John had been gone a week when Helen was awakened at midnight by Eva’s cries. I’ll warm a bottle for her, Helen decided. As she stepped into the hall, she was startled to see flames consuming the whole kitchen wall. There had been nothing to make her suspect fire-no smell of smoke, no heat. Even now there was only a faint crackling sound. Helen quickly called to waken Muta, who without a word rushed to the children’s room, jumped out of the window, and reached up to receive little Paul and baby Eva as Helen handed them to him. Helen then jumped to the ground herself. As she turned to run around the house to enter the front door, Muta called, “Don’t go that way!” She had forgotten the cans of methylated spirits in the attic. She turned back to see flames enveloping the entire house.
Jacques Teeuwen rushed toward the house. “No, Jacques, no! We are safe!” As the Teeuwens and sympathetic Danis gathered around, Helen cried. Irreplaceable treasures-wedding and baby photos, gifts made by loving hands-were consumed, but her tears expressed relief. You have spared me and my babies. Thank You, thank You, Jesus.
Please God, control this fire! Don’t let it spread to other homes, Ruth Teeuwen prayed while the flames reached up and out. Another danger now caught their attention.
Flames were approaching the bark walls of the washhouse twelve feet from the burning house.
“Stay away!” Helen called out to the Danis who were milling nearby. She knew that against the washhouse wall were two large drums, one containing kerosene and the other aviation fuel. “Stay away from the drums,” she screamed.
Suddenly, to their horror, the missionaries saw some Danis actually standing on the fuel drums as they tried to beat out the flames of the burning washhouse.
“Come away! Come away!” Helen cried, but they could not hear her above the roar of the fire and their own excited yells to one another.
“We must get Tolibaga’s tools! And the radio!” The Danis tore off strips of bark from the wall to enter the flaming washhouse. They shoved Helen’s washing machine away from the blaze and locked John’s tools in the chicken yard so that no one could steal them. Triumphantly they carried the radio to Helen, who was very grateful.
The Danis had not realized, however, that the radio would not work without its battery. Jacques slipped into the building through the hole in the wall. “I’m afraid it’s unusable:” He returned with the blackened battery. “But they saved your washing machine, Helen, and John’s tools.”
Through it all, the Danis showed incredible bravery. Earlier, they had even tried to enter the blazing main house. Because of their efforts, most of the washhouse was saved. Helen and the Teeuwens stood looking at the drums, blackened and bulging from internal pressure but still intact. Prayers of thanksgiving went heavenward.
“You have lost so much-why aren’t you crying?” The Danis asked as they crowded around Helen.
“The Dekkers have a big house in Jesus’ yard. The things that really count cannot be destroyed,” Jacques Teeuwen explained.
First thing in the morning, they tried the radio. The battery worked. In Ninia, John tuned in the portable unit at the scheduled contact time. “Our house has burned. The children are all right. Please come home:” John was barely able to hear Helen’s message.
Although the transmission was faint, the impact of the brief message was not. “Thank You, Lord, for saving Helen and the children,” was John’s first response. Dealing with the bad news was more difficult. The house-gone! The news penetrated deep, evoking a mixture of questions and agitation. No time for this now. After arranging for a plane to meet him, John gathered up his few belongings and with two Danis began the treacherous two-day trip to the nearest landing strip. I wonder what they were able to save. Part of the house? Some of the things in it? Why speculate? The turbulence in John’s mind gave way to peace, knowing that all was in God’s hands. Spurred on by the desire to get home, John outdid his usual fast trek and made the trip in one day, surprising even the Danis, who knew he was good on the trail. From the airstrip, he was flown to Kanggime.
Nothing remained of the house. It was a depressing sight. “How did the fire start?” They were not sure, but on the day of the fire, Helen had needed to fill the kerosene refrigerator. She recalled that some fuel had spilled on the bark floor as she struggled to pour from the heavy can. Somehow the fumes and the refrigerator flame had met. The Danis crowded around.
“You won’t leave us now, will you?” They pleaded. “We will help you build another house.”
A Dani placed a piglet in front of a smiling Paul. “I have brought a small pig for him:” Everyone knew that a pig was about the finest gift a Dam could give.
Because missionaries from all over the island shared generously of their limited supplies and MAF delivered them for free, the Dekkers soon replaced the necessities. With the help of the Danis, John patched up the washhouse and added a six-foot lean-to for cooking. The family moved into the temporary quarters, but even temporary was too long for Helen, who was again pregnant. With the inevitable nausea, there were the rain and cold, the mattresses on the bark floor, and bugs and worms dropping through the grass roof. Sometimes Helen was too sick to cook, but she knew that the children didn’t suffer. The Danis stuffed them with sweet potatoes and grubs. No one could deny that Paul and Eva were healthy and happy.
John wanted to get the new house up as quickly as possible. Jacques Teeuwen was unable to help because he had developed a serious leg infection. The Danis were willing workers, but they had had no experience in building rectangular structures. In the rush, John forgot to put diagonal braces in the center wall, causing it to sag and preventing them from hanging a door on it. He had to figure out a way to prop the wall up. “This structure is not as sturdy as the fine house our colleagues built for us, but the Danis have never used hammer and nails before. They’ll do better next time.”
When the Dekkers moved into their new home six weeks later, they could see that God had turned the fire into a blessing. Funds came from supporters and co-workers. The rough log couch and the crates that had served as tables were replaced by beautiful rattan furnishings bought from Dutch people who had been forced by political pressure to leave the island. Missionary friends had supplied the finishing touches. “Helen has the knack of turning a bush house into a cozy, attractive home,” fellow workers observed after the Dekkers were settled.
Helen and John wrote home. “The whole fire episode has drawn us closer to the Danis. They have seen that we too have problems. They realize that although we have many possessions compared to them, we do not consider the loss of material things too important. Through it all, we were touched and encouraged to see the genuine concern many of the Danis showed for us.”
Letters came from friends in the U.S. “We had been praying specifically for you at that time, though we didn’t know your problem.”
Dekker, John (with Lois Neely). Torches of Joy. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1985, 1999 p. 84-87.