By Jim Day
Editor’s note: The following story is an introduction to a much bigger story, one centered on a group of Americans who set out to pray for the nation of Tonga. Subsequent issues of Christian Living will feature the story, ultimately in full, as it unfolds in several editions.
How can a connection between a small church in Leavenworth, in the U.S., and Tonga, an archipelago south of Samoa, end up changing thousands of lives? Leavenworth is smack dab in the middle of the state of Washington and, well, Tonga is on the other side of the world.
About 3,200 miles east of Australia and 1,400 miles north of New Zealand, Tonga is a sovereign nation of 176 islands, of which only around 36 are inhabited. Approximately 96 percent of the population are Christians and fervently attend church. With an overall population of around 100,000, there are five main denominations. The Wesleyan church was the first to send missionaries to Tonga and King George Tupou I decreed in 1875 that all of Tonga would be Christian. The country’s national anthem is “Oh Mighty God Above.”
Christianity was brought to Tonga in the late 1700s. But like many cultures, the people in Tonga kept some of their superstitious ways – including the hiding or abandoning of children with disabilities.
Up until 2002, if a person was born with a disability or was handicapped in any form, it was presumed that it was a curse because of some kind of sin that was committed by a family member. Because of this, parents used to hide any children that were born with “defects,” or completely abandon them to the bush.
It would have been easy to assume that there were no people in Tonga with disabilities, because they were all kept in hiding by their families. Many of them couldn’t have left their houses even if they wanted to. They didn’t have wheelchairs or even doorways big enough to push a wheelchair through.
Imagine laying in a bed, unable to move yourself, attempting to catch a glimpse of the sky through the one tiny window in your home day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade of your whole life. This is what it was like for the disabled in Tonga before 2002.
Enter Joe and Mary
Cindy and I have the privilege of calling Dr. Joe and Mary Weddle friends. (It’s really more than friendship, but that’s another story.) In many conversations at the Weddles’ huge, round dining room table, we have heard the various stories about how God called them to spend time in Tonga, and in prayer for Tonga. Although they now live in Meridian, they once lived in Leavenworth, and it was there that God placed a burden on their hearts towards Tonga.
It all started a little over 20 years ago, when the Lord prompted Charmayne Old, a nurse who lived in Leavenworth, to pray for Tonga. She and her husband, Doc, attended the Nazarene church and started praying and asked some friends to pray with them. Two of their friends were the Weddles, who attended the Four Square church. Joe and Mary knew the power of prayer and recruited more people from their church to pray. They met and prayed faithfully, not knowing exactly what they were praying for.
One day, Charmayne suggested that they fly to Tonga to pray there. It sounds a little crazy, but they all agreed. What an amazing display of obedience and faith!
That first trip was just to pray. To ask God to reveal what they had been praying for. They just got up every morning and walked around praying. Some locals joined them. One day, as they got near to a heavily forested area, one of the Americans heard something in the bush. They pulled some bushes aside and saw a child. The locals explained that the child had a disability and had been abandoned by its family. The child needed medical care, so Joe and Charmayne prayed for and treated the child. Later that day, they found more children – and they knew why God had called them.
They finished the first trip and went home, only to immediately start planning the next trip. With suitcases full of medical supplies, they went again and again. They needed help. This was more than they could handle. They needed a building or facility where they could bring these unwanted children for treatment and care. The folks in Leavenworth were willing, but they only had limited funds.
They all prayed and watched expectantly for what God was going to do.
Next issue: The queen steps in to facilitate a change.