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Eddie Kalokul Karris (1931-2023) with Erik Tryggestad in Vanuatu in 2015.
Photo by Eric Brandell

Baptized in secret, he became a bold proclaimer

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Missionary Edwin Crookshank baptized Eddie Kalokul Karris on Jan. 19, 1981 — at midnight, so members of the Presbyterian church where Eddie formerly served wouldn’t find out.

Eddie was one of the first members of a cappella Churches of Christ in Vanuatu, an archipelago of 80-plus islands in the South Pacific, population 307,000. More than 80 percent of the Ni-Vanuatu, as they’re known, claim Christianity as their faith. Churches from Seventh-day Adventists to Mormons are active, as are our cousins in the Independent Christian Churches.

Related: ‘Share-em Good News’

But many are Christians “in lips” only, Eddie said when I visited his home in the village of Eton in 2015. I was on a reporting trip to Vanuatu and New Zealand for The Christian Chronicle. Missionaries Eric and Shawnda Brandell were my hosts.

Eddie was a judge of sorts — a respected member of his community who settled land disputes. He worshiped with the Eton Church of Christ near Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, on the island of Efate.

“When they say Vanuatu is a Christian country, what are they talking about? Are they talking about the land? Are they talking about the coconut? No! A Christian country is the people who live in Vanuatu.”

In the 34 years since his secret baptism, he had become a lot bolder about his faith. He wanted to follow only what he read in his Bible, a well-worn book with a cracked cover that sat on his desk next to a Nelson Mandela biography.

“When they say Vanuatu is a Christian country, what are they talking about?” he asked. “Are they talking about the land? Are they talking about the coconut? No! A Christian country is the people who live in Vanuatu.”

Unfortunately, a locally produced alcoholic beverage called kava “is the No. 1 religion in Vanuatu,” he said. “I see them from my window — they struggle for life. They say they are Christians, but the blessing has run away from them. …

“But ‘I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children in want of bread,’” he said, quoting Psalm 37:25.

Before we left I asked to get a picture with Eddie, and he happily smashed his face against mine. I asked Eric Brandell if that was a Vanuatu cultural thing.

“I think it’s more of an Eddie thing,” he said.

In September 2020, the Brandells returned to the U.S. after 15 years of mission work in Vanuatu. They continue to serve the churches there — and the Kingdom. Eric works for Westview Family Services, a service of the Westview Boys’ Home in Hollis, Okla., which is supported by Churches of Christ. Eric is the ministry’s manager of programs in Central Oklahoma.

At his home, Eddie Kalokul Karris talks about his baptism in 1981.

At his home, Eddie Kalokul Karris talks about his baptism in 1981.

I ran into Eric on Easter weekend in Dallas at the North Texas Leadership Training for Christ convention. He told me that Eddie died on March 26, less than a week shy of his 92nd birthday.

“Eddie had a knack for conversation and loved to talk about the Bible, World War II history (which he witnessed firsthand), and his beloved Vanuatu,” Eric said. “He played a significant role in helping plant churches in many places throughout the country. His presence will be greatly missed by his family, his community and his church.”

I saw some of that history as Eric showed me around Efate. We came across an old airstrip used by the Allies during the Pacific campaign. Across from it were mounds of dirt with grass sprouting. They once spelled out “USA” and told planes where to land.

I used that as a sermon illustration when I gave a “smol toktok” (“devotional” in Bislama, the local language) to the Etas Church of Christ. The folks I had spoken to (except Eddie) were a bit mystified that I had flown across an ocean to visit churches in a country that most folks can’t find on a map. (I only knew Vanuatu existed from watching “Survivor.”) I told them that, from ground level, we may just look like mounds of dirt, but from 30,000 feet (God’s view) we are people of great importance.

We all matter to God.

Eddie mattered. The more I travel, the more I admire the pioneering believers who bring simple New Testament Christianity — free from human creeds — to their people. It must be a lonely path, but it must also be gratifying to watch as God gives the increase.

Port Vila, Vanuatu

When I visited Eddie, he had recently lost his wife, Nettie. They were married for 57 years. Missionary Tobey Huff preached the funeral.

“I know she’s waiting for me … in the bosom of Abraham,” Eddie said. “I’ll meet her soon. I have a house there whose builder and founder is God, and I hope to go there one day and see all my brothers and sisters, thank you very much.”

ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @eriktryggestad.

Filed under: Eddie Kalokul Karris Eric Brandell Insight International Leadership Training For Christ memorial Opinion South Pacific Top Stories Vanuatu

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