Were it market day, Sue Ambrose (above) would stop to buy food for 35 students and staff working at the language training centre she helps manage in the valley below her house in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The dirt road would be filled with people going about their business and the day would unfold very differently.
But this day—February 24, 2009—is not market day.
Air starts to thin at 5,000 feet, where the SIL centre at Ukarumpa sprawls across a high tropical savannah of natural grassland. Pockets of eucalyptus and pine trees, planted by missionaries over the past 55 years, hold soil in the hillside ravines.
These are traditional fighting grounds for the Tairora and the Gadsup people—sometimes fierce, vengeance-based societies of dark-skinned, curly-haired indigenous tribes—who represent just two of more than 800 language groups in PNG.
The local government was happy to lease this disputed territory to SIL to construct their operations centre for work among inland language groups. For 15 years, Canadians Mark and Sue Ambrose have called this place home, faithfully managing STEP, a literacy and numeracy course that equips men and women as effective leaders to help meet learning needs of their own and neighbouring PNG communities.
“In the early days, locals continued to fight and you could see them out there going at it,” says Mark.
“It’s still going on today a little more covertly,” he says, but then looking at Sue, he corrects himself: “Well, it isn’t even that covert, is it?”
Sue’s shoulders drop as she looks down at her hands in her lap. “No, it’s shotguns and rifles now.”
A Fateful Walk to Work
The morning of February 24, 2009, is chilly. It is Mark’s birthday, but celebrations will come later. He is already 90 minutes into a day with STEP students at the training centre.
Back at the house, Sue finishes her email correspondence as the laundry air-dries on the line. She pulls on a thick shirt to match her long denim dress and slips on shoes for the kilometre hike down to the STEP training centre. It is to be an office day with books to balance, and disbursals to prepare for staff and students whose enrolment is subsidized.
Five minutes into her walk, Sue meets a fellow STEP trainer from England walking briskly toward her. The women exchange only pleasantries as they pass. Later, Sue’s friend will wish she had told Sue of the strange man she had seen on the road below.
Farther down at the print shop, where the road doglegs right toward the training centre, a lone Papua New Guinean in his late 20s is roaming the street. Speaking neither Tairora, nor Gadsup, the man exchanges angry words with another man familiar with his dialect. The loner then moves on to harass workers at the print shop. Local security personnel are notified but have yet to respond.
Sue, oblivious to what lies ahead, is lost in an amazingly personal time of devotion.
“It was a period of time in my life when I had been spending more time praying and reading His Word, and I had a lot of verses on cards,” she recalls. “I’m not good memorizing, so I just read them and pray them to God as I walk. I guess I’m not always that aware of the life around me—I’m more just . . . talking to God.
“That particular day I remember talking about people and issues and life.”
The verse she reads is in three of the four Gospels: ‘Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’
“If I will lose my life and it will cause good,” she prays, “. . . if people at STEP will know You, or my children will choose to follow You . . . then it’s yours.”
Then all hell breaks loose.
“I heard the footsteps behind me and had no clue what was coming ’cause you really don’t expect—” Sue explains, faltering. “I honestly meant what I prayed, but you don’t expect—OK, it’s my time.”
The slapping sound of bare feet running on packed earth causes her to turn around to see a crazed Papua New Guinean male in mirrored sunglasses charge her with a large machete-like knife raised murderously above his head.
“No!” she cries.
“Yeah, you!” he screams, bringing the heavy blade down upon Sue’s skull with a force that cleaves scalp and chips bone.
It is strange, the connections one makes when in crisis. As the knife comes down, a thought flashes in Sue’s mind as she remembers a former colleague, Edmund Fabian, who was martyred 15 years earlier under similar circumstances: “Oh, Edmund, I’m just like you. I’m going to die.”
Not 300 metres away, at the building site of a new training facility, some 17 construction workers hear Sue’s cries for help. Women there scatter, as the men race to her aid.
For Sue, the story has gaps here. She recalls fighting back, being thrown to the ground and having the knife lodge deep into her hip. Knowing the man’s mad intent, she grabs the knife blade, severing her thumb tendon; but she does not recall rescuers subduing the attacker, nor hearing the construction boss shout to spare the assailant’s life.
