Issue 5.10 | July 2019
In this Special Edition: Remembering John D Wilson. He never saw himself as a leader, yet his actions transformed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
by Jonathan Wilson
Under a soft Spring rain on March 14 this year, my father died as he had lived: with a quiet dignity that belied all he had seen and done. Throughout his adult life, John David Wilson consistently maintained that he was not gifted as a leader. Some who knew him would have agreed: John was not a charismatic figure.
John’s estimation of his leadership was not a complaint. To be or not be a leader was of no concern to him. However, given that he played a significant part in the transformation of an entire society, it is difficult to avoid the indication of leadership skill on his part. John’s life showed that the strength of his leadership lay precisely in his almost complete lack of self-regard.
John wanted to be useful. To make oneself useful, to do so with clarity about what matters, to take initiative, to stay the course, and while doing so to maintain warmth (and vulnerability) in all your relations; these lie perhaps at the heart of leadership. They certainly lay at the heart of John’s.
John was born in 1943 in Scotland into a family known for achievement. Among his relations were high-ranking businessmen, politicians and missionaries — lots of missionaries. Both his grandparents and parents were missionaries in the Belgian Congo. Among other things, they participated in a long but successful campaign to end the appalling atrocities and genocide (estimates range from 6-13 million Africans) that accompanied the Belgian extraction of rubber from central African rainforests. Adam Hochschild skilfully retells this gripping story in his book, King Leopold’s Ghost. My grandmother described to me how my great grandfather, and then my grandfather, confronted local colonial perpetrators over their abuses, while meticulously documenting atrocities which they forwarded to the lobby effort in Europe.
At the outbreak of World War II, John’s father left the Congo. He served on Winston Churchill’s staff as well as in dangerous conditions behind enemy lines. After the war he became Accountant General for the Department of Health in Scotland.
Into this family of over-achievers John was born. Being perceived by his family as something of a runt, however, he was often treated as an under-achiever. Nevertheless, he followed in his parents’ steps and became a missionary. He was the only one of his siblings to do so.
John went to one of the last unknowns of the planet, to the hinterland of New Guinea and the remote Yali tribe, who live in the central mountains of that vast island.
Boundary Crossing Leadership
To understand John, you have to understand what a missionary is. A missionary is a boundary-crosser. In some circles missionaries have a bad brand. Sometimes it is deserved. The best missionaries, however, have taken love-fuelled initiative to enter the world of a people totally unlike themselves, simply to serve them. John was this kind of missionary.
Being a boundary-crosser is risky. It is to choose vulnerability. In 1971, John and his wife Gloria, with their first son (me), left behind family, security and a predictable career path for John in the construction industry. They traded it for life in a tribe emerging from the Stone Age. With their two other sons born in Papua, they were often exposed to illness, mistreatment, and death.
The Yali are a richly communitarian culture, which deeply impressed John. Yet they were frequently at war, cannibalistic, extraordinarily misogynistic, vulnerable to disease and natural disaster, and cut-off from every modern amenity, whether electricity, shops or hospitals. To serve the Yali well, however, John knew he would have to need them as much as they may have needed anything he had to offer. In a documentary interview he once said, “You know you’ve become the missionary you were meant to be the day you become dependent on the people you were sent to serve.”
Choosing vulnerability meant that John and Gloria determined to live subject to what the Yali were subject to. In 1975, warriors massed above a river, brandished weapons and flung boulders from the canyon’s walls, threatening the lives of anyone who crossed over. John and his companions crossed over. Having received news of the possible killing of a Yali colleague, John and his companions were intent on ensuring this troubling breakdown in relationships became a breakthrough. It did.
Sometime in the eighties, he got such a severe case of eczema that his entire body became a weeping wound. He looked as if he had been in a fire. He stayed.
In 1989, he spent three long days assisting in search and rescue after an earthquake. While trying to reach three women trapped on a slope, a rock the size of a small house crashed down the mountain towards them. It flew past them, blasting them with a terrifying spray of mud and stone. The horrors he saw haunted him at night. Soon after, the Indonesian authorities cynically exploited the crisis, possibly in an attempt to get access to rich mineral reserves in the land. They attempted to relocate the Yali and Hupla tribes on offer of a better life in a “city” newly built just for them. John and another colleague risked their status in Indonesia, vigorously advocating for the tribes’ rights to their lands. Other missionaries opposed their activism, fearing it would trigger the deportation of not only John and his colleague, but themselves. Today the Yali and Hupla remain in their traditional lands. No missionaries were deported.
