When the drum notes changed, every man in the canoes traded paddles for axes, spears, bows and arrows, and long jungle knives. The launch crew trembled. Too terrified to breathe.
Before Captain Gilbert McLaren or his crew were able to start the engine and pull up the anchor, they were surrounded by a fleet of brightly colored war canoes filled with the most awful-looking cannibals the sailors had ever imagined. Like nightmares come true, the screeching warriors moved to attack the mission launch.
The sailors had expected this would happen. Captain McLaren had kept their destination secret until the Veilomani I had moved several days away from port. The captain believed that God was calling him to bring the good news of Jesus to the most ferocious people on earth— the cannibals of Mussau. They had killed the other missionary who had come to their island. Killed him, eaten him, and burned his Bible. To go here, and survive, would require an act of God!
“They will kill us!” “They will eat us like they did the other missionary.” “Even government men will not visit the cannibals of Mussau.” “We won’t go.”
But the captain knew God had called him to Mussau. The vision was clear, and he described it to the men in detail.
“Yes, the people of southern Mussau are bloodthirsty cannibals, masters of the sea who bring war to all nearby islands and eat their captives. They worship demons, live in filthy villages, coat themselves with pig grease, hang the bones of their enemies around their necks, and scream war cries that melt the courage of the strongest warriors. Yet these are the very children whom God has called us to tell of His love.”
* * *
It took several hours before the sailors knelt with their dedicated captain and begged God for safety among the people of Mussau.
Good winds and calm weather had brought them through the other New Guinea islands. But now as they sailed toward Mussau’s southern tip, they were greeted with the terrifying rumble of wooden war drums and drunken screeching. Hearts in their throats, the sailors slipped the Veilomani I into the large lagoon, dropped anchor, and turned off the engine.
A moment of silence was replaced by total terror as a flotilla of a dozen fully armed war canoes launched into the lagoon. Drums, pounded by invisible warriors deep in the palm trees, drove the canoes to quickly surround the tiny mission launch. When the drum notes changed, every man in the canoes traded paddles for axes, spears, bows and arrows, and long jungle knives. The launch crew trembled. Too terrified to breathe.
No, not every man. Captain McLaren stood tall in the center of the deck and slowly began to sing.
“Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,
Anywhere He leads me in this world below;
Anywhere without Him dearest joy would fade;
Anywhere with Jesus I am not afraid.”
The rest of his men joined him on the second verse, and the third. They sang the chorus again and again and again, while the cannibals of Mussau sat silently in their war canoes, enthralled by the sound of singing.
The sailors sang every hymn they could remember, and made up several new ones. Then they sang them all again, their terror transforming into amazement as the cannibals relaxed, laid down their weapons, and listened to heaven’s songs coming from the strange boat. Several hours later, as the sun slipped into the sea, the chief turned the canoes back to the silent village. The sailors quickly started the engine and reached for the anchor so they could race away to safety.
“No,” called Captain McLaren. “We cannot leave. The Lord has given us an opening into the hearts and minds of these people. We must stay.” The captain sat alone on the deck that night, letting the dark close in around him and talking with God about His children in the forests of Mussau.
* * *
At sunrise one war canoe returned with two warriors and the chief in it, approaching the mission launch and requiring more singing. The sailors sang all the hymns they knew, singing for their lives, singing until their voices could hardly croak out a melody. Near noon the chief rose in the war canoe, and speaking in broken Pidgin English, asked if the captain could teach his people to sing like that.
“Yes,” answered Captain McLaren. “We can teach your people to sing, but we must also open a school so we can teach them to read and write and sing. May I send for a teacher?”
The chief was not happy with McLaren’s words. But after consulting with his counselors, he agreed for the captain and his men to come ashore and start a school. “For our children,” he said.
“Never would have thought to sing,” one of the sailors told his captain. “That was genius.”
“Not genius,” responded McLaren “I was so afraid that I just did the first thing God put into my head. I sang, almost sure it would be my last act on earth. But God comes through, and impresses us to do the right thing at just the right moment in His way.”
On April 18, 1931, the Veilomani I returned to Mussau carrying three teachers—Oti, from the Solomon Islands; and Ereman and Tolai, from nearby Rabaul. The chief met them, tested their singing abilities, then helped build woven palm thatch structures for the teachers and the school. When all was ready, the teachers began the first class—singing! The whole village (and others from the mountains and other parts of the island) came to listen and practice singing along with the children.
Singing songs was the beginning of teaching everyone on the island about the love of God and the life of His children. Before long, the cannibals of Mussau became Christians who read the Bible in Pidgin, gave up their demon gods, ate healthy food, drank clean water, and sang hymns on Sabbath.
Fear I cannot know;
Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.”
I first heard this story from John Hancock, General Conference youth director, shortly after he and James Harris, South Pacific Division youth director, had visited Mussau.