This article was first published in The National Weekender on Friday, March 1, 2013
By MALUM NALU
A few months ago in the USA, Reverend Stephen Michael Leach was desperately seeking to return to Papua New Guinea but didn’t have the money to buy airfares here.
Leach, for that that came in late, is a well-known, young, red-headed preacher from Washington DC, USA, who gave up a good life there seven years ago to answer God’s calling in PNG.
|Reverend Stephen Michael Leach with children in the Markham Valley, Morobe province, 2010|
He is a household name in Lae, which he passionately calls “home”, but has also carried out his ministry in other parts of the country, and on the social media.
Leach is the president of Sojourner Missions & Humanitarian Outreach, an interdenominational ministry, focused on edifying and equipping the established church, addressing various societal and human rights concerns from a biblical perspective, and reaching the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
|Leach with two children on Nusa Island, New Ireland province, in 2008.|
Over a cup of coffee last Sunday, we talk about many things including why he gave up a “good life”, the church in PNG, witchcraft, violence against women, et al, however, there is something that haunts Leach to this day.
He tells me, with tears in his eyes, of an incident in Lae some years ago in which a young woman killed herself – over the shame of carrying the child of a married man, and being rejected by the established ‘church’ – which has brought him back to this country.
|Leach baptising at Busu River, Lae, 2006.|
At that time, Leach knew a lovely girl who was vibrant, intelligent, educated and well on her way to becoming a successful career woman.
“Occasionally she would come sit in the studio audience with her friends while I was on air at FM Morobe and I'd see her every day on lunch break on the steps of Vela Rumana,” he says.
|At Christian Life Centre, Speedway in Lae, 2008.|
“ She began a relationship with a older married man and I watched as her life began to fall apart... everyone talked about her... whenever I would greet her in Food Mart I could feel the ever-present watchful eyes of suspicion and judgment from the elders.
“One lapun lotu mama pulled me aside one day after witnessing me greeting the girl and gave me a tongue lashing about how inappropriate it was for a young single reverend with my skin color and position to be seen publicly talking to someone she considered a glorified K2 meri (prostitute).
|A friend to all.|
“I listened to that mama out of fear of offending the lapun Lotu lain and destroying my reputation.
“I stopped going out of my way to greet this girl... I was no longer openly friendly in public lest someone accuse me of flirting with her.
“A few months later I was catching a PMV from Madang to Lae and as we went around Madang town and I hung my head out of window yelling, ‘Lae! Lae! Lae!" like a legit boss crew, I saw this girl walking towards the bus from the market carrying her bags.
“I thought to myself, ‘oh no..., she saw me and smiled and for a moment I saw the girl she used to be.
“She sat beside me all day on the bumpy and dust filled ride back to swit rainy Lae.
“We talked some and she tried to engage me in conversation, but I was so fearful of what other people on the bus would think about us that I engaged her politely, but I never really talked about anything in depth.
“We dropped her off at the hostel in Lae and I said, ‘lukim yu bihain wantok’ as she walked away.
“A few days later I heard that she had discovered that she was pregnant with the child of that married man and that she had hung herself in her bedroom.
“I mourned her death and the death of her child,
“I cried out to God and begged Him to forgive me for bowing to the pressure of religion and culture and shunning her for the sake of my own reputation.
“I begged God to forgive me for wasting an entire day sitting next to her on the bus from Madang when I could have been speaking life over her spirit.
“It was and is one of the most shameful moments of my ministry.... but I share it with you today because I do not want you to make the same mistake that I did all those years ago.
“God had sent me 10,000 miles across the world to her nation.
“He had placed me in her life; He had made a white boy from Virginia a honorary boss crew on a Madang PMV so that He could place me right next to her while she was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
“And I had bowed down to the religious spirits and the whispering tongues of gossips and in so doing I had betrayed my calling as a missionary.
“For years I carried that all-consuming guilt and felt that the blood of her and her unborn child was on my ‘holy’ hands.
“When she died I changed.
“I ceased caring what any of the judgmental religious people thought about me.
Leach was in an antique store in Virginia last year where he had been selling items to raise money for his return tickets to PNG and the owner stopped him and said, "Oh wait Stephen I brought you something from home!" and handed him a well-worn 1975 Kina coin from PNG saying, "Thirty years ago I was working in doctor’s office and my boss brought this for me from PNG... I think it's only fitting that it returns back where it came from with you!"
“To her it was just a coin from a strange nation but to me it was a rainbow painted in the sky!” Leach recalls.
|Reverend Stephen Michael Leach|
“I almost never dream, but the next night I dreamt of the rich red soil of the Highlands, row-after-row of coffee and tea, my first home in the village made out of grass with woven bamboo walls, and a dirt floor.
“I tasted yellow kaukau cooked in the fire and kumu seasoned with ginger and coconut and I saw dozens of children running alongside the PMV yelling, ‘White mahn! White mahn!’ and I stuck my head out the window and screamed back, ‘Em stap we?! Mi no lukim em!’
“I never dream, but that night I dreamed.
“A few days later, vessels of the Lord here in Papua New Guinea wired US$2,000 into our ministry account to help me with airfare.
“It was a seed offering from PNG for PNG.
“I wept, I danced, I shouted, I lost my English and my Tok Pisin.