The prime minister of the Solomon Islands paid an emotional tribute to slain Seventh-day Adventist missionaries and cited church cofounder Ellen G. White in a speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of a remote Adventist hospital.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare joined hundreds of people for the three-day celebration at Atoifi Adventist Hospital on the eastern side of the island of Malaita, a location that can only be reached by boat or aircraft. The country’s capital, Honiara, is a 40-minute airplane flight away.
Sogovare said government policy has been strongly influenced by the hospital and a school of nursing operated by Papua New Guinea-based Pacific Adventist University on its campus.
“I can testify to the contribution this church has made to building the capacity of Solomon Islands,” he said. “Models developed by Atoifi and the school of nursing have proven appropriate to roll out in rural areas. … This is one of the best hospitals in Solomon Islands—one of the most respected and well equipped.”
Surprising some, Sogovare incorporated strong spiritual themes in his speech, even quoting Ellen White at length.
“In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God!” Sogovare said, reading a passage from White’s Life Sketches, page 196. “As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”
Sogovare encouraged local chiefs and community leaders to work together with Atoifi and talk through cultural issues that have caused misunderstandings or tension. Last year, angry villagers demolished a new Adventist church building on Anuta Island and ordered the small congregation to leave.
Sogovare also spoke about Adventist pioneers who worked hard and sacrificed much to bring the gospel and better health to the local Kwaio people, both before and after the official establishment of the 91-bed hospital on Aug. 25, 1966.
Sogovare became emotional as he remembered those who had given so much, “even the supreme sacrifice”— referring to missionaries such as Lens Larwood, who died in a tractor accident in 1979, and Mary Semi (died 1929), Brian Dunn (1965) and Lance Gersbach (2003), all slain by those they had come to help.
Later a group of guests took a short boat trip to the other side of Uru Harbour and climbed to the top of a steep hill to pay respects at the grave of Mary Semi, an Adventist missionary from the Western Solomons who was brutally killed in connection with a dispute over how a local girl’s bride price should be paid. Local oral histories consistently recall that Mary’s husband, Semi Pukekera, also from Ranongga in the Western Solomons, ran down the steep hill to avoid being the next victim. He jumped and was miraculously carried through the air, landing safely in the sea, where he was picked up by a boat from the opposite shore.
The hospital event opened on a Friday in late August with pan-flute wielding warriors vying for attention with bamboo-drum players and a marching ensemble. The Atoifi Mix Choir and The Singing Medicos performed the national anthem and a specially written anniversary song based on the hospital’s motto: “A life of service; health for all.”
“Usugani lea!” (good morning) was an expression that prefaced many of the 15 opening speeches, including that of the prime minister. Its use reflects a deep awareness of place — the greeting is in the language of the local Kwaio people, the traditional landowners and one of the key stakeholders in the continuing success of Atoifi Adventist Hospital.
The name of the hospital, Atoifi, is itself a Kwaio word meaning “hard place to build a house,” a reflection perhaps of the soil weakened by tunnels of thousands of crabs that swarmed over the area when Adventist missionaries began building at the site in the early 1960s.
Chester Kuma, a health ministries representative of the South Pacific Division, whose territory includes the Solomon Islands, and a Atoifi doctor from 1988 to 1999, recalled during his speech a specific instance when God’s leading was evident at Atoifi. In 1994, hospital and Adventist Church leaders met to discuss closing the institution amid financial difficulties. Closure seemed inevitable after a day-long meeting in which various last-ditch strategies were considered and rejected and heartfelt prayer sessions were held. But before the final vote was taken, one of the participants was called away to a telephone call. He returned in tears. It took him a while to compose himself enough to announce that the New Zealand government was extending a sizeable grant — just the amount needed for Atoifi to remain open.
The recounting of this story brought applause from the crowd and visible pleasure to the face of New Zealand’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands, Marion Crawshaw, who was seated on a specially constructed VIP dais along with Australian ambassador Andrew Byrne.
Watch a music video created by the medical missionaries of Atoifi Adventist Hospital.