A Hidden Place
It is a green, wooded place. Lofty mountains surround and nestle the little village that enjoys sunshine and spring-like weather all year. Tree kangaroos hide among the branches of nearby saplings and opossum-like marsupials rummage through the lush, thick grasses on the forest floor.
Access to this beautiful place is by aircraft only.
One day, in 2002, God flew some strangers in for a visit.
They stood at the edge of the remote Dinangat village situated at 5,200 feet. They scrutinized the scene, wondering about the people who lived in the little community.
The people of the tribe, small of stature and shy by nature, wondered back about the visitors. What do they want? Why are they here?
They watched carefully to see what would happen next.
Introductions came first. The visitors were from New Tribes Mission. They had come to visit for a few hours. And they had some questions.
The NTM survey team listened to the answers the tribes people gave and carefully took notes.
And then, too soon for the Dinangats, the NTM team left.
After their departure, the tribal leaders gathered to talk. The visit had stirred up old feelings. The Dinangat people had long heard of mission works that grew and thrived in other places. They had even heard that some tribes in villages around them had God’s own words in their own language.
“We also must know what is true,” the leaders agreed. So they decided to write a letter to New Tribes Mission, begging them to send missionaries to bring them God’s Word.
The letter was received by NTM with care, prayer and a heart to meet the need. But sadly, there were not enough missionaries to send a team to every tribe that asked.
So the Dinangats waited, but no one came. The long wait made it seem clear to them: they were a people forgotten in the darkness.
They could not know it then, but God had not forgotten. In fact, He was plotting good for the Dinangat people and glory for Himself.
During the NTM missionary training back in the USA, He was actively at work. It didn’t take long for Gary and Esther Smith, Ralf and Elli Schlegel and Jeremiah and April Markley to feel certain that God was strengthening and uniting them into a team that would serve Him together — somewhere.
The three couples began to pray for God’s specific guidance toward that place.
And, of course, God knew — just as He always had — exactly where it would be.
Forgotten and Fearful
In January 2003, Jeremiah, Ralf and Gary made their first visit to the Dinangat tribe. The people welcomed them eagerly.
They were a quiet people, respectful and courteous, and yet a gloom seemed to hang over their lives and their village. Decades of waiting had worn old hopes thin. “We didn’t think anyone remembered,” the tribespeople told the three men.
A government counsel repeated the Dinangat plea to Ralf, Jeremiah and Gary. “Everyone has forgotten us,” he translated for them. And the people nodded their agreement.
The NTM missionaries learned it had been more than 50 years since another mission group had visited the village. They had settled there briefly, leaving behind a new religion of practices — a confusing muddle of baptism, communion and taking offerings without clear understanding of why they were to do these things.
Through the years, the original teaching had aged and altered. The talk had been in the trade language, so even though a few people in the village had understood the words, it seemed that no one had understood the message.
The Dinangats told the NTM missionaries that after awhile, this first mission group left and had, they felt, forgotten all about them.
The people knew they lived in darkness. Fresh in their minds was a recent sickness that killed one of the tribe and the resulting murder of another in the tribe by family members who were convinced he had made their relative ill. The village that seemed peaceful at first glance knew a raging undercurrent of fear, hate and bondage.
The NTM missionary team asked questions about what the tribe now believed.
“Where did you come from?” they asked. “Who is God?”
And the people responded with sadness, “We don’t know.”
The early visits by Jeremiah, Gary and Ralf were just the beginning of years of careful culture study. From the beginning it was clear that spiritual darkness engulfed the village. But much was not clear.
A symbol of the religious confusion seemed to be the little church build- ing situated prominently in the village. It had been recently constructed by the tribe from hand-planed bush materials. Money had been saved for many years to purchase the tin, nails and paint for a proper building. They hoped this “sacred place” would appease the God their parents had learned about from the first religious group — the angry God they did not know, yet feared.
Here and there scattered Biblical words and fragments of Gospel songs turned up oddly in Dinangat conversation and daily life. But the words seemed disconnected from meaning. Little children played in the mud singing Jesus Loves Me in the trade language — not understanding one word of what they sang. And their church-attending parents lived in fear that one misstep could result in evil spirits making them desperately sick, or in the horror of vengeful ancestors yelling at them from garden soil where they inhabited sweet potatoes.
Wandering the village, they believed, were spirits waiting to pounce on anyone who did not fear and appease them. Since they had heard that Jesus had died and risen, they included Him as one of those spirits — a spirit who insisted on church attendance, taking communion, baptism and giving offerings to keep God’s wrath from crashing down.
Yet, in all their efforts, they found no peace for their hearts. Out of fear, the Dinangat people painted their heads with a white chalky substance and ate a specific kind of banana to open their souls to the spirits to prove they were worthy and clean inside.
