The Girl and the Box

After three and a half years in Papua, we were looking forward to heading home for a seven-month furlough.

Things were wrapping up nicely. My next day at work was to be my last day of flying—a single out-and-back flight with a load of medical supplies for a team of doctors. Then the phone rang.

Could I add one more flight? A woman from one of the interior villages had died, and her family was asking if we’d fly her body back home—a chance for our team to show compassion to a grieving family.

The next morning, as the shadows gave way to the gentle light of a new day, our ground operations crew gingerly loaded the casket into the back of the Pilatus Porter. A man stood in the shadows watching. In his arms he held a little girl.

Caskets must not come in a standard size in Papua; this one was a bit wider than others I’ve flown. With the polished wooden box taking up most of the cabin, our guys were having trouble installing seats on the seat tracks. Leaving the guys to work on the problem, I walked over to the man in the shadows.

“Was she your wife?”
“I’m so sorry. And the little girl?” I nodded at the beautiful child clinging sleepily to his neck.
“She’s my daughter.”

We were quiet for a while, then walked over to the aircraft together. The team had planned for the two of them to sit together in the cabin alongside the casket, but they were only able to fit one seat into the seat tracks, all the way against the back wall of the cabin. I posed the dilemma to the father: would his daughter rather ride up front next to me or in the back with the casket? He asked her the question in their native tongue. She shook her head vigorously. The father gave me a tired smile. She was more afraid of riding next to the scary foreigner than of sitting alone next to the box that held her mom’s body. She climbed up into that seat, alone in the back of the airplane. I fastened her seat belt and showed her how to open it. I began to pray for her. A little hand clutched mine and held on tight. When I finished, she smiled.

I’m now a world away from the jungles of Papua. Comfortable, relaxed, and secure, I reflect on the ministry ‘back there.’ In the grand scheme of things, it often feels like we don’t really accomplish that much. And that which we do accomplish? It takes an awful lot of effort. It takes an awful lot of money. It has more risk than I’d like. It wears people out.

Why go back?

The Lord brings this little girl to mind. I’ll likely never see her again. I have no idea what her life will hold. But as I remember her, sitting next to her mother’s coffin, squeezing my hand as we prayed, I sense the Lord saying that the ministry in Papua is measured by unimpressive, unnoticed moments like this one. Moments where the feeble faithfulness of a flawed team of men and women brings a taste of Jesus’ unflawed love to one of his ‘least of these.’