A Container Comes Home to PNG

Patrick Melson on March 28, 2009

(Printed in our Mission's "Message" Magazine, Summer 1996)  

Every missionary–especially those going overseas for the first time–faces the dilemma: should I take the household goods I already have or purchase what I need when I get there? On the one hand the toys, the linens, the furniture is familiar and paid for. On the other hand it is expensive to ship and bothersome to clear through customs, as Patrick and Kellis Melson found out.

Bbbbvvvt! Bbbbvvvt! One eye opens in the dark, then another. Bbbbvvvt! Where is it? Listening. Waiting. Bbbbvvvt! WHACK! Bbbbvvvt! Missed again, but how easy is it to swat a mosquito in the dark? Try to brush them away and they just return, somehow sensing the exact moment before sleep. Why do they do this? Why don't they just wait until I'm asleep and take all they want? I believe it is some sort of mental torture, resulting from the Fall. Adam and Eve sinned, so now we have mosquitoes!

It is very much like shipping a container overseas for the first time. All of your earthly possessions are being sent to you, yet you are often in the dark. Where is it? Listening. Waiting. Missed contacts and calls unreturned. Why does this happen? I believe it is some sort of mental torture, resulting from the Fall. Adam and Eve sinned, so now we have container problems!

When the orange container was delivered to our home church for packing, the only agreement was that it was ugly. Kellis said, "Our stuff will never fit!" I thought it was HUGE so I said something clever like "It's HUGE!" sixty times or so. When the container drove off a friend said, "Your life is in that box," but we knew better. Our lives were in God's hands and He is bigger than our ugly orange box.

During the 42 hour trip to Papua New Guinea we forgot about the container, but when we arrived on October 7, 1995, the missionaries asked about it. Was it our first container? When was it due? Who was delivering it? It sounded as if we were expecting a baby! We had success with babies, so we were optimistic, but this was our first container. Horror stories abounded: shipments rummaged through by customs agents, additional fees charged, goods damaged, and the unlikely possibility of a loss at sea. Also, we were too optimistic about an early arrival. Our missionary colleagues told us shipments never arrived early even though our shipper assured us it would come by the end of November. "The end of November? Is that so?" the seasoned missionaries questioned. It didn't seem unlikely to us, but we didn't know; it was our first container. Some used the "I" word: "Impossible! It won't happen!" Our optimism waned a bit, but we were still hopeful. God often does the impossible.

At that moment, however, it was beginning to seem impossible just to hear about our container from the shipping agency. In early November they told us it had come to Singapore and promised to send word as to when it would arrive in Papua New Guinea. We were so excited! Our container would be here for Christmas after all! But November dragged to a close and despite sending faxes to the agent we heard nothing. Patience. We must be patient. God will work this out. Christmas passed without our container or even news about it. Oh how pretty that HUGE, ugly, orange box would look! On December 28, we received a cargo arrival advice dated 1\12\95. The 1995 was obviously a misprint, but our container was arriving on the 12th of January. Or was it?

We couldn't call because the phone service was out, but we had plenty of time. We could sort out all the details from Goroka, the capital, when we went there on January 5th for the Spiritual Emphasis week of meetings–or so we thought. Shipping information in the newspapers is notoriously full of errors. Ours, however, was correct. It was dated 1\12\95, but with Asia's dating method this meant December 1, 1995–not January 12. A phone call confirmed it; our container had spent a lonely Christmas on the wharf. Our shipper never informed us that it had arrived! This was good news and bad. The good news was that our stuff was in PNG; the bad news was that our own horror story was costing 150 Kina (about U.S. $114 per day) in storage fees. We secured an agent to help in clearing our container through customs as we began our week of Spiritual Emphasis. The main messages were from the book of Job. You know what happens when someone preaches on Job. You learn about loss, contentment, priorities, patience, sickness, sorrow, disappointment, discouragement and utter trust in the God who is bigger than all, even bigger than a HUGE, ugly, orange container. After you have been reminded, God gives you opportunities to practice what you have learned. We didn't expect to hear that our camels and sheep were stolen, but we did wonder what God was trying to teach us. Really, you can't figure it out. You must just trust God who is bigger than the problem.

