Angels and Devil Priests

17 May 2016
Angels and Devil Priests


s a boy, my young mind was captivated by the stories of men and women who chose to move overseas to spread the Gospel. I would spend hours reading about them on Sabbath afternoons—discovering new tribes in Africa, under attack from cannibals in the Pacific, experiencing strange, new and uncomfortable situations—and wondering just how Jesus would finally break through to these people who knew nothing about Him. It was exotic, it was uncomfortable, it was fulfilling, it was adventurous, it was glorious. 

But what about today? With most of the nations in the South Pacific already “Christianised” and marching rapidly toward modernisation, are the same sorts of opportunities available?

Angels Devilpriests
Peggy Kendall (second from the left).

Meet Peggy Kendall (Hockey) and Ron Hockey from Queensland. Peggy is CEO of the Atoifi Adventist Hospital in Solomon Islands, while her husband, Ron, is in charge of maintenance. Peggy’s eyes light up when she talks about their experience. 

“The past year has flown by,” she says. “There's always something happening, something to look forward to.” Her passion bubbles out, while Ron quietly affirms with a nod or a comment here and there. 

Nestled on the slopes above Uru Harbour, Atoifi is a beautiful place. With green mountains standing like sentinels behind, the ground in front of Atoifi opens out onto a beautiful blue lagoon. 

“Good fishing,” quips Ron. 

But it's not always smooth sailing in paradise. And this is no vacation. Peggy is the hospital's first female CEO with a medical background. Without her prior contact with Atoifi, she feels it would have been a real challenge to build up the trust of the local chiefs. But more on that later. 

The challenges are those faced by most outpost hospitals—particularly a 90-bed, church-run facility that provides free health care to villagers. There's the challenge of affording up-to-date equipment and medicines. Every month, Ron takes a 10 to 12-hour boat ride into town to buy supplies. 

Then there are more naturally occurring challenges: frequent (although thankfully not large) earth tremors; rain every day; and when it’s not raining, it's humid. Nothing is ever dry and it's a constant battle to keep buildings, tools and heavy equipment mould and rust free.

“Keeps me busy,” smiles Ron.

Then there are the "natives". 

“I was sitting on the toilet one day and a huge rat ran across my feet,” explains Peggy. There are rats everywhere. Big ones, the size of cats. Once when Peggy and Ron had travelled into town a rat got in and chewed a hole in their long-life milk carton. The resultant spill meant that by the time they had returned, the pantry floor was writhing with maggots. 

“It took a while for me to get used to,” Peggy admits. “I would lie in bed at night wondering if something was going to crawl over me. I always check under the bed before turning in for the night.” 

Turning in is always at 9 o'clock. After that, the hydro power may shut down. “You have to be a good Scout or Pathfinder and be prepared. Have a torch by the bed. It really makes you appreciate things; it makes you more tolerant.” 

The real highlight, however, is the people. Peggy counts herself as friends with some "devil priests", has won the respect of the local tribes and loves the challenge of getting to know people and learning about their culture. 

One of the major accomplishments for the hospital this past 12 months has been to build a specialised tuberculosis (TB) ward. Local superstitions meant some people were uncomfortable with treatment taking place in the same building as the obstetrics/maternity ward so the decision was made to build a separate ward for TB patients. A lot of consultation was needed but it was a challenge that Peggy loved. “We have learnt so much about the culture. We were sitting in our lounge room having a lovely, funny conversation about periods with the devil priests. This experience is so unique.”

It marks a shift from some of the attitudes in the past. When Peggy first arrived, she remembers hearing someone say that Atoifi was a Seventh-day Adventist Hospital so it should be for Adventists.  

“When we first got to the hospital, we went out and found a village up behind the hospital with about 20 people,” Peggy explains. “They were not Adventist but they really wanted to build a church.” The team has taken the four-hour walk a number of times now, singing songs and telling stories for the village people. They lived so close to the hospital but it seemed no-one had really reached out to them before. 

“After that I took a staff worship on how it’s important not to stay in our own circles,” Peggy says. “[As a hospital] we may have missed opportunities but that is changing.” 

As she tells her story Peggy is incredibly excited. They have been invited up to the village, where her friends the devil priests live, to stay a few nights. According to their friend, an anthropologist from James Cook University, she is the first female to be asked there since 1990. It's a great honour so she didn’t want to do anything culturally inappropriate.

