I would like to introduce you to a former friend of mine named Nemola Ropasi. He lived in the village of Usa, in the Southern Highlands of PNG, where I first met him. We were about the same age. He was a leader in his village, belonged to the Nemola clan, and was an enthusiastic supporter of our language and translation work in his village.
I first visited his village of Usa in 1967. A church had recently been established by the Lutheran missionary working out of a mission station about eight miles east of Usa. The missionary there, Norman Imbrock, invited us to the area, and we met the church leaders, including Ropasi.
Ropasi and his wife had five of their own children and an adopted son. Their house was about 25 yards or so from ours, so we saw them often. During our long residency in Usa in 1967 and then 1968-1972, Joice developed readers and began literacy classes. We had adapted the orthography from the one we had already used in East Kewa, and Ropasi, then around 40, was one of our first students. Even while we were in Australia, he continued to attend classes taught by his nephew Kirapeasi. He never learned to read well but was enthusiastic and encouraged other men (at the time women were not allowed) to attend the literacy classes, even traditional enemies from a distant village.
Ropasi would often comment on the Scriptures that my assistants and I had translated. He loved to do this, and even when he was very sick, he was attentive and helpful. Once, when listening to chapter five in the book of Galatians, he stopped me. I had been reading Paul’s description of what the Galatian people used to be like: immoral, filthy, indecent, idol worshippers, sorcerers, jealous, angry, ambitious, having orgies, getting drunk, and so on. “Karl, wait,” he said. “Didn’t you tell me that Paul lived many years ago, and that the Bible is very old?” “Yes,” I said, wondering what he was getting at. “Then, how did Paul know what we are like?”
The words and expressions we had used to describe the sin of the Galatians struck Ropasi as some of the very things that plagued the Kewa people in his village. I went on to tell the rest of the story—how the Spirit of God now works in believers to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. These are abstract concepts and needed to be spelled out. People who love have their stomachs full of happiness; joyful people say good things with their throats and are happy; patient people live “slowly,” that is, they don’t get excited quickly and without reason; kind people do good things and have a way of sorrow that is helpful; and so on. Ropasi loved to hear the Scriptures read—the words made his “liver stand up,” meaning that he was excited and motivated.
Another little story will show Ropasi’s character. We had a rich visitor who came to our village, accompanied by a leader of our mission. The man was altruistic and wanted to be friendly. He asked me if he could meet the village “chief,” so I had the men call out for Ropasi. Our visitor, call him Rex, said to me, “Ask him what he would like if he could have anything that he wanted.” I translated the sentence into Kewa, and Ropasi thought for a minute then replied: “Tell him that I have a question for him.” This I did, but I don’t think Rex was ready for the question. “Ask him,” Ropasi said, “what he thinks of me. I don’t have a shirt, only a bark belt, net apron, and leaves—what does he think of me?” I translated somewhat hesitatingly, not sure where we were going. Rex was perplexed. “Tell him that I don’t care about his clothing—I want to know what he is like inside.” Ropasi listened then quietly replied, “That is what I want to know about you, too—what are you like inside?” End of the conversation, but not the end of the story. My mission friend told me that the question Ropasi asked was influential in a decision Rex made later to follow God’s path.
I prized the wisdom and words of Ropasi, and I wish I could say that we were friends for many more years. Unfortunately, in 1972, Ropasi became very ill with hepatitis and took part in a church building dedication, although he probably should not have. Soon afterward, he had a fever and went into a coma, so we had him brought to our house for the night. He was delirious and scared our young daughter so much that she and Joicie slept in the literacy house. I stayed up with him most of the night with some other men. Others wandered around outside the house, silently in the hope that Ropasi would recover.
The next day, a government vehicle took him to the Kagua hospital, some 15 miles away. I had gone there on my motorcycle and persuaded the authorities to send a vehicle for Ropasi. When I saw him, he was resting outside the hospital in the sun and the medical orderly seemed to think he would pull through. I didn’t want to wake him so after a while, I returned to Usa on my motorcycle.
A day or two later, a Landover pulled up with Ropasi in it. He was in a coma, and we took him to our house. Later he was taken to his own house, and when I went to see him, it was packed with people. Some of the men had a mixture called upipi, which was supposed to get rid of the “poison” in his body. They were claiming that he would die without it, and his sickness was the result of sorcery. Ropasi revived enough to sit up and declare, “I am not dying because of sorcery. It is because you are disobeying God.” I don’t remember much after that because Ropasi then died.
When a Kewa dies, there is mourning, but when an important man like Ropasi dies, the wailing and disturbances are terrible. Most of the mourners did not understand the Scriptures or the promise of the resurrection. Ropasi did, and he died with God’s promises in his heart (or in his liver, as the Kewa would say). His death was hard for Joice and me to understand. He was a wise man, a leader, and one who loved Jesus. Why would God allow him to die? I can’t answer the question, but I have the hope of the resurrection and meeting Ropasi again.