'The Tugutil had many taboos, but the strongest was against any contact with the "church"'

John’s story | Seeing God breakthrough to reach people, deep in Indonesia’s Maluku jungle

“In 1980, my wife Betty and I, along with our three-year-old twin daughters, moved to Indonesia. After studying Indonesian, we moved to the jungles of North Maluku. We did this in the hope of reaching an unreached, semi-nomadic, 100% illiterate, mono-lingual group of hunters and gatherers know as the Tugutil.  They had a fearsome reputation among nearby villages and towns, treating all outsiders with a high degree of mistrust.

“After arriving in the area, we found out later that two attempts were made on our lives, but both were miraculously thwarted by God. Apparently, this convinced the people that we had some powerful spirit protecting us, so they should abandon any further attempts!

“Getting to their remote location involved a 12-hour trip in a small boat. Sometimes this included treacherous seas that actually sank us on one occasion, and on another occasion, we had a dangerous fire on our boat. We kept seeing God’s protection, amazingly, in all of this. For me, God kept proving his reality and involvement in our lives, over and over again!

“Learning their language was incredibly challenging. It wasn’t in written form and we couldn’t use the national language as a bridge. It took us a really long time. At the same time, our jungle home was home to centipedes, scorpions and pythons, and malaria-carrying mosquitos. Our family, like all the people, often fell victim to malaria. Betty was a nurse, though, and during that time she set up a successful medical program that accomplished so much in building relationships of trust, and showing our love for the people.

“Our greatest concern during the early years was that we might never get to share God’s amazing story with them. The Tugutil had many taboos, but the strongest was against any contact with the ‘church’. They believed it could have deadly consequences. One day, I asked them to describe this ‘church’ that they were so afraid of. They said that the ‘church’ they had heard of happens on Sundays, and you have to pay money (offering), wear good clothes (which they didn’t have), and you weren’t allowed to chew beetle nut or smoke. They said that babies weren’t allowed to urinate on the floor, and the people sang songs and talked to God.

“I explained to them that what we wanted to do was different. All we would do was to simply tell them a very long story written by around 40 different people, in three languages, over around 1500 years… and that this amazing, cohesive story did come from the book they used in the church. We told them we would tell this story on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and they were welcome to come, and they could do whatever they normally did when they listened to each other tell stories.

“So, after more than five long years of them being our teachers, around 250 of them gathered together, and we began telling them the story in their very own heart language. We continued for six months. We spent four months telling key Old Testament stories that helped to show God’s character, and their desperate need of a Saviour, and the promises that God would send a Redeemer. ]

“Then, we spent two months explaining the story of the life of Jesus and his saving death that completely paid their sin debt. But the tragic and terribly cruel story of Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of this story. On the third day God raised him from the dead, just as Jesus had told his disciples, and all who would trust and depend on Jesus would be saved.

“At the end of the six months, my family and I witnessed first-hand an amazing response. The vast majority of the people who had been listening faithfully to the story, placed their trust in Jesus. Now, they are taking this message to others who are still to hear the most wonderful story ever told.

“As I look back on those years, there is no doubt in my mind, whatsoever, that not only is God real, but that his revelation to mankind has the power to radically change lives.”

“Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (Romans 15:21)

John’s story is part of Eternity’s Faith Stories series, compiled by Naomi Reed. Click here for more Faith Stories.