I was beginning to wonder if anything but God was going to be bigger than our phone bill. Through our week of Spiritual Emphasis and the next week of Field Council meetings we were phoning and faxing all the time. "Get a Statutory Declaration Form; get the Commissioner of Oaths to stamp it; send a packing list; send a Bill of Lading; call back after lunch; call me in an hour; call me in the morning; send me another list; can you hold again Mr. Melson?" On and on it went. I was expecting them to ask my weight, the color of my eyes and my mother's maiden name, but they never found that form. Nor did they find the answers to my questions. They didn't know how much it was going to cost and they didn't know when the Customs Agent was going to inspect our container.

Most horror stories center around the customs inspection, and everyone agreed it would be wise to be present when they inspected the goods; unless you don't mind complete strangers breaking your lock, opening your container and sorting through your boxes. I kept calling on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday brought a call no one wanted to hear. From outside the gate at our meeting, Cliff, one of the Bible College students, yelled something about a poisonous snakebite. A student named Joe had been bitten while working around his house. He was already at the haus sik (hospital) and was having difficulty breathing. Our container didn't seem so important anymore. Because none of the missionaries had been at the Bible college, Joe had ridden the bumpy three miles into town in a bus. Cliff had biked to tell us and now missionaries began heading to the hospital, calling clinics to check on anti-venom, and praying. It didn't look good at all but we poured our hearts out to the Great Physician. Tears for Joe, his wife and children, wisdom for the doctors, and pleas that God would spare Joe. Who cares about a container? In subdued moods we waited for and received the good news: Joe was going to be all right. Hallelujah!

I felt like shouting hallelujah again when I found out it was time to drive the 4 1\2 hours to the wharf- Finally! I said good-bye to Kellis and the girls and set off at about 3:00 p.m. No problem. I should get there just about dark- except that a tire went flat and I had to buy a new one. Except that a tanker-truck had an accident in the mountains and I had to wait almost an hour. Except for that sow I didn't see in the headlights of an oncoming car, and that section of road covered by a river. Except for driving in a strange city at night (which is a man's way of saying, 'I got lost.') Except for those things I would have arrived earlier instead of 9:30 p.m. I had trouble getting into the guest house compound, and the guard (with bow and arrows) said he thought my room had been given away. It hadn't. But even at that late hour it was still 190 degrees with 600% humidity.

I woke early on Thursday, sweaty but bright-eyed. It was a good day to get a container. By 8:30 a.m. I had confirmed a 9:30 a.m. meeting with a Customs Agent. By 10:00 a.m. we were through. He asked a few questions, looked in the container and was satisfied. My agent said to call after lunch for the final paperwork and then I could go. Wow! I celebrated by going to an air-conditioned snackbar. But when I called back she said, "That was only the Quarantine Customs Agent." Then she asked, "Do you have any boys who can help unload your container for the real inspection tomorrow?" I called to tell Kellis, then sweated and showered until bedtime.

Despite the heat I woke early on Friday, sweaty but bright–eyed. It was a good day to get a container. By 8:30 a.m. I had confirmed a 9:30 a.m. meeting with a Customs Agent and by 10:00 a.m. I was tired of waiting. My agent made sure I was comfortable and had one of her assistants bring me a cup of coffee. Then she made sure I was uncomfortable by asking, "You are sure you don't have any boys, anybody at all, who could help unload your container?" The Customs Agent arrived, a man named "Dusty." I was sure it was a nickname associated with digging through containers. "No boys?" he asked. "Nope," I said to which he only grunted–a guttural, primeval grunt like a pig rooting in the mud. He was preparing to dig in my container! A small group of warehouse workers waited for orders. "Open it up," said Dusty, sweat already beading on his forehead. He stood gazing into the container, asked if I had any firearms or drugs, and asked about our medical supplies. All eyes searched the container until Dusty gave the order, "Okay, lock it up." It was only 11:00 a.m. and my agent's jaw dropped to the ground.