Friends to the Rescue
Within minutes, a small security truck arrives and four Papua New Guinean men lay Sue on the truck’s open flatbed for a rough, muddy ride to the local health clinic. Shunning cultural taboos against touching a woman or blood, they cradle her with their bodies, shaking their heads and making loud “tsk-tsk” sounds of shame and outrage as they ride.
Providentially, Sue’s long-time best friend, Canadian Dr. Jean Hecht, is on duty at the clinic along with at least five nurses and two other doctors. Notified by security to prepare for a woman with stab wounds, they expect a Papuan; for such attacks are not uncommon among locals. But all are shocked to see their friend and co-worker carried in.
Dr. Hecht’s clinical side quickly kicks in to assess and prioritize her patient’s wounds: many abrasions; a damaged hand; a puncture wound near the sternum just below the diaphragm and lungs; and the knife still stuck fast in her hip, which, because of proximity to a major artery and organs, would take considerable care to remove.
Curiously, Sue feels no pain.
“Sue herself was remarkably calm through all of this,” recalls Dr. Hecht. She mimics Sue’s voice: “Oh, hey there. I’ve been stabbed. Would you mind calling Mark?”
By 12:00 noon, Sue is stabilized by the medical team at Ukarumpa and flown by SIL to Port Moresby airfield, arriving around 5 p.m. It takes until 1 a.m. for her medevac to arrive at the airfield and begin her transfer to medical facilities in Australia. Despite multiple delays, Sue does receive further professional care: plastic surgery for the thumb tendon and emotional counselling.
Today, aside from ongoing hand exercises, her rehabilitation is complete.
Above the doctors, God attends to Sue by showing His loving intervention in a powerful way. Days after the attack, Sue is awake and in bed replaying the event and reflecting upon its spiritual overtones when quite suddenly, she receives a most vivid picture in her mind’s eye.
“While I was in hospital, God gave me a very clear vision of this angel. Not a fluffy angel, but a big warrior kind of guy that was eight or 10 feet tall with his sword raised, saying, ‘No, that is enough! I am not going to let you kill her.’
“And that really opened my eyes to the whole spiritual realm; that this man was part of Satan’s attacks on us, on the training centre, and on the work of SIL,” says Sue. “I got to be a part of this warfare, but it wasn’t an attack on me. I really felt it was an attack on what we are doing, and this angel stood beside me saying that he was God’s warrior and [was] here to do God’s work, and this attack wasn’t going to happen.”
The agent for the Montreal-based health insurance company covering the cost of care for Sue is stunned by the Ambroses’ plans to return to Ukarumpa just two-and-a-half weeks after being medevaced out. And that seemingly simple act proves to be a strong counterstrike to the Enemy—a living sermon calling others to shun fear and courageously press on in their respective callings.
“I don’t think that I ever considered not going back,” says Sue. “God has given us the strength to return and it has spoken volumes to people.”
To God Be the Glory
In the Old Testament, Joseph told his family who had sent him away into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20 NIV).
“The response of local New Guineans was amazing,” says Sue.
The day she returns, people come with hugs and tears to express their sense of national shame from what the attacker has done and to assure Sue of their prayers for her. Farther up the valley, the unprecedented attack becomes a catalyst for unity, drawing together in prayer local churches with long histories of conflict.
“God is calling us to a new level of commitment and allegiance to Him in this work,” says a STEP staff member with Bible Translators Association (BTA), a national translation organization that works with SIL. “We’ve seen how Mark and Sue have come back and weren’t to be dissuaded. Now, we’ve got to be that committed! This is our country—and these are our people!”
“As I look at the numbers of people that we’ve trained through years of STEP (over 230 men and women) compared to the size of the country, it’s really a drop in the bucket,” says Sue, who is now back in Canada on furlough with Mark in Salmon Arm, B.C. “But whether I go back now or not is not connected to [the attack].
“We want to keep doing what God lays on our hearts and strengthens us to do,” declares Sue. “So far, [He] has allowed us to be a part of what He’s doing there and that’s pretty awesome!”
Sue and Mark Ambrose are living life with humble boldness,
modeling an attitude that we all must grasp: let fear not rule.
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