The year is 2003. The place is the Palau National Gymnasium. The event is a state funeral for Pastor Ruimar DePaiva, his wife Margareth, and their son Larisson. Their ten-year-old daughter, Melissa, looks on as she stands with her grandmother and grandfather. She mourns alongside the hundreds of people who have come to pay their respects to her beautiful family from Brazil. However, no one could foresee that the Lord was about to move upon this funeral ceremony in a way that would impact Palau and the world forever.
Almost twenty years later, Melissa DePaiva Gibson, now a married young lady, her husband, Michael, and a large delegation consisting of representatives from the General Conference, North American Division, Guam-Micronesia Mission, Andrews University, and a documentary film team have all arrived on the Republic of Palau for a very special event: to witness the premiere of the documentary film entitled “Return to Palau.”
"Return to Palau" is a documentary that was produced to highlight the incredible power of the gospel in the face of an unthinkable tragedy that befell the DePaiva family. While serving as missionaries, someone had broken into their home in the middle of the night, slaying the pastor, his wife, and his son. Melissa had been kidnapped, left for dead, but then rescued. The perpetrator had been apprehended and confined. The public’s feeling of shame and outrage at what happened was almost palpable. However, it was at the state funeral for the family that an unexpected event occurred. The mother of Pastor DePaiva, Melissa’s grandmother, unexpectedly approached the podium after the final speech from High Chief Reklai. She approached the podium and began to speak to the people from a mother’s heart. She encouraged a spirit of forgiveness for all as she herself had forgiven Justin, the perpetrator of the crime. She then requested to meet the mother of Justin. After Justin’s mother was brought to the podium, and after exchanging more words of forgiveness, Pastor DePaiva’s mother and Justin’s mother embraced like old friends. There was barely a dry eye in that large gymnasium. The nation had never seen such an act of forgiveness of this magnitude on our island. This is how the Lord revealed Himself in a very powerful way.
The premiere of the documentary would take place at the Palau National Gymnasium, the very same site where almost twenty years ago the DePaiva funeral was held. Long before the premiere, banners had been hung high in the streets, posters were displayed in stores, shops, and restaurants, while flyers were passed along from house to house, all inviting the public to come attend the showing on the first night. It was a night that would make history as it became the largest gathering for any indoor event on Palau. Prepared with 1000 seats, the gym was filled to capacity as an estimated 1500 people left standing room only. So many people wanted to see for themselves this incredible story of tragedy, forgiveness, and hope.
When I think of what this documentary meant to the people of Palau, I think of three things. First, its premiere on Palau meant a lot to them because it caused people to take a pause. Many paused from their daily routines to remember what happened to this beautiful missionary family years ago. The story was told and retold among family members, among church members, among government leaders, among our youth, and more. Some were hearing it for the first time while others were recalling how it unfolded. The public’s attention was fixed once again on this story as it did almost twenty years ago.
Second, it meant a lot to them because it caused the people to deeply ponder. The themes of hope, forgiveness, and mercy caused people to seriously consider what these words meant and what it meant for them in their own lives. Someone once said, “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” How is it possible that even after her son, her daughter-in-law, and her grandson were murdered that Grandma DePaiva could still forgive so fully and so freely? Why is it that at a time when it would be understandable to be bitter, anger, and full of vengeance, that she was full of peace, mercy, and forgiveness? Yes, truly forgiveness is an act of God in the human heart. What is impossible with man is possible with God. This incredible testimony of how a mother could forgive made many people think about the power of forgiveness in their own lives. Truly, this forgiveness is only possible through God and God alone.
Third, it meant a lot to the people of Palau because it led us to pray. The overall message of this documentary is that the God we pray to is alive and well and what He did with Melissa and her family, He is willing to do for you today. . . if we only ask Him. As hearts were touched by the documentary’s presentation of God’s deep love for sinners, we were reminded again that as we continue to pray to God, and to stay close to Him, He will take any bad situation in our lives and turn it for good. What was looked upon as a shameful chapter of Palauan history, has become a glorious and soul-stirring testament to the power of God’s conquering love and abundant forgiveness.
The documentary’s impact on me as I participated in the film was humbling. I remembered that as I was being interviewed, tears would run down my face. I felt so touched and moved to the core of my heart as I thought of how God’s goodness knows no limits and no bounds in something so tragic and yet so triumphant, so humbling, and yet so hopeful, and so sad and yet so inspiring. As I watched the film for the first time, I remember how good it felt to hear Pastor DePaiva’s voice again through his family’s home videos. It felt good seeing the young family happy and playing in the snow at Andrews University just before they were called to Palau. At the same time, watching the documentary made me remember those old feelings of hurt and shame because Justin is a member of my family. However, it filled me with so much joy to see “the rest of the story”. To see Melissa growing up to become a godly, young woman, to go through school, and marry a godly, young man, then to see Justin finally give his heart to Jesus, surrender His life to God, and be baptized in the same church of the pastor whose life he took; how can anyone not be amazed at what God is still doing with this beautiful story? It is evident that God is calling His children to Him through this documentary.
The responses that I have heard from those who watched the entire film have been so positive. We can see that it was more than just a film and much more than just its premiere. It was the Lord Jesus Christ revealing His tender heart to my people in Palau and to all the world. What does “Return To Palau” mean for you and for me today? It reminds us of God’s promise that in life there may be situations that happen to you that are meant for evil, but God is able to turn it for good (Genesis 50:20). It declares that the Lord Jesus can give you beauty for ashes when you mourn (Isaiah 61:3). It promises you that all things will work out together for your good as you love God (Romans 8:20). It tells us what the power of God’s forgiveness can do within a family, within a culture, and within a nation. Where can we find the source of this power? That is the purpose of this documentary. To let you know that the source of this power is found in Jesus Christ. What He did for the DePaiva family, the Lord stands ready to do for you today. Will you ask Him just now? Will you call upon Him who delights to do wonders in your life? He will abundantly answer, and you may never be the same again.
This film and this event were about Him. In a room of about 1500 people in that first night, you could feel the reverent anticipation among those who sat in every chair and even on the floor. It was special. It was not just the premiere of a film, but the continuing movement of God’s spirit on people’s hearts. It was a moment in history that will bear fruit for many years to come and it is our earnest prayer many souls will walk through those gates into the city of New Jerusalem, forever to be with their Savior. What a reunion that will be for the DePaiva family, for Justin, for me, for you, and for us all. May the Lord be with you until that day.