"Two inspections," she said, "and they touched nothing. I don't understand it." "I can explain," I said as she turned to look at me. "I have prayed to God for the last few days that nothing would be touched." She nodded at an another worker, "You pay her after she makes copies. We'll arrange for your trucking, then you can go." I still had no idea what the charges would be. I knew customs duty would be 1,500 kina (U.S.$1,150) but the charges for 40 days of storage could be over $4,560. I prayed again to God who was bigger than my circumstances. The storage charges worked out to be $3,648 cheaper than they might have been, and I was going home.

The drive back was much better in the daylight. Distant blue-green mountains hid behind billowy clouds. Ahhhhh, it was a good day to be going home and the container would be there in just a couple of days. The only stop was at the "Water Rise," a small piece of disputed road for which the locals were demanding compensation. Glass, logs, garbage and people blocked the road. I asked what was going on and was told they were demanding two kina per vehicle. I rolled up the windows top two inches from the top to get air and drove slowly while the crowd swallowed my car. I paid my two kina and was on my way. Fifty yards farther another roadblock was manned by rascals and thugs yelling, rocking my car and demanding five kina. Earlier I had hidden my wallet and now all I had available was two kina.

"I paid already, back there," I said.

"You must pay again," they replied.

"All I have is two kina."

"Give it to me," they yelled, several hands grabbing at the money. One hand snatched my sunglasses from my face as others yelled, "Give me the money!'

"No," I said. "Give back my glasses, then I'll give you the money!"

"No, you give the money first!"

"NO! No glasses, no money!" By this time three or four hands were on the two kina bill with a death grip on several of my fingers as well. I yelled again "No glasses, no money!" and didn't know what to do because I was sure my glasses were long gone. They were still rocking the car. When my glasses were thrown inside, I let go of the money and let the clutch out at the same time. The hoodlums were still behind me, but I was heading home.

When I parked the car Kellis said, "The agent called. She needs another piece of paperwork." Aaaaaaaaggghh! I had just been there, why didn't she ask for it then? I unloaded a few things, hugged the kids then called our agent. She said she needed another copy of our Bill of Lading before they could release our shipment. "Kel," I said, "could you get my case, the one with the container info?" While she went to get it the agent chewed me out for not leaving the right paper. Kellis couldn't find the case, and that was the first indication we were in bad trouble. "What do you mean it's not in the car? It has to be there." But it wasn't. It must have been stolen through the little crack left open in the window. Fellow missionaries later told me that thieves at the roadblocks know their work well; sometimes they steal even the clothes people are wearing. But here I was with none of the original paperwork needed to get our container. "What do I do now?" I asked. "Let me see," she replied, "First you must post a bond with your bank, then you must get a State Declaration Form; fill it out; have the Commissioner of Oaths stamp it, then give me your mother's maiden name..."

"Look," I said, "It was stolen. It wasn't my fault. Isn't there something else we can do?"

"I'll call you back," she said, hanging up the phone. Yeah, right! I've heard that one before. So our whole family prayed and waited. When I thought it had been long enough I called back and a voice–as of an angel–said, "No problem. Your container will be delivered this weekend." I heard the Hallelujah Chorus in the background. Our container was really coming! Finally! It arrived during church Sunday morning on January 20th. That evening we invited the missionaries for a party. The prodigal container had come home and we sliced the fatted watermelon.

We praise God for His goodness and for His help with our huge, ugly, orange box. He taught us a lot, but we know He is not finished with us yet; we surely have a lot more to learn. We had a few water damaged items, but our insurance papers were stolen. We do not know what will happen nor have we heard a word from our shipper. But we know God will work it out. It is called utter trust.