Called home to lead
New pastor at Fourth Memorial Church leaves missionary work to serve in church where he grew up
After spending most of his adult life living in an isolated jungle village considered one of the most rugged places in the world, Neil Anderson has come home.
His new job has brought him back to Spokane’s Fourth Memorial Church – the community where he first learned about faith as a young boy attending Sunday school; where he met and married his wife of 44 years; where he was commissioned to serve and spread the Gospel among the Folopa Tribe of remote Papua New Guinea.
Anderson is now the senior pastor of this century-old church, located less than two miles from his boyhood home in the Logan neighborhood.
For the past two years, a church committee has met at least once or twice each week, combing through more than 200 resumes and interviewing applicants in search of a leader.
It wasn’t until the last few weeks that they realized the person they were looking for was actually one of their own – a man who had grown up in the church and had recently returned to the Northwest after dedicating his life to translating Scripture for a tribe that didn’t have a written language.
Anderson, 64, never imagined he would become a church pastor in the United States. After all, he and his wife, Carol, had spent most of their lives learning how to survive in a remote village with no medical care and little technology.
But when the couple recently offered to help the church that had supported their mission work for 35 years, it gradually dawned on them and others that perhaps he was the one meant to be at the pulpit.
“God has sent us Neil,” said John Tusant, one of the eight members of the church’s search committee and the executive director of the Greater Spokane Association of Evangelicals.
“He is so down-to-earth. He loves people. He understands what the call to ministry is. … Neil is a man of great humility and vision.”
Anderson was a toddler when his family started attending Fourth Memorial, which was known at the time as Fourth Presbyterian. They started coming because the pastor, the Rev. Edwin Deibler, had walked to their home on East Gordon Avenue, knocked on their door and invited Anderson’s father to bring the family to service.
His earliest memories of the place include Sunday school lessons, summer camp and Christmas programs in which all the kids would receive packets of candy.
“The dear women of God in this church were like mothers to me,” Anderson recalled.
But as he grew up, he felt more drawn to the men, who often organized events that involved cards and hunting to get people in the community involved.
Although he came to church regularly with his family and took part in youth group, it wasn’t until he was 16 that he made the commitment to Christianity, Anderson said.
“The spirit of God reached down into my rib cage and into my heartstrings and just pulled,” he said, gesturing with his hand as he described that moment in the church sanctuary when he felt called to serve.
The Rev. Ed Underhill, the church’s pastor from 1961 to 1989, became his mentor and helped shape his future as a missionary.
Anderson met Carol, a North Central High School grad, at the church and they were married in 1965.
A graduate of Rogers High School, Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Eastern Washington College in Cheney, then focused on Greek and Bible studies at Biola University, a private Christian school in Southern California.
He and Carol completed applied linguistics courses at the University of Washington and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators, an international organization that has been involved in more than 600 translations over the past 70 years.
It was Anderson’s love of the Bible that drew him to linguistics, his wife said; he wanted to share “God’s word” with others. Learning a foreign language also was a way for him to reach others and get to know them, she said.
“His motivation for learning was more social,” Carol Anderson explained. “He wanted to immerse himself in the culture and establish relationships.”
So in 1972, they moved to Fukutao, a hamlet of about 350 people located on a steep mountainside in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. In addition to working with the Folopa (pronounced “fo-to-ba”) people, it was also the place where they raised their family.
They ventured to the world’s second-largest island with two kids in tow: Heather, who was 5 at the time, and Dan, who was 2. Carol Anderson later gave birth to two more children, Bruce and Wendy.
“We were going to serve the Lord – somewhere at the end of the earth,” Neil Anderson wrote in his book “In Search of the Source,” which detailed their lives in Papua New Guinea, the challenges of culture and language and the idiosyncrasies of translation.
“I felt a sense of awe then, that God had called an ordinary person like my brother to do an extraordinary job,” said Anderson’s sister, Charlotte Karling of Spokane, recalling how a crowd of people had gathered at the airport when the family left for missionary work.
Although village life was hard, the family gradually adjusted, said Carol Anderson, who nearly died after suffering from blood poisoning and gangrene during their first few months overseas.
In some ways, their personalities were well-suited for a life in a village that was accessible only by small aircraft.
Anderson was always an “adventurer,” Karling said. He once built a kayak to paddle on the Pend Oreille River and regularly climbed the hills around Minnehaha. As a kid, he taught himself how to make bread.
Neither he nor his wife ever aspired to be rich or have material possessions, Carol Anderson said, so living in Papua New Guinea never felt like a “sacrifice.”
Things also got easier over time as they made friends and learned the culture, Anderson said.
During their years in Papua New Guinea, Anderson established relationships based on trust and mutual understanding.
The people of Fukutao were able to accomplish so much – build an airstrip for their village, create a pipe system that brought running water to their homes, develop an alphabet and translate the New Testament into their language – because they worked as a team, he said.
“We came into it as learners,” Anderson said. “We first had to learn the language and the culture.”
He also treated his Folopa friends with respect and dignity.
“They were infinitely superior to us in many respects,” he said. “If they were in our culture, they would be the Ph.D. types.”
Anderson hopes to use that same approach as the senior pastor of Fourth Memorial.
“Our mission here – to reach others for Christ – is no different from our mission in Papua New Guinea,” he said. “Based on my experience, it’s amazing to see what people can accomplish when they work together and focus on the word of God.”
It was Anderson’s gift to “speak to the languages and the experiences” of people no matter where he went that appealed to the elders and search committee at Fourth Memorial, said search committee member Tusant.
“He has the speaking ability and knows how to communicate effectively,” Tusant said. “He can take the Scripture and blend that in to where people are today.”
This also was evident during his brief furloughs. Whenever he returned home every few years, Anderson was recruited to speak throughout the United States and Canada at local churches, conferences, camp retreats and on college campuses.
In 2007, shortly after witnessing the culmination of their life’s work – the dedication of the Folopa New Testament – the Andersons were awarded the Logohu National Medal of Honor, a prestigious prize in Papua New Guinea.
Since leaving there later that year, the Andersons have kept in touch with their friends. The villagers of Fukutao send their prayer requests and greetings via radio to people in a Ukarumpa, who then forward the information via e-mail to the Andersons.
In the same way he inspired members of the Folopa tribe to use their talents while collaborating toward a goal, Anderson will motivate church members and others in Spokane, his wife said.
“Neil has been a peacemaker who helps people come together,” she said.
He moved back to Spokane on Monday and showed up for his first day of work on Wednesday wearing jeans and sturdy hiking boots, carrying his Bible in a worn leather case.
“I’m going in as a learner,” he said. “My vision is for us to teach and preach and walk God’s word.”
Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon@yahoo.com.