Another bullet whizzed past him and he slumped over on the ground to get as low as possible. Lying on the ground, he noticed that the main service counter of the store was actually raised. It was disguised by a decorative skirt, so it was unnoticeable to most people. If he could crawl under that counter, maybe he could hide and escape later.

He rolled over and tried to get on his knees. He was heaving heavily and barely able to function, but with his last ounce of strength, he somehow managed to crawl under that counter. In the distance, he heard shouting, and vaguely noted that the police had breached the shop. The world was becoming more dim and he closed his eyes fully believing that he would never open them again. His last thought before slipping into unconsciousness was of his wantoks back home in Yufungi. How he missed them! How he longed to see them one more time.

Rusta’s plan worked. The police never found him. He awoke in the middle of the night and the store was empty. Glass shards covered the floor, items were still strewn about, but the place was empty. He crawled out from under the counter struggling with every movement and slowly moved toward the window. The street was pretty quiet. On the corner, he noticed a small group of men huddled together probably planning some kind of mischief. A car turned onto the street and slowly passed the store, but other than that, it was deserted. He felt dizzy and unstable, but he knew he needed to get out of that store and find help.

With every step, he promised himself that if he survived, he would go back home to Yufungi, no matter what it took. He made his way to an acquaintance in the city. His friend told him that the police were looking for him and had orders to shoot him on site. His friend offered to help Rusta for a price and Rusta promised to pay whatever he asked if he would just help him get home again.

In the next few weeks, Rusta was able to heal. The bullet on his side had gone clean through. The one on his arm had barely grazed it. With rest and care, he eventually healed well enough to begin his journey home. After robbing a few unsuspecting foreigners, Rusta had enough to not only pay his friend what he owed, but also to begin his journey home.

Obet and Rusta

Several weeks later, he arrived in Yufungi and greeted his little brother, Obet. Obet was all grown up and told him that many things had changed in the years that Rusta had been away. Missionaries had come to Simbai and they had told the people about Jesus and the people were finally free from the bondage of their ancestral beliefs.

Rusta did not understand, but he was happy to be home again. He knew he could never go back to town because he was a wanted man. Instead, he got to know the missionaries. He began to listen to their lessons. Obet also told him about Jesus, but Rusta never quite understood. When Obet decided to go out to a town and go to a Bible College to become a pastor, Rusta was proud of him, but still didn’t fully understand all the changes in Obet’s life.

Rusta giving a chicken to our daughter, Abby

The morning I saw Rusta on the road going to war for a wantok was shortly after he had returned to Simbai. A few years later, we held a large evangelistic crusade in the Simbai valley. People from villages as far away as a two-day hike came to hear the preaching. During those meetings, Rusta finally understood that Jesus wanted to be closer than a Wantok. Jesus gave His life for Rusta even when Rusta was His enemy. That night, Rusta accepted God’s free gift of salvation and put his faith and trust in Christ alone.

Rusta spent a lot of years overcoming the bad habits he had built throughout his life. He’s had his ups and downs in his faith but he continues to grow in baby steps. A couple of years after the evangelistic meetings, Rusta began having doubts because of his past sins. During a Bible study our co-worker, Bill Tobias, helped him gain assurance of God's redemptive power in his life. Today, Rusta is married to the sister of one of the Simbai pastors. He is faithful in their little church there in the Yufungi village, and he is raising his children to know about the Savior who is closer than a wantok.



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