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Seminole missionaries look ahead after tsunami

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:13 AM
SEMINOLE -

— Moviegoers are giving rave reviews to the film "The Impossible," which opened nationwide last week.

So are John and Bonnie Nystrom of Seminole.

Watching the Hollywood version of the true story of a family swept up in the terror of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand was a deeply personal experience.

For the Nystroms, it brought back memories of the summer of 1998, when three 30-foot waves, triggered by a 7.0 oceanic earthquake, engulfed the tiny beach village of Arop in Papua New Guinea. The death toll was stunning: 843, a third of the village's population. More than 2,000 others died in neighboring coastal villages.

This was home, too, for the Nystroms. They had lived side by side with the Arops for 10 years, serving as missionaries for the Orlando-based Wycliffe Bible Translators. They raised and schooled their son and daughter there, and grew to love the native people like their own family.

"It was breathtaking — painfully so," Bonnie says of the movie. "It gave us a much clearer understanding of what so many of our friends endured. Tumbling in the rushing waters, the injuries caused by all the debris. You could really feel what was happening."

On the evening the Papua New Guinea tsunami hit, the Nystroms were 300 miles away at the mission's linguistics center. By fate, they had gone there two weeks earlier. After learning of the disaster through a radio transmission, they could only think of one thing:

Please, Lord, keep them safe.

The next day, as they flew over the Arop village in a plane owned by the ministry, the Nystroms saw the devastation from 300 feet above. No distinguishable landmarks were left, except for the cement foundation of the village church.

Their house made of palm bark and sawn timber, and everyone else's, was gone. The pilot didn't want to fly any closer, fearful of seeing floating bodies in the lagoon.

It would be a year before the couple could again walk along that spit of a beach with its flattened coconut trees, devoid of human life. But they did not abandon their mission or their faith.

The tragedy, they say, only made it stronger.

Missionaries don't consider their work a profession. It's a calling, they say.

"It's the kind of thing that people say, 'Wow, that's really cool what you do.' But deep down inside, they're thinking, 'Better you than me.' It's definitely not for everyone," John says with a laugh.

They learned to live without air conditioning, movie theaters and conveniences such as Pampers and fast food. Their faith serves them in all aspects of life, including going without a steady paycheck. The Nystroms, both 51, depend on about 80 individual supporters and a dozen or so churches for income, including their home congregation, First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks.

They've spent most of their adult lives in the remote area, several time zones away from family and American friends, in a culture where women fished and men gardened.

To get there, it takes about two days of travel and numerous stops — by commercial airline, small aircraft and a pickup truck. They had to learn to speak a language that isn't even written, and adapt to a culture completely foreign to their own.

Yet they never regret the life they chose.

Bonnie, the 1979 valedictorian at Keswick Christian High School in St. Petersburg, knew from her early teens that she wanted to do mission work.

She read an ad in a Christian magazine for Wycliffe, an organization that dispenses missionaries to translate the Scriptures where people have no access to the Bible in their native tongue. And she set her sights on doing Bible translations in far-flung countries.

"It's how I know God; it's how God comforts me," she says. "The Bible has been significant in my life. So I wanted to give that opportunity to someone else who never experienced it."

Meanwhile, the man she would marry, John Nystrom, had the same revelation while attending Wheaton College outside of Chicago in the late 1970s. When a Wycliffe representative who was visiting campus told him an estimated 300 million people had no Bible in their own language, he knew that was the work he wanted to do.

"I know the incredible impact the Scriptures can have on someone hearing them for the very first time," he says. "But how can the church do its work if it can't communicate with the people it's trying to reach?"

Both Bonnie and John ended up at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in North Dakota in 1983. It didn't take long for the like-minded Christians to fall in love, marry and head to Dallas for further training.

They had a lot of options for where they could do their work. They selected Papua New Guinea, an island nation north of Australia — 9,000 miles from home. They arrived in August 1987.

"If you went any farther, you'd be heading back this way," John says.

In a land area the size of California, about 800 languages are spoken. What the couple liked about PNG, as it is referred to, was the work that already had begun there.

