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 10-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 family. 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.
Nearly 20 years later, Melissa DePaiva Gibson, now a married young woman, her husband, Michael, and a large delegation have arrived on Palau. The group consists of representatives from the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the North American Division, the Guam-Micronesia Mission, Andrews University, and a documentary film team. They have come to witness the premiere of the documentary Return to Palau.
The film was produced to highlight the incredible power of the gospel in the face of the unthinkable tragedy that befell the DePaiva family. While serving as missionaries, the pastor, his wife, and his son were slain by someone who broke into their home in the middle of the night. Melissa had been kidnapped and left for dead, but she was rescued. The perpetrator was apprehended and imprisoned.
The public’s feelings of shame and outrage at what happened were palpable. However, at the state funeral for the family, an unexpected event occurred. Ruth, the mother of Pastor DePaiva, unexpectedly approached the podium after the final speech from High Chief Reklai and began to speak to the people from a mother’s heart. She encouraged a spirit of forgiveness for all as she had forgiven Justin, the perpetrator of the crime. She then asked to meet the mother of Justin. Justin’s mother was brought to the podium, and the two women embraced like old friends. There was barely a dry eye in that large gymnasium. The nation had never seen an act of forgiveness of this magnitude.
Long before the premiere of Return to Palau, banners had been hung high in the streets, posters were displayed in shops and restaurants, and flyers were distributed to homes, inviting the public to attend the showing. It was a night that would make history as it became the largest gathering for any indoor event on Palau. Prepared with 1,000 seats, the gym was filled to overflowing as an estimated 1,500 people arrived. So many wanted to see this incredible story of tragedy, forgiveness, and hope.
When I think of what the premiere of this documentary meant to the people of Palau, three things come to mind. First, it caused many people to take a break from their daily routines to remember what happened to this Brazilian missionary family years ago. The story was told and retold among family members, church members, government leaders, and our youth. The public’s attention was as fixed on this story as it had been 20 years earlier.
Second, it caused people to deeply ponder the meaning of hope, forgiveness, and mercy and what these meant in their own lives. Someone once said, “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” How was it possible that even after her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson were murdered that Grandma DePaiva could forgive so fully and so freely? At a time when it would be understandable to be bitter, angry, and full of vengeance, how was she full of peace and mercy? Yes, truly forgiveness is an act of God in the human heart. What is impossible with man is possible with God.
Third, it meant a lot to the people of Palau because it led them to pray. The overall message of the documentary is that God is alive and well and that what He did for Melissa and her grandmother, He is willing to do for us today if we only ask Him. The film’s presentation of God’s deep love for sinners reminded us that as we continue to pray and stay close to God, He will take any bad situation in our lives and turn it around for good. What was looked upon as a shameful chapter of Palauan history has become a glorious 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 remember that as I was being interviewed, tears ran down my face. I felt incredibly moved as I thought of how God’s goodness knows no bounds in something so tragic and yet so triumphant, so sad and yet so inspiring. I rembember how good it felt to hear Pastor DePaiva’s voice again through the family’s home videos. It felt good seeing the young family happy and playing in the snow at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, just before they were called to Palau. At the same time, watching the documentary brought back feelings of hurt and shame because Justin, the one who had caused so much pain, is a member of my family. However, it filled me with joy to see “the rest of the story”—to see Melissa grow up to become a godly woman, go through school, and marry a God-fearing man; to see Justin finally give his heart to Jesus, surrender His life to God, and be baptized in the church pastored by the man whose life he took. How can anyone not be amazed at what God is still doing with this beautiful story? It’s evident that God is calling His children to Him through this documentary.
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 that are meant for evil, but God is able to turn them for good (Genesis 50:20). It declares that the Lord Jesus can give us beauty for ashes when we mourn (Isaiah 61:3). It promises us that all things will work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28). 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 us know that the source of this power is in Jesus Christ. What He did for the DePaiva family, the Lord stands ready to do for us today. Will you ask Him 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 Jesus. In a room filled with some 1,500 people that night, one could feel the reverent anticipation among those who witnessed it. It was special. It was not just the premiere of a film. It was the Lord Jesus Christ revealing His tender heart to the people in Palau and to all the world. It was a moment in history that will bear fruit for many years to come, and it’s my earnest prayer that because of it, many souls will walk through the gates of the New Jerusalem, forever to be with their Savior. What a reunion that will be for the DePaiva family, for Justin, for you, for me, for us all!
You can rent Return to Palau at Returntopalau.com.
Revenue from the film will be used to further the legacy of the DePaiva family and to help care for Melissa’s grandmother Ruth, who suffered a debilitating stroke.