I am quite sure that you have never heard of Wopa Eka. He was a Lutheran evangelist and lay-pastor from the village where Joice and I and our two children lived for several years, in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). His language was West Kewa, which we learned to speak. (Kewa was our son Kirk’s first language.)
I remember Wopa best when he was about 43 years of age, married, and had 4 children. However, he said that he often came to our village house as a child. He completed only grade 6 years of formal education but later became a tireless worker for the completion of the West Kewa New Testament revision and for promoting it and literacy in the area. He taught himself to use the computer, took national translator’s courses (including an introduction to Hebrew) and became proficient in English. What you would notice most about Wopa was his smile and his energy.
Joice and I left PNG in 1990, for an assignment in Australia and returned to America and Texas to work with SIL International (a sister organization to Wycliffe) in 1994. In 1997, a surprise package arrived at my office from PNG, and I opened it with anticipation. Inside were several notebooks, all in Kewa, and an attached message. The sender was Wopa, and he wanted me to look at the translated NT materials and check them. Wopa and some other Kewa men had begun to revise the NT, which had been published in 1973. It was almost 25 years later and needed to be brought up to date.
There followed letters back and forth between me and Wopa, and we discussed the matter of an NT revision. He asked Joice and me to come back to PNG and help them.
Joice was 70 at the time, had a job she enjoyed as a school alumni secretary, and was looking forward to regular visits with our Texas family. She didn’t see how we could go back, given her age, her job, and the Texas family (Karol and Mike had now given us three grandchildren). I didn’t push her for a decision to return, but the Holy Spirit did. Shortly after her misgivings, my secretary, who was 80, encouraged her by telling her she had many years left to work overseas. Then suddenly a replacement was found for her job. Things were pointing toward PNG. The final “straw” was when Karol and Mike told us they were going to Ecuador as missionaries for four years.
We applied for PNG visas, and they were granted immediately. By 2002, we were back at our center of operations, Ukarumpa, in the Eastern Highlands of PNG. Wopa came to join us, and for the next 3 years, we worked with him (and others) to revise the NT. It was subsequently printed in Korea, and we had a grand celebration and dedication in 2004, in Wopa’s village, where we had lived for over 5 years.
Wopa was a promoter of the Scriptures and interacted with the churches of the area (Lutheran, Catholic, Wesleyan, Independent) so that they would attend the dedication and buy NTs.
After the dedication, which was attended by thousands, Wopa formed a committee to continue to work on the OT, sending me materials for consultation. Wopa now had not only a computer but also a Bible Society and SIL program that would allow us to send materials and corrections back and forth (we had returned to Texas).
Wopa never lived to see his dream of the whole Bible in Kewa completed, although several OT books were printed in a preliminary form. He died suddenly in May 2013, leaving behind his wife and five children.
Prayer was very important to Wopa and every morning when we prayed together, he would start out with the phrase “Good morning Jesus,” and thank God for helping him to sleep “like a dead man.” Then with an infectious smile that showed the gap between his front teeth (which he called his “window’), we would begin our work.
Wopa’s life impacted me: a man who traveled great distances to see me (over 500km), with danger on the roads and in villages (he had been sliced badly with an axe), a family to care for, and responsibilities as a church leader. There is no doubt that he was faithful to the end of his life.
In 2021, about 3 months before Joice died, the two of us had a conversation about how to remember Wopa. We decided to establish a Wopa Eka Scholarship Endowment fund at the Dallas International University. It is used for students pursuing Bible translation and has to date received over $35,000 in gifts. It is a small but worthy memorial to Wopa. As one acquaintance told me, “He certainly demonstrated everything ‘heartily as to the Lord.’”