I completed my seminary education in December of 1979 and was ready for my first congregation. I was called to Christ Lutheran Church in Lignite, North Dakota. Lignite is in the far northwest corner of that wind-blown, barren state. On a windy, 30 degree below zero day in January, my wife and I and two small children moved into a crooked old parsonage that would be torn down a few years later. I remember we felt a little bit sorry for ourselves way out there in the middle of nowhere. But it turned out that the people were wonderful, and pretty soon we felt very much at home.
Several years earlier, in 1962, Don Richardson began his ministry in a place even more remote than North Dakota. Don was called to serve as a missionary to the Sawi tribe whose home was far up river from civilization, deep in the jungles of Dutch New Guinea. The Sawis had not yet advanced beyond the Stone Age, and, they were cannibals and headhunters. But still Don went there, taking along his wife Carol and their seven month old son. The Sawis did not eat the Richardson family, but they did continue to make war on their neighboring enemy tribes, feasting on their slain foes and lining their huts with enemy skulls.
Don and Carol worked hard to learn the complex language of the tribe, and they began to teach them about salvation in Christ Jesus. There are always barriers to communicating the Gospel to cultures very different from one’s own, but the Sawi presented some particularly challenging problems. For example, the Sawi culture placed a high value on treachery and deception. It was a mark of distinction for a warrior to be able to deceive an enemy into thinking he was a friend, and then, when they least expected it, betray and kill and eat them. So when the Sawi heard the story of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus they were impressed, especially by the part about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. But it was Judas, not Jesus, who was their hero. To them, Judas was a clever deceiver to be admired, and Jesus was a fool to be laughed at.
It appeared this would be an impossible barrier to overcome. But one day Richardson learned of the Sawi concept of the ‘Peace Child.’ Even the Sawis and their enemies would at times get tired of killing each other, and for those times they had a ritual for making peace. War had broken out while the Richardsons were living with them, and after weeks of fighting, the Richardsons began to talk about leaving. The missionaries had been helpful to the Sawis in many ways, and the Sawis did not want to see them go. Thus motivated to stop the fighting, the chief of the Sawi tribe agreed to pay the traditional price for peace. In a generations old ceremony, the chief took his own infant son and placed him in the arms his enemies. The child would live with the enemy tribe for the rest of his life, and as long as he lived, there would be peace between the tribes. The chiefs of other tribes then also did the same, giving up a Peace Child of their own to their enemies.
Don wrote: “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.” Through this analogy of Jesus being the ultimate Peace Child who will never die, Don was able to reach the Sawi with the truth of the gospel. They came to believe that this God and this Jesus could be trusted. Eventually the New Testament was published in their language, and many villagers placed their trust in Christ.
Don Richardson wrote of his family’s work with the Sawi’s in a book called Peace Child. The story has also been made into a 25 minute movie, which is a tremendous testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace. You may view Peace Child here:
In 2012, Don Richardson, then 77, and his three sons, returned to the tribe that he and his wife went to over 50 years before. An incredible 15 minute film of this visit titled Never the Same can be viewed at:
An interview with Don Richardson:
Romans 5:10 — For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Matthew 28:18-20 — Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Acts 1:8 — (Jesus said), “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us. Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen. (Lutheran Book of Worship, p.45)