Massachusetts natives Neil, Kathy, and Tony Vanaria spent 20 years translating the New Testament into the language of the Mesem people in Papua New Guinea. In January 2013, Frank and Julie Joyner, long-time supporters and prayer partners, travelled to PNG to help celebrate the delivery of 5000 New Testaments, one for every person who speaks this tribal language.
The Vanarias are now ministering to the refugee population in Sicily, Click here to learn more about their new adventure.
Below is more details about the finished work in Papua New Guinea.
The people held a three-day celebration in this Mesem village.
This event marked, not an ending, but a beginning. The Vanarias sent this follow up letter:
Went back up to the village after you all left to have a final good -bye with some of our God-given buddies. It was a bit rushed – like almost everything else we did.
I did get some nice post-thanksgiving stories which I share below.
In the early years of our work Kitiwanu and another young man had come to our village to encourage us to leave the work. They were absolutely convinced that it was not possible to speak about God in the Mesem language. They came to Samanzing village and spent an afternoon attempting to convince us to leave. Some years later Kitiwanu returned to apologize. It was after we had completed the translation of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. I met him along the road and he simply said. “Thank-you, I really believed it was not possible to speak about God in my language, but now I’ve seen what you are doing and I’ve read Romans and now I’m learning to talk about God to my own people in my own language. They are ahead of me – they can already talk about God in our language. I didn’t think it was possible. ”
Now a couple of weeks after the dedication, although there has been a good reception and a lot of interest in the Mesem NT in the central and western portion of the tribe, interest is not so great among those of the east. I was very concerned and was praying about who to ask to follow through on the distribution. One person came to mind, but as I was visiting with him I simply felt he was not up to the task. Next day I met Kitiwanu again. He came to me and told me what he was going to do. He had already met with village leaders in his area to explain he was not starting a new church but wanted to build a Bible-study house so people could meet twice a week to worship, read and study the Scriptures in Mesem. Then he said he felt lead of the Lord to go to his own Samaria – to the Mesem in the eastern portion of the tribe. “I know them and they know me. Nobody told me to do this. I think the Lord wants me to this. But I will go and work with them. I will make sure everyone gets a New Testament and I will help them read. I have told the leaders and they agree.”
Translating is only one part of God’s reaching out to the Mesem, Kitiwanu is part of God’s continued effort.
We had a thanks-giving service for the Mesem NT in Samanzing village on Friday, January 25. On that day the cartons of Mesem NT’s were distributed among leaders from outlying areas for distribution to each individual. The people of Samanzing received their individual copies in a second thanks-giving service on Sunday 3 February. They spent some of the intervening time resolving arguments between themselves so they could all be involved in the distribution. On this day they gathered for a community meal and after more thanks-giving they began the distribution. The men we worked with distributed the NT’s: Bisa, Tyson, Aaron bibm, Ulam, Dick and Soweyupe. As they stood in the center of the village, another village elder would call out the name of a family and that person would come down to where the NT’s were stacked tell how many people were in his family and then receive that many NT’s from one of the translators. The distribution went on into the evening, but people stayed because they wanted to be part of what was happening. In the middle of this as one person went down to receive their NTs she stopped and made a speech. She said before she could receive the NT she had to publicly apologize to the translators. She had gossiped behind their backs. She had told people that the translators were doing no real work but were simply sitting around drinking the white man’s tea and sugar for nothing. She cried because she now realized that they had worked hard to give her something very special and were asking nothing in return. Then as others came to receive their NT’s some also confessed their sins as well. That afternoon almost 500 Mesem NTs were distributed.
The people from Bilima village attended the Samanzing thanks-giving and returned to their village the next day with 5 cartons of NT. They gathered at the house of a Samanzing village elder, collected their cases of NTs tying each to a pole so it could be carried through the jungle and then lined up with National & Provincial flags at the front. The village elder blew on the conch shell seven times and the people of Bilima began their 4 hour procession back to their village. Along the way they stopped to sing hymns, pray (and catch their breath). When they arrived at Bilima they were joined by the elderly of those too sick to have attended, they sang a hymn together and left the NTs in the church for later distribution.
They distributed the NTs on Monday the 28th. Again there was a communal meal where all ate together. Each person cooked food in their own house to bring to the communal meal. It was amazing to the people of Bilima that so much food was left over after everyone had eaten all they had wanted. It was a good sign to them of the interest in and excitement for receiving the NTs. Yanga Tumbe – one of our co-translators – lead the worship service and preached from the Mesem NT (2Tim3.14-17; 2Cor 3.3-6 and Gal 5.22-26 on the importance of holding the Word). There were more speeches. Then the distribution begun. During the distribution they were interrupted by calls to their cell phones. Word was getting out about the NT distribution and relatives who lived in the cities were calling and telling their cousins to save a copy of the NT for them. The village elders had decided that Yanga – who had worked so hard with us – should actually had people their NTs. One lady, blind from cataracts worried that she should not receive a NT as she could never read it. Yanga told her: “You are a generous person. You are always feeding people. From now on after you feed someone you hand them your copy of the NT and tell them that now that you have fed them, they must now feed you by reading a verse of the NT” She received her NT with laughter. Two others received theirs with tears: We have never helped you, we never even did so much as cook a sweet potato for you. We laughed at you and called you names and now you are giving us this gift. They asked Yanga for forgiveness.
After the NT distribution was complete one of the better readers in the village gave a reading lesson to all who were interested. Then they all gathered again to read a NT portion out loud.
Lokengga had returned to the village for the dedication. She has been educated through the 10th grade. When I returned to the village after the thanks-giving a young lady by the name of Lokengga came by the house to thank us for the work we had done in translating the Mesem NT. She had learned to read Mesem while growing up in Samanzing. She came into the house and declared the Mesem NT translation as being accurate and clear. She said that after reviewing the maps and pictures she turned to the Lord’s prayer in Luke chapter 11. She had long wondered what kingdom of God meant and how to say it in Mesem. She said she read the prayer in Mesem and as she read the rendering of Kingdom of God in the Mesem language she knew immediately it was the right word and it made so much sense when she thought about it along with other passages in the Gospels which refer to the Kingdom of God. She was grateful to now be able to speak to other Mesem people about the Kingdom of God in her own language. She said the word we used there will help her explain the meaning of kingdom to others. Pleased with what she read in Luke she then turned to Revelation 13. When she first looked she saw that while her English and Pidgin translations were much shorter the Mesem translation looked to be longer. But when she read it her response was now I understand. “I could never really follow the story in chapter 13, but now I get it. I understand. Mesem is longer than English and longer than Pidgin but it’s clear so now I understand.”