New Guinea? Dave and Althea Lawrence both insisted they were heading to Japan where Dave had spent time in the army.
Teach missionary children? They believed God had called them to work with unreached people groups.
So, where did they go? What did they do? Read on to find out!
Dave came to know the Lord as a child and Althea was twenty-one before she understood and accepted the Gospel. Althea says, “I was singing on a Gospel Team—seeking to do ‘good works’ to please God. Instead, I heard the Gospel and learned to walk with Him!” They met at Seattle Pacific College where they both were active on the student-led Gospel Team.
While at college, where Dave was studying psychology and music and Althea was majoring in English with added Education courses, they heard about New Tribes Mission (NTM) from Roger Bailey. He was in Seattle—Puget Sound—working on the mission ship – the MV Tribesman. Roger challenged them to live “all out” for Jesus Christ, to see the world reached with the Gospel.
After graduation Dave and Althea married, and through a missionary speaker and stirring articles in the NTM periodical, Brown Gold, they were challenged to step out by faith soon after their June wedding.
So on October 1, 1951, instead of going to Dallas Theological Seminary where Dave had been accepted, they became part of the first group of NTM candidates to go to Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, for the whole missionary training. (Before this, linguistics and “jungle camp” training was in Fouts Springs, California.) During this time the Lawrences were further challenged by Elmer Rabe, Harold Jackson, and Ralph Hovland.
While students at Jersey Shore, Dave was asked to do some teaching. From there they helped with missionary training courses in four places NTM had in California before being released to go to the field. Right about this same time new opportunities were beginning in Papua New Guinea – where laborers were badly needed.
Asked to go to New Guinea, both insisted they were heading to Japan. “But soon,” they add, “the Lord’s leading was obvious, and after taking a brush-up course in linguistics at Fredonia, Wisconsin, we headed with our three little children to PNG in 1957.”
The Lawrences joined the work among the Gimi people. At that time, Dale Palmer had been establishing a relationship with the people and was learning the language. Dave and Althea learned the language and culture and began to analyze and write down the language, while sharing the Word of God with this people group.
They relate, “The Gimi people lived in fear of death by sorcery. People mysteriously died. The procedure involved getting some item of the potential victim—for example, sugar cane chewings which had been cast away—and working magic to bring about sickness or death. When sorcery was suspected, the victimized village sought to find out the source and worked sorcery on someone in that village. This was repeated back and forth in a never-ending payback system.”
Althea shares, “In 1959, when I had our fourth child… the people felt we were more like them because we had a baby. In 1962, when we had triplets born eight weeks early due to a severe fall I had on slippery mud—David officiated as ‘doctor’—the people identified with us more because one of the babies was stillborn.” Althea adds that when the other two babies died during the hike out to save them, the people REALLY identified with them because their babies so often died.
Later in 1962, they had to go out to the mission center because Dave was bedridden for four months due to hepatitis and mental exhaustion. Because the Gimi believers so wished the Lawrences could be with them for the annual three-day Christmas celebration, it was decided that Althea would go. She says “It was so wonderful to hear their testimonies and see their happy faces as they were growing in their walk with the Lord! I could hardly wait to tell David all the great news.”
Before Althea had left for the trip in for the celebration, the nurse at the mission center had told her she would let her know if Dave became worse. Now, on the hike back out as they approached another missionary station, Althea saw a nurse there and “just knew” she had come to tell her Dave had died.
“My joy dropped to extreme sadness,” Althea says. “No one knew WHY when just moments before I’d been so overjoyed along the trail. BUT when I learned that the nurse was there, NOT to tell me my husband had died but rather to give baby shots, I went from total despair to utter joy. I have never forgotten the experience and continue to thank the Lord for my wonderful husband!”
In 1963, the Lawrences returned to the United States for their first furlough after nearly six years with the Gimi people. Because Dave had had a total breakdown, they stayed back for three years. This did not disqualify them nor change their desire to continue to serve the Lord in a ministry with unreached people groups. Dave’s health had been restored and time spent in one of the training camps further encouraged them.
Ready to return to the field, expecting to work in a similar ministry as before, they were asked to help start the school for missionary kids. “The Lord had to do a real work in my heart to have me willing to serve anywhere but with tribal people,” Althea says.
“As we had worked with other families,” she continues, “we could see that the educational needs of the children were not being met. Some were crying out for help and at just the right time God opened my eyes to see what HE wanted done. He had given me the gift of teaching, which so far I’d hoarded for my own family. It was to be used for the whole missionary body.”
So, submitting to the Lord and mission leadership, they helped start the school for missionary children in PNG and served both as teachers and in administration—Dave for twenty-five years before moving into an Outreach ministry for their last ten years in PNG and Althea for thirty-five years.
Dave and Althea Lawrence never made it to Japan, but they have served the Lord well. They learned along the way that God is sufficient and that He could use them to do things they never thought they would do!
Note: Today there are many Gimi believers and fifteen functioning New Testament churches. John and Lynn White, as well as others, have worked with the Gimi people for many years. (John translated the New Testament into the Gimi language.)