John’s generosity of spirit was well-known. The island’s tribes are fiercely proud of their respective identities, and sometimes missionaries unwittingly got caught up in that. A Yali was overheard to say, “John is not like other missionaries. Most missionaries take delight only in their own tribe. John takes delight in the Yali, but he also takes delight in the Momuna, the Dani, the Hupla, and the Kimyal” (tribes of that region).
John spent the last 28 years of his life based in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Here too the same generosity extended to all he met. These included students at the university where he briefly taught, patiently helping them to track down obscure but important resources; a blue-collar recovering alcoholic and street thug, whose loyal friendship John earned, and who voluntarily completed a prison term after John nudged him towards integrity; and many other “ordinaries” and “nobodies” in his community, including those often ignored because of their developmental disabilities.
Trained to see himself as a sub-performer, John entered his adult life with a fairly low estimation of his abilities. He completed undergraduate studies without accolades. It was not until he began living among the Yali that he discovered that he was a master linguist. Discovering his capacity for deep reflection and rigorous analysis, he published anthropological and theological papers.
The Yali were an exclusively oral society. Their language and culture had no written expression. John refused to describe them as illiterate. But he believed in the value of the written word, and developed an orthography for the language. He and Gloria developed a literacy program, with indigenous trainers, that resulted in some two thirds of the tribe becoming functionally literate.
In time, John’s initiative resulted in the publication of the first complete Bible translation in Indonesian New Guinea. The New Testament, published in 1993, took John fifteen years to translate. It was a journey of painstaking linguist analysis, consultations throughout the tribe, and translational decisions. How does one render terms for things never seen by the Yali, such as sheep, bread, cows, or swords? When do you structure sentences using the rhetorical rules of Yali story telling?
This journey was not only about the translation itself. It was about empowerment on multiple levels: the gift of ancient literature full of life-giving wisdom, the gift of written language, and the gift of education. Mentored by John, two Yali men, Otto Kobak and Luliap Bahabol, men born into the Stone Age, became skilled translators in their own right, at home in both ancient literature and modern technology, such as laptops and word-processing software.
When the New Testament was published, Otto and Luliap asked John when they would begin translation of the Old Testament. “We won’t”, was his reply, “but you will, if you’re willing, and I’ll support you.” To massive celebrations, the full Bible was published in 2000. It was evaluated by linguists as an expert translation, and at that time was the only Bible translation in Papua in which the primary translators were indigenous. This year it is entering its third reprint.
John saw the big picture. He understood the long game, and he played it. He knew what was required for the Yali to be self-sustaining in the face of the increasingly powerful influences of colonial government, regional immigration and industry (chiefly mining). John assumed their ability to cope, provided they were treated as the capable people he knew them to be. He arrived at a Yali community leadership conference in the early 2000s and noted an agenda item entitled, “globalisation.” “What is this?” he asked? The Yali leader replied, in all seriousness, “Don’t you know what globalisation is?” For John, such an interaction was deeply satisfying.
In the early ’90s he was telling mission agencies founded in the UK and North America that the time had come to relocate their headquarters to the non-Western world, relinquish their hold as chief brokers, and work as equal partners with non-Western agencies. Shifts have since taken place, but even today too many agencies fall behind in this area.
Death and Renewal
In 2001, during a teaching trip to Papua, John experienced severe abdominal pain and was medevacked to Australia. A surgeon removed a Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumour. It was the beginning of what proved to be an eighteen-year journey with cancer. John thought of this latter season of his life as more important than his years of drama and achievement in Papua. In these years he recognized an unbecoming streak of selfishness and anger, and family members watched him develop greater empathy and gentleness. His relationship with my brothers shifted from somewhat strained to loving and close. He continued to return to Papua to provide leadership development opportunities for indigenous leaders. As ever, these were marked by his humble posture towards them. He was still their servant.
John Wilson was not just my father. He was one of my closest friends. In my teen years we often hiked and explored together in the wilds of Papua. Our conversations — about God, sex, culture, wildlife, and more — were open and honest. To him, thinking things through was more important than our coming to agreement.
It was my privilege, with my family, to walk closely with him in the last eighteen months of his life as he eventually succumbed to the cancer — and with my mother, who cared for him tirelessly to the end. In his last weeks in a nearby hospice, staff would cycle through his room to spend time with him. They often remarked on his peaceful demeanour. They devoured his memoir, taking turns to read it while on breaks. Troubled at overhearing a caregiver express her low self-estimation, he asked other staff to ensure that she knew she was valued.
While respecting the diverse perspectives and beliefs of my readers, it would be wrong to downplay my father’s Christian faith. In his last months he was asked, “Are you afraid of death?” He answered, “I have found God to be utterly trustworthy throughout my life. Why would he be any less trustworthy when I die?” In that respect too, he died as he lived.
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