Wycliffe and another partner organization had a project that encouraged the Papua New Guineans to do the translation in their own languages. The missionaries would assist local translators, rather than the other way around.

The Nystroms' assignment: The village of Arop, built on a delicate sand spit along the Pacific Ocean that was 100 yards wide and 3 miles long. As vulnerable as it looked, John never considered hurricanes a threat. Too close to the equator, he thought.

Turns out, he was right about that. He never thought about tsunamis.

Nothing moves quickly on the island.

Time is measured in years, not nanoseconds, the way Americans are used to. In a decade's worth of work, the Nystroms worked with teams of local translators, publishing the Books of Genesis and Mark in the Arop language. The goal was to complete the New Testament in five more years.

On July 17, 1998, the ocean erupted. There was no warning, other than a massive rumbling and the earth breaking apart beneath them. It happened around sunset on a beautiful evening, as adults were tying up their dugout canoes and children were playing a last game of tag before dark.

Had the Nystroms and their two children, Eric and Brianna, been there, and not on a visit to their other home base in Ukarumpa across the country, they would have been in their home, preparing dinner.

By the time they got word of "massive loss of life" and took the flyover with the ministry's pilot, the shocked couple could operate on only one level: What can we do to help? In the early stages, with the village destroyed and the area under quarantine, they couldn't do much.

"I think that helpless feeling was the hardest of all," Bonnie says.

The grief came in waves, as they learned that their main Arop translator, a close friend, had died, and all but two of the village men had lost either a spouse or a child.

Several generations of some families were completely wiped out.

Months later, they joined the Arop survivors, who had been living in scattered care centers, in rebuilding the village about 2 miles inland in bush country. It would be a whole year before the Nystroms could walk back to the obliterated village and see the devastation up close. They stood on the septic tank of their washed-away home — a tank that once had been buried several feet under the sand.

Some of the survivors wondered if their ancestral gods had sent the tsunami to punish them for welcoming Christians into their lives. The converts thought maybe God was showing his wrath because not enough of their neighbors had accepted Christianity.

But the hardest part, Bonnie says, was the reality that life would never be the same. Families were no longer whole, and they were forced to live in the bush, away from their beloved beach. That meant more heat, more mosquitoes and more malaria. Many died from the disease.

Today, the mission is on a far different course.

People from villages to the east and west, with the common bond of recovery after the tsunami, came forward. They began asking for Bible translations in their respective languages as well. So instead of just concentrating on the Arops, the Nystroms and other Wycliffe missionaries formed an expanded team with a broader goal.

It now includes about 20 pastors of multiple denominations and 11 languages coming from an area of 30 by 15 miles. They all work together at the same time in the same place, translating the same passages.

"It took a tragedy to bring about this teamwork and transformation," John says. "It's changed how we do Bible translations in Papua New Guinea. We see God's grace working in incredible ways."

One of the healing exercises for the Arop villagers was to write down their recollections of that horrible day in a literacy class taught by the local pastor. He, too, had survived the churning waters and told the Nystroms about his harrowing experience. Those accounts are part of the Nystroms' new book, "Sleeping Coconuts," published in August by Wycliffe.

The book also details the shell-shocked months after the tsunami and how such an event led to a ministry with a far greater reach. They say writing it was an emotional experience, despite the 14 years that had passed.

"It was like grieving all over again," John says.

Their children are grown, both married and working in their respective professions.

After 25 years of living abroad, the Nystroms have moved home to Seminole to be closer to Bonnie's aging parents. They are still part of the Bible translation team, keeping in contact via Skype and making extended trips back to Papua New Guinea every year.

Part of them will always be there, on an island nation halfway around the world where they were part of a seemingly unreachable mission against great odds.

"We invested in people and in the word of God," Bonnie says. "What better way to spend a life?"


The Nystroms will share their experiences with groups; call 1-800-WYCLIFFE for more information, and ask for Dustin Moody. To learn more about the book, go to www.sleepingcoconuts.com.

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