AND IT CAME TO PASS in the spring of 1985 that Tom Feldpausch went forth into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, taking with him his wife, Becky, and their two boys, Aaron and Isaac. Armed with only a Bible and three phrases in the local dialect, the young missionary couple settled in the tiny village of Yaru, deep inside a trackless mangrove swamp on a tributary of the sluggish Sepik River.
The 3,000 Namia tribesmen, for whom the Feldpauschs had come to translate the New Testament, were no strangers to cannibalism. Until 1960 they had carved enemies into entrees, and most of the natives over 35 had pierced septums through which bones had once protruded. Some now had a grade-school education and, in theory, the majority were Christian. But animism's grip remained strong. If neither prayer nor penicillin cured the sick, Yaru's women were not averse to donning coconut fronds, surrounding the prostrate warrior and swaying to the beat of a jungle drum.
During the day, the Feldpauschs listened to the voices around them as the villagers hunted pigs or gathered sago, the edible pith of a palm that can be cooked into a starchy bread. At night they wrote down phonetically what they'd heard, trying to ignore the fruit bats nesting in the roof and the insects pounding on the window screens. They endured the humidity, grew accustomed to torpor and eventually stopped hearing the buzz of the swamp that began 10 yards from their house. Rain was their water; baths came from a bucket. They lived no better than their neighbors, which probably is why, by the end of their first year, Tom and Becky had hepatitis and their eldest son shook with malarial fever.
"I believe our faith has been tested," says Feldpausch, a slight man with a red beard whose self-effacing demeanor belies his dedication to evangelism. "We've confronted people who use black magic, and we've seen what natives claim are the results of their sorcery. But we've never had anything to fear. Our God is stronger than any jungle spirit."
Every Wednesday at dusk a conch shell sounds three times, summoning the Christians of Yaru to worship. Moving slowly through the shadows, Feldpausch and the tribesmen head toward a thatched long house perched atop stilts at the edge of the swamp. The church has few amenities. A rude stairway hacked into the trunk of a tree serves as the entrance. Inside are no prayer books or pews. Neither is there an altar. But there is no shortage of Christian faith. Conducted in the sepia glow of a kerosene lamp, the service is a celebration filled with a cappella hymns and personal accounts of God's power. Feldpausch is an active participant, especially when lending harmony to "Bringing In the Sheaves," but though he occasionally offers a prayer, he never gives a sermon.
"I came here to meet these people and learn their language, not to preach," he explains, walking home through stands of banana trees. "I can't come here and use my Western values to make moral judgments. I just want to translate the Bible so that when we leave, the word of God will remain."
TOM FELDPAUSCH IS NO ABNER HALE, the xenophobic 19th-Century cleric in James Michener's "Hawaii" who harangued the "heathen" when not covering Polynesian maidens in muumuus. Neither does he resemble Pearl Buck or Tom Dooley, whose missions earlier this century served as refuges from Asian anarchy and communism. Feldpausch, a former insurance adjuster from Van Nuys, and his wife typify a new generation of evangelists that rejects the role of the Good Shepherd and the recitation of psalms. In diverse and often surprising ways, these modern missionaries dedicate their lives to both the material and spiritual development of impoverished societies.
In Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, Baptists help Hmong tribesmen, traditional cultivators of the opium poppy, market substitute crops such as strawberries and coffee. Catholic Relief Service workers oversee literacy programs for Vietnamese boat people awaiting resettlement in Philippine refugee camps. Seventh-day Adventists operate many of the largest hospitals in East Asia. If anything unites these Christian workers, beyond a belief in Jesus and his promise of eternal life, it is the pragmatic insistence on personal involvement. "A missionary has to sacrifice and work with the people," says 64-year-old Robert Morse, a China-born missionary who has committed five Asian languages to writing. "Well-appointed mission stations and New England-style church buildings are completely useless. In a pagan world you have to reach the people at the bottom."