Despair ran deep. Life was a weary and fearful cycle. There were so many to appease; all the cruel spirits of their dead ancestors, and that angry God too. All-night dances around fires were a desperate effort to ward off evil. Then, to cover all the bases, the participants would gather hours later for religious services in the little church building.
Their bewilderment and turmoil were desperate, but never past God’s wisdom. He saw and remembered. And, in fact, through their struggles, God was steadily building hunger in Dinangat hearts for His truth.
Stirrings of the Light
The missionaries saw increasingly how much the Dinangat people needed Him. In February 2003, God’s Spirit tugged at the hearts of the Schlegels, Markleys and Smiths and the final decision was made to launch their team ministry in the dark little village.
They strategized carefully and prayed earnestly. Moving in with the tribe would help build relationships. They would learn daily routines, and more importantly, they would listen to hearts.
In nurturing friendships, the missionaries would gradually grow comfortable with the language. The Dinangats’ heart language must be learned so that God’s Word could be taught and absorbed at new levels. The team prayed that as the people heard God’s truth in their very own language, the bright drama of redemption would finally unfold clearly for them.
The missionaries also prayed for God to nurture the essential seeds of Bible translation and literacy. There was an obvious urgency in getting God’s Word translated and placed into tribal hands to be read and studied first-hand.
It had been a long wait for the Dinangats and there was much for God’s grace to do. One month after deciding this village was God’s place for them, the Markley, Smith and Schlegel families began building homes there.
Moving in and beginning the work was exciting. “We were thrilled to be bringing these people the truth of God’s Word that would free them from the bondage and fear they lived in,” Gary shares.
Spending quality time with the Dinangat people meant sitting with them in their homes. Building friendships happened easily while working with them in their gardens and helping them with projects. The missionaries loaned the people tools, attended their celebrations and ate with them.
Gary shares that the “eating with them” part can be challenging. Sometimes it even involves choking down highly unusual foods. “But we do it—and the smiles always follow. Although we draw the line at eating spiders.”
The team has plugged along in the extreme challenges of Dinangat language study, averaging about three years of hard work to become fluent.
April Markley’s best language-learning times have happened when she heads high up on a mountain with her Dinangat friend for a day of working in the garden. April shares, “We speak exclusively in the Dinangat language. At the beginning, I would make a fool of myself acting out what I was trying to say. Let’s just say that the motivation for figuring out how to use the language was very high, especially on those days!”
Her husband, Jeremiah, adds, “Learning the culture and language of the Dinangat people is the hardest thing I have ever done.” Many times during the process, he confesses, he nearly gave up. He even entertained thoughts of changing to a different ministry. But Jeremiah affirms that God was faithful to encourage him that this Dinangat project was His project and that His grace would be enough.
Bright New Beginnings
It was the morning of Jan. 28, 2008, and the mood in the village was celebratory. Finally it had arrived — the day that the chronological Bible teaching was to begin.
Because of the tangle of religious confusion connected with the church building, it was decided these meetings would take place, not in the church building, but in a brand new setting: outside in the fresh, green beauty of God’s Creation.
Village culture dictated relaxed starting times. So the missionaries were shocked to arrive the first morning and see almost the entire village, already seated in readiness. And for nearly four months, this same eager crowd was waiting every morning to hear the teaching.
Hungry hearts were much in evidence. “It was pure joy to see the lights come on as the Holy Spirit revealed truth from God’s Word,” shares Gary, the main Bible teacher.
The anticipation intensified as the tribe heard and absorbed God’s story of redemption. They began to watch expectantly for the promised Redeemer. When the lesson about Jesus’ birth was finally taught, God had fully prepared them — they just knew that Jesus was the One!
Esingke, the much-respected village chief, had been a village witch doctor. After hearing the truth of God’s Word and coming to Christ, he confessed that his whole witch doctor routine was trickery to increase his influence. He admitted this to the whole tribe and began to take a strong stand against rituals and belief in ancestral spirits.
A particularly aggressive and critical woman named Mesari had lived in constant conflict in the tribe and had been fearful of the missionaries, believing they had special powers to see through her. After attending the chronological Bible teaching, she received Christ with eagerness and gave Him control of her life.
Mesari told the missionaries, “In the past, I lived bad. Many people died and we cried. But today I have hope!”
As months and years have passed, God’s grace has redeemed and changed many Dinangat people. The missionaries estimate that 80 percent to 90 percent of the people in the two villages they have reached so far have turned from darkness to embrace the light of God’s Truth.
In time, the nine Bible teachers of the village met and discussed what to do with the church building they had built. Together, they decided: they began a project of change. As God had torn down the walls of sin in their village and allowed His grace to shine in, the believers would tear out all the walls of the building.
The believers now meet under this vivid illustration of God’s work — a roof with no walls.
On Sunday morning, the conch shell blows three times to invite the people to worship. Come — and plan to stay awhile. The Sunday meeting will be three to four hours long.