“I asked if I should bring toilet paper,” she laughs. “Apparently I can’t but they will show me the big, non-scratchy leaves!”

It's not only the local people benefiting from Peggy and Ron’s presence. Staff at the hospital are learning a lot from Peggy’s 38 years of nursing experience. 

The first thing Peggy did as CEO was to organise a staff survey to get to know what the staff thought about working at the hospital and what they needed. One strong message that came out was a lack of communication—from the top down as well as between departments.  So she has really been working on this with team building days and staff BBQs, welcoming any feedback and creating an open working environment. 

Inconsistent phone and internet connections make it hard to stay in touch with people back home. But Ron and Peggy have made friends and family with the staff and people of Atoifi. 

The lack of equipment can be a challenge—very different from when she worked as the after hours hospital nurse manager at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane.

With limited finance, the hospital relies on donations from churches and the community—something the couple really appreciate. After all, their own journey with Atoifi began in March 2011, when Peggy’s church, Park Ridge Adventist (Brisbane), organised a short-term mission trip. They asked Peggy if her husband, a painter, would like to go with the team. Although not an Adventist, Ron said he would go. Peggy and her daughter, both registered nurses, also decided to go. 

While there, Peggy had an experience that would change her life. Helen, a young obstetrics patient, had lost her baby and was bleeding badly. She had lost eight litres of blood, had a cardiac arrest and had to be given 14 bags of blood. The local pastor came to pray over her as doctors said she would surely die. But somehow, at this remote island hospital, Peggy and her daughter managed to save Helen's life. Eight days later she was discharged. Helen’s father was overjoyed. Every day he came to Peggy and said, “you are angels sent by God”.

Peggy went home, knowing that she had to do something. So she started Atoifi Angels, a group who take a medical team from Australia every eight weeks to help at the hospital. This built up the trust and respect of the local chiefs and the hospital staff, who had seen Peggy work alongside them and coming back regularly. 

Such is her exuberance that she now has three hospitals and a number of churches donating and collecting for the hospital. Springwood church (Brisbane) donated 150 chairs for the hospital visitors, who had nowhere to sit and would often lie on beds meant for patients. Ipswich, Esk and Parkridge churches have recently sent a large number of donated items for Atoifi. A doctor from Melbourne donated a washer and dryer. Before this, the clothes and bed sheets had to be hand-washed. They’ve even had a lot of paint donated by Ron’s former employer. 

Sometimes it’s the small things that make a difference. Soap and pyjamas have been useful in keeping patients clean and tidy. In fact, Atoifi Hospital was rated by a government inspection team as having the “best infection control in the country”. 

Finding resources for the hospital is not their biggest challenge, however—it's the expense of transporting the donations. It costs Ron and Peggy $A3000-4000 per container to ship the gear.

The other need is for short-term teams of volunteers, both health teams and tradies, to help with the projects. 

But as the Atoifi Angels' motto says: “Energy and persistence conquer all”.

“We’ve had a very busy year,” Peggy says. “We focused on the nursing side of things and have really achieved a lot; the staff are happy, the patients are happy.”

And Peggy is happy. The island diet of fresh fruit and vegetables is doing wonders for her health and she has lost 15 kilograms. She even ran in the Honiara marathon, where she came 64th out of 100. She hopes to better her time next year. 

“When I came back to Australia, people expected me to look a bit haggard. It has been a busy year. But I feel the best I have in a long time.” This is ironic as more and more Pacific Islanders are introducing Western processed foods into their diets and the incidence of lifestyle diseases is skyrocketing. 

Ron has had some interesting milestones of his own—transporting his first dead body and assisting with a birth in the back of a tractor. 

There will certainly be a number of other firsts for Ron and Peggy as they work to help the people of Atoifi. 

“We have put everything on hold in Australia,” Peggy says. “But I don’t really class this as mission work. It’s a dream.” Peggy wasn’t born in the Church but as a young person had a dream to be a missionary nurse. And all these years later, it has come true. 

Has it all been worth it? We’ll leave the last word to Ron: “I wish we’d done it earlier. We would have had more time.”         


For short term mission opportunities at Atoifi email <>.

Jarrod Stackelroth is associate editor of RECORD. 


Jarrod Stackelroth

Jarrod Stackelroth
Assistant Editor, Record Magazine