Sunday, April 14, 2013

Stories in the Sepik

The man stood before the blackboard and reached for the ground. Picking up an imaginary basket he cradled it in his arms, a quizzical expression on his face. What could it be? As he slipped off the lid, he jumped in surprise and all of us in the audience gasped, then laughed. We couldn’t understand his words, but the meaning was clear—the daughter of Pharaoh had just discovered baby Moses!

It was Day 2 of the third module of the Oral Bible Storytelling course held in Wewak, Papua New Guinea, and one of the students had just finished telling the story of the birth of Moses for the first time in his own tok ples (local language). As he finished the story and broke into a grin, we all clapped and cheered—translating the story, memorizing it, and retelling it with flair is no mean feat!

But, he isn’t the only one to tackle this challenge—representatives from six local languages as well as an additional Tok Pisin group, totaling nearly 30 students, are gathered for several weeks here in April to learn how to tell the Bible stories of Moses and the Exodus in their own languages. This is the third workshop in a series of four led by the participants and facilitated by a team of national trainers from Alotau (I’m here with several other expats to act as mentors and advisors). Together, the group works through memorizing the elements of the story, and retelling it in their own words. In this way, they capture all the meaning and details with the eloquence, gestures, tone of voice, and vocabulary of a vibrant master storyteller.

Storytelling is a deep-set element of Papua New Guinean culture, and thus, retelling Bible stories is a powerful bridge into an oral culture—especially for those languages which don’t yet have access to translations. At the start of this course, the participants gave testimony after testimony of the impact of the stories, which they told in front of churches, walking to local markets, in Bible studies, at work in the gardens, and with the family around the fire at night. “It helps me understand how to preach better,” one pastor explained, and the others nodded in agreement. Another commented that although he is able to read the Bible in his own language, when he retells the story himself, it impacts him at a whole new level. “Em sutim bel bilong mi,” he explained (literally, it shoots me in the stomach/heart meaning, it impacts me deeply).

From describing the frantic search of a shepherd for his lost sheep or the unexpected kindness of a Samaritan, Jesus understood the power of storytelling 2,000 years ago. Whether in the deserts of Israel or the jungles of the Sepik region in Papua New Guinea, that impact remains, and I’m excited to see what the Lord will continue to do with it over the next several weeks!