There will be prayer. And singing. Maybe it will be an original Dinangat hymn. Listen carefully and you will hear it echoing through the forest and up the steep mountainsides:
Our Father is here, the Holy Spirit is here,
We hear this talk from the Bible,
Friends, all of us hear this talk.
We have new thinking now.
Lord, You come, and bring forth new thinking to us.
The sermon will be preached, always by two Bible teachers. Afterward, believers will share prayer needs and offer joyful praise for prayers God has answered. The fellowship is rich — this Sunday worship encourages and builds up believers. Change is brightening the once-dark village.
Broken and abusive marriages have been healed. Husbands are learning to love and serve the wives who they once ridiculed and abused. Lukas is a shining example. In a culture where marriages are not highly valued, Lukas shows Christ’s love by bringing gifts to his wife and children and by sitting with them at meetings. He doesn’t run away to the jungle without them. And Jaspa, who used to beat his wife, now serves her humbly, protecting her and stooping to start fires and even to carry things for her.
The quality of life for children is dramatically different now. Where harsh beatings with sticks and stones were once the norm, parents have come to understand principles of Biblical parenting. The sounds that now spill out of believing homes are songs of praise and the voices of parents reading to their children.
Literacy has swept the village. At this point, more than 100 people have completed the course. Iteringke shares, “I was in the first literacy class and I knew I could not do it by myself, so I asked God to open my thinking so I could learn to read and write. I thank God because I know it was Him Who helped me.”
Teaching Dinangat people to read is important — because giving them God’s Word in their own language is crucial. The diligent task of Bible translation progresses well. The Dinangats celebrate each portion of Scripture that is finalized and printed. Jeremiah Markley and Ralf Schlegel are the primary translation team, but Ralf is quick to add, “Every adult on the team has been — or is — currently involved in one way or another in the Dinangat translation project.”
Currently, about 20 percent of the Dinangat New Testament is ready for printing, including portions of Matthew, Mark, John and almost the full books of Romans and Ephesians. “Lord willing,” Ralf says, “we will be finishing the New Testament in the next five or six years. It’s a joy beyond words when we get to hand out the freshly printed Bible portions.” Although they see God powerfully at work, the Schlegels, Markleys and Smiths do not want their ministry to be portrayed as a perfect ministry or as one without struggles. There are hard times, the missionaries share candidly.
“The hardest challenge is the same everywhere — it is struggling with my own flesh,” Gary writes.
“And I sometimes struggle with not feeling enough for the job,” Ralf adds. “But God keeps reminding me that He has entrusted this task to me, so He also will enable me to do it.”
“My hardest challenge is the fact that we are strangers and foreigners — no matter how long we have been here. We are different. I don’t like that feel- ing at all and it is a daily struggle for me,” Elli expresses.
“Although I have passed a certain level of language learning,” April shares, “there is still a lot lacking in my own ability to be able to communicate at a deeper level with the women. That is my biggest challenge.”
“Honestly,” Esther adds. “it’s hard to balance what is required to support the team with fulfilling the ministry God has given me right in our own home to our four children.”
So the encouragement to persevere — where does it come from? It comes from the close-up view of God’s work in Dinangat lives, the missionaries say.
There’s Jinongke, who used to be very confused about what was true, believing that his good works would save him. He believed that because he had been baptized and participated in communion and church services, he would go to Heaven. “Then the impossible happened,” Jinongke told the missionaries recently. “God’s Spirit turned me around. So now, I keep giving all the glory to God!”
Another believer, Pol, has also come to trust in Christ alone for his salvation. “When the missionaries taught the Bible, I realized I was on the road to the everlasting fire. I am a sinner. Back when I was in Satan’s clan, my village used to perform sorcery. Now Jesus is truly my Savior and I know that when I die, I will go to God.”
By God’s redeeming grace, the once-dark Dinangat village in the mountains is being transformed.
True, the ministry challenges are ongoing. The needs can feel overwhelming. And the obstacles are, at times, discouraging. But the missionary team shares this verse from the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians as the theme and goal of their ministry:
“God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us.”
They can easily identify with those fragile clay jars, the missionaries say. And they are grateful that God’s power fills and fuels their team.
The same power is mightily at work in the Dinangat church. They no longer wonder if they are forgotten. They know the truth — that they are a people much beloved by God.
And God’s glory is on dazzling display as He brightens the darkness of the Dinangat people and assures them faithfully that He has always remembered them.
New Tribes Mission’s 30-year goal is to establish churches among 2,500 people groups who are waiting, like the Dinangats were. Many have been asking to hear God’s Word, and some may feel just as forgotten as they did. Phase 1 involves planting 300 new churches while mobilizing and training additional missionaries over the next ten years.
This means plenty of opportunities for people like you to go and share the Good News.