A Man for All People
Fifty years later, missionary Don Richardson reunites with the people to whom he first brought the message of the Peace Child.
By Patrick Wood
Most places in the world had changed dramatically over the last five decades, but the jungles below Don Richardson’s plane didn’t appear to be one of them. The 77-year-old missionary surveyed the once-familiar landscape as the aircraft’s pontoons touched down on the Cronkel River. It had been decades since he had lived in Kamur, and returning felt like stepping back in time.
About a quarter mile away, across the glittering water, a large crowd waited expectantly, the drums pounding among them. Richardson—along with his three grown sons Stephen, Shannon, and Paul—watched as a long, narrow canoe glided across the surface, powered by tribesmen coming to welcome the men and transport them to shore.
As Richardson approached the riverbank, certain details came into focus: colorful headdresses made from the plumage of birds of paradise; grass skirts; jewelry made from animal fangs; and white paint covering dark faces. In hands, spears and bows. The Sawi looked much the same as when Richardson had first met them. Only back then, they were cannibals.
It was June 1962, and the Sawi were one of the few remaining tribes in Western New Guinea, Indonesia, to practice headhunting. They had heard scattered reports of “tuans”—rare white-skinned beings who were known to be tall and in possession of secret tools: transparent strings for fishing, toothy blades for cutting wood, and potent medicines.
Hoping to make contact and gain favor with the tuans, the Sawi asked other tribes for help. It wouldn’t be possible, one of them explained. “You’re the worst of all tribes. You’ll never find favor with such beings.”
Meanwhile, Richardson had heard about the Sawi and wanted to meet them. Through some local contacts, arrangements were underway. Later that month, he set out by canoe for Kamur miles down the river. And despite what could have made for an ominous first impression—the spears, painted faces, bony adornments, and beating drums—things went surprisingly well. During the visit, Richardson eventually asked through improvised sign language if he could build a house there for his family. Exuberant, they said yes, and in one day a dream came true: A tuan would live among them.
Months progressed, and Richardson was quickly learning to speak Sawi. One afternoon, in a thatched-roof hut, he began telling a story from the Bookhe often studied. The tribesmen were intrigued. But before he was able to finish, the room exploded with laughter. Puzzled, Richardson surveyed the room. Had he told a joke? No, but as it turned out, they thought a great story had just reached its witty conclusion: Judas had outsmarted Jesus and walked away with a bag full of money. And with that, the disciple joined the heroes of Sawi folklore—treacherous men who were revered for their poetic betrayals.
The missionary’s heart sank. If this response to the gospel wasn’t grim enough, matters grew worse when war broke out with a neighboring tribe. Richardson informed the Sawi chief that he’d have to move his family away from Kamur to protect them from the violence. Grieved to hear this, and determined to keep the tuans around, the Sawi became desperate to make peace with their enemies.
The chief of the tribe decided to invoke a traditional custom known as the “peace child agreement”: to initiate a treaty with a rival tribe, one side offered to the other a baby boy to rear as their own. As long as the boy lived, peace would remain.
On the day the agreement was to be made, the chief called for volunteers to give up a child, but no one made a move. The Sawi stood by silently, watching and waiting. And then it happened: with no other options, the chief brought forth his one and only son. The grief in his eyes was unbearable, but the long-term wellbeing of his people took priority. Once the child was received in the arms of the rival chief, peace was officially declared. The war stopped, and the Richardsons were able to stay. Soon after, Don was able to introduce the Sawi to Jesus Christ—the supreme, everlasting Peace Child who was handed over to His enemies for the reconciliation of mankind to the Father.
The analogy worked. Not only was the divine Peace Child comprehended; He was embraced. About two-thirds of the Sawi received Christ as Savior, and the church of Kamur was born. Over the next decade, Richardson tended the mission field he had seeded. The New Testament was translated for the Sawi, and other missionaries were recruited to help disciple the tribe. By 1977, the Sawi church was finally stable and in capable hands, and Richardson felt called to move elsewhere. But he has continued the work he started in Kamur—putting to use lessons he first learned among the Sawi and further developed in the following decades as a researcher, writer, and missiologist. Among his specialties is the subject of “cultural compasses”—redemptive analogies or motifs, like the peace child tradition, that parallel biblical revelation with striking compatibility.
Some of these cultural compasses—such as the flood, virgin birth, the death and resurrection of a deity—recur in several mythologies. Unlike what secular anthropologists suggest, Richardson believes these themes are universal, not because they evolved from one “campfire fable” but because, more accurately, the same Author inspired them. And although time and people would distort these intuitions, God would redeem and make use of them to magnify His metanarrative: the revelation of Jesus Christ (Eccl. 3:11, Acts 17:26-27).
Richardson has discovered other examples elsewhere. In India, the sages of the Iwan tribe would use saliva for healing. When missionaries first shared the gospel with that community, the Christ deity wasn’t of much interest—until they mentioned that Jesus once used saliva for healing too. Not long after, the Iwan declared Christ their true Savior and Healer.
An older example dates back to the dawn of recorded history. Written in Sanskrit about 6,000 years ago, the Hindu scrolls known as The Vedas include a passage about an “upside-down tree.” Its roots are in the heavens and branches spread across the earth. One day, the scroll predicts, its sap will heal all mankind, representing an uncanny parallel to Revelation 22:2: “On either side of the river was the tree of life . . . and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
In addition to those two cases, Richardson wrote about many more in his book Eternity in Their Hearts. Examples relating to the Incas, Celtics, ancient Chinese, and various other tribes strongly support his claim that within the folk religions of ancient peoples is a door to the gospel, waiting for a hand to come and open it.
Richardson stepped out of the boat and into the jubilant crowd gyrating to the sound of beating drums. It was June 2012—precisely 50 years since Richardson first lived among the Sawi. Weeping, laughing, and shouting, the grey-haired elders pressed in to embrace their tuan. They were among the first of Richardson’s disciples, in whose hands the Sawi church prospered and remained faithful.
The unfamiliar faces also made for a pleasant surprise. Not all of them, it turned out, were Sawi. Representatives from four other tribes had come to share in celebrating the Sawi’s 50th anniversary as a church. Once enemies, these neighboring tribes were now family. The Sawi had repeated what Richardson had done unto them: to the North, East, South, and West, they testified about the true Peace Child, who not only reconciles all people to God, but all peoples to each other.
As the day progressed, it became clear that Richardson’s work wasn’t yet complete. The tribe had planned for him to baptize 50 new believers on this visit. But as every missionary comes to appreciate, the Holy Spirit often changes the agenda. By sunset, 315 men, women, and youth had been baptized.
Richardson also dedicated 130 babies to the Lord that weekend and presided over a “mass wedding.” In one day, 102 couples were married in the name of Jesus Christ—all of them monogamous,” he said, with a hint of humor. The ceremony ended with the different tribes dancing to one rhythm, while singing and shouting joyfully to the Lord.
Not unlike the jubilee prescribed to the Jews in Leviticus 25:11-13, a field was, in some sense, returned to its original farmer. The one who plowed the ground and sowed its first seeds 50 years earlier was now rejoicing over his harvest. Only, that was just the visible part. Heaven has yet to unveil the rest—all the other missionaries trained, people saved, and nations that will be healed because a good and faithful steward multiplied what was given him.