Simple Joys in Mission

By Savio Angelo Sanchez SDB

Traditional dancers from Lise Oalai 
and the Moveave tribes

I received the missionary cross on 27 April 2004 from our Regional Superior. Our Provincial Superior assigned me to Araimiri, in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea. I noticed the different reactions of people to this news. Many wished me luck. Some were surprised. Others promised that they would pray for me. Others again warned about malaria and ‘cannibals’! Some were afraid I wouldn’t last because of the tough life and also because of my physical health. But I still obeyed my superior. Besides, I had volunteered to go to the missions. So, armed with the prayers, support and encouragement of my confreres, friends and loved ones, I headed for PNG.

Grateful at 25

Araimiri is the cradle of Salesian work in PNG, the first group from the Philippines arriving there on 14 June 1980. Since then, many more Salesian missionaries have come. Last year we celebrated the silver jubilee of our presence there. We work in six schools, three parishes, two formation houses and one retreat house – in five different provinces. We now have a small band of professed Papua New Guinean Salesians. Don Bosco is more and more becoming known in the country because of our education apostolate and work with young people. The national director of the Liturgical Catechetical Institute is a Salesian priest. Our former Superior Delegate here is now Bishop Francesco Panfilo SDB of the diocese of Alotau-Sideia in PNG. We have many reasons to be grateful for the fruits of the hardwork of our confreres for the past 25 years.

We are present in two places in the Gulf Province, Araimiri and Lariau. In Araimiri we have a boarding school and a parish. Our students, all boarders, number about 80 girls and 160 boys. Many are unable to pay. They come from distant villages in the Gulf and many are really poor. In the Gulf ofPNG, there are only two secondary schools, a government one and ours.

Period of Adjustment

I had to get used to many things when I came to Araimiri, such as multi-lingual people with dark skin and kinky hair. Our students come from seven or eight different language groups. I had to get used to riding on a dinghy everytime we went to town or to our mission station in Lariau. I had to get used to the irritating and painful mosquito bites. I had to get used to garden food like kaukau – sweet potato/camote and sago, flour-like and extracted from sago ppalms, the staple food of the people in the Gulf. I also had to be ‘creative’ and inventive in cooking with the meager ingredients at hand. So many things I had to learn on the missions!

Finding my niche

The welcoming of Fr Pascual Chavez SDB, 
Rector Mayor of the Salesian Society

I now began to appreciate reggae music too although I still missed our OPM (Original Pilipino Music) songs and Filipino pop music. Being musically inclined, I began writing songs with a reggae beat in the Pidgin language. It makes me happy and proud when our Bosconians appreciate my music. We began singing my compositions in our Eucharistic celebrations at school. All students, Catholic and non-Catholic, attend our school Masses and sing the songs I wrote! I believe this is my own way of sharing in the work of evangelization besides teaching for 30 periods each week in the school.

Unexpected encounters

PNG is the ‘Land of the Unexpected’! This certainty of the unexpected poses many inconveniences and challenges. Indeed, life is tough here, as it is in any other mission. Just yesterday, our big generator bogged down. And we have to be patient when we can’t use certain appliances in the house. The generator is our only source of electricity. We rely on it even for our carpentry and machine shops. There are some nights when we really have to go back to our candles, lamps, torches and flashlights!

In the space of four months this year we were ‘rascalized’! We lost the battery of our tractor, the two batteries of our truck, the two speakers, amplifier and CD/cassette player in our convento, and quite a large sum of money from our store. Our students also lost some of their things. It is indeed more painful and sad when the very people we serve in the parish, in the school, in the community, are the ones doing this to us. It is disheartening when people are ungrateful. But the mission goes on . . .

Added to this litany of inconveniences and challenges is the constant threat and inevitable attack of malaria. I had a terrible attack a few weeks ago as did two of my confreres. This is the ‘baptism’ of every missionary in PNG. What an experience!

Finding Christ

And the litany can go on . . . But I’m certain that the Spirit of the Lord hovers over this place and continually calls men and women with BIG hearts, those whose hearts are BIG enough to give – their time, their energy, their talents, their very lives, to bring Christ to the people here in the missions. Christ was already here awaiting our coming. And indeed, He is here! For without Him, we can do nothing. We are able to survive the tough life on the missions insofar as Christ continues to remain with us and insofar as we continue to remain in HIM.

Here in this remote, isolated place in the heart of the bush, I have discovered the joy of living in simplicity. Here I’ve experienced the pain of separation and detachment from ‘civilization’ and the fast-paced city life I was accustomed to. Here I’ve learned to value the things that really matter in life. Here too I have witnessed the wonder of God’s grace and the miracles that unfold that I wouldn’t notice if I were in another place.