Aaron Lopa, a Papua New Guinean of Wuvulu Island, was a pastor, evangelist, and academic. He was the first Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) from Papua New Guinea to receive a Doctor of Ministry degree. He spent much of his life at Sonoma Adventist College and Pacific Adventist University preparing ministerial students for service.
There is no known physical record of the birth of Aaron Lopa.1 His parents and the people of his clan were illiterate. He estimated he was born around 1942. He remembered being carried on his father’s shoulders as the family ran for cover when the Japanese bombers and fighters were flying overhead on their way to invade New Guinea. He was born in a small village on the island of Wuvulu which is part of the Western Islands, northeast of the north coast of Papua New Guinea.2
Lopa’s mother originally came from the Rorina clan on the eastern side of the island of Wuvulu, while his father came from the Rawa clan on the western coast. His father was an important local devil priest who was often asked to instigate sacrifices and provide charms as a means of avoiding calamities. As animists, his parents and his extended clan believed in ancestral devil worship and lived in constant fear that their ancestors would show disapproval by allowing disasters to occur.3
During the 1880s, the Germans wished to establish coconut plantations on many of the Western Islands, including Wuvulu. To create much-needed land for these plantations, the Germans relocated the people from their tribal lands to the two main villages on the island, Onne and Auna.6 Lopa’s family was moved to Auna.
Arrival of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
During the 1950s the SDA Church attempted to establish a presence in the Western Islands. Surrounding islanders accepted the distribution of clothes and medical attention and, as a result, asked for a missionary. In contrast, the people of Wuvulu were unhelpful and uncooperative, refusing to allow the missionaries to visit their island. They even refused to sell green coconuts to the mission boat7.
On a third visit to the islands the SDA visitors noticed that the health of the people of Auna on Wuvulu had deteriorated. The severely sick with tuberculosis were taken to the government hospital at the township of Lorengau on the island of Manus. Local SDAs provided these lonely people with garden produce and friendship. By 1952 the people from Wuvulu had been discharged from hospital but they had no money for transport home. The SDAs, under the direction of Frank Maberly, SDA district director of the region, agreed to transport as many as possible on the mission ship MV Light back to their villages. Tears of joy were shared as loved ones were reunited.8 Greatly relieved in having his citizens back, the local chief insisted that an SDA missionary be left on the island. Joseph Mave and his wife, Orava, from Emirau Island, en route to another appointment, stayed with the people until a replacement could be found.9 He successfully established the first Christian church and a primary school on the island.
Baptism, Education, and Marriage
In 1957 Lopa began his education at the Sun Valley Primary School, established by Mave, on the island of Wuvulu. He was a good student and progressed to Nagam Central School in Wewak on the mainland of New Guinea, and then in the early 1960s he progressed to Kabiufa High School, in the Eastern Highlands Mission. It was at Kabiufa that he was baptized on November 2, 1965, by Hugh Dickins, President of the Eastern Highlands and Chimbu Mission. This date subsequently became his birth date. After his high school graduation from Form 4 in 1966, he began the first year of the ministerial course at Kabiufa in 1967 before being transferred to the newly established Sonoma Adventist College, located in East New Britain. He graduated with a Diploma of Ministry in 1968, as part of the inaugural graduation class.10
In 1972 Lopa married Elizabeth Kumako from Bougainville, whom he had met when they were both students at Sonoma College. Their first son, Jamie, was born in the Philippines in 1976 when Aaron was studying toward his master’s degree. Jennifer and Nathan were both born in Nonga Hospital, Rabaul, East New Britain. Alice, a niece from Aaron’s home village, was added to the family.
Ministry and Academic Career
In 1969 Lopa commenced work as a minister in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. At that time there were only two main churches, one at Ela Beach and the other at Hohola. Part of his pastoral duties included conducting religious instruction at the local Kilakila High School and conducting Daniel and Revelation seminars. It was quickly recognized by senior pastors, church administrators, and his church members that Lopa showed promise as a competent Bible teacher. At the end of 1971 he was invited to return to Sonoma Adventist College, this time as a teacher in the Religion Department.
Lopa was very early recognized as a person of outstanding ability. He was in high demand as a speaker on significant occasions.11 In 1975 the Lopa family were sponsored by the Australasian Division for advanced study at Philippine Union College. He first completed a BA in the History and Philosophy of Religion, and then an MA in Religion from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary—Far East.12 The family returned from the Philippines at the end of 1979 to Port Moresby, where Lopa was again assigned to local church ministry.13 In 1981 they transferred back to Sonoma Adventist College, where Lopa was again a teacher in the Religion Department, before becoming Head of the Ministerial Training Department. In 1985 at the Papua New Guinea Union Mission session held at Kabiufa High School in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Aaron Lopa was ordained to the gospel ministry.14 Subsequently he was appointed as university chaplain in Port Moresby and then back to Sonoma as a teacher in the Ministerial Training Department in 1987. In 1989 he was transferred to Pacific Adventist College, in Port Moresby, as a lecturer in the Theology Department. During this time he also served on the executive committee of the South Pacific Division.15 He was becoming widely regarded as a speaker in demand at significant church events.16
In 1993 the Lopa family moved to Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan,17 where Lopa was awarded a Doctor of Ministry degree in 1996, the first SDA Papua New Guinean ever awarded with this qualification.18 His dissertation was subsequently read by the theology and ministerial students in Papua New Guinea as a guide in how to nurture the laypeople in their assigned churches.19
Returning to Papua New Guinea, he resumed teaching in the School of Theology at Pacific Adventist University. In 2000 he was the first lecturer to be ranked as professor by the Pacific Adventist University Council, for his outstanding teaching and community leadership. He carried a full teaching load and administrative responsibilities, and filled numerous speaking appointments in SDA venues and in the wider community, both in Papua New Guinea and overseas.20
In 1998 Lopa started to complain of shortness of breath. A. Sengupta, a consulting physician and cardiologist of Sir Buri Heart Institute (attached to Port Moresby General Hospital), advised him to travel to Australia for further ventricular and coronary angio tests. Colleagues and students at Pacific Adventist University assisted with fund-raising. However, in June 2000 he was rushed to Sydney for major surgery. Many people assisted with the costs of his surgery.21
Because of his failing health situation, Lopa formally retired in 2009, choosing to continue to reside on the Pacific Adventist University campus instead of retiring to Bougainville, his wife’s home island. In retirement he continued to fill numerous speaking commitments. He continued to teach, at least one subject per semester. Most weekends he would preach, conduct seminars, marriages, and baptisms. He was guest speaker for many schools’ Week of Prayer. In recognition of his incredible contribution to Pacific Adventist University, he was honored with the title Professor Emeritus, the only person ever to so honored.22
Lopa’s community activities were well recognized and highly valued across Papua New Guinea. In 2008 he became an Officer of the Order of Logohu, an award conferred by the Governor-General of Papua New Guinea.23 On receiving this honor, Lopa responded: “It’s a very humbling experience. I do my work for the love of God and humanity. My real purpose is to serve mankind. I thank the government of PNG and those who recognized my contribution to the community.”24
In 2013 the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church recognized his service by presenting him with a service medal.
On April 20, 2013, Aaron Lopa died of heart complications. As is tradition in Papua New Guinea, his body was taken back to his village and buried in his traditional land. The Papua New Guinea Navy provided the transport. He is remembered by the large SDA community in Papua New Guinea, his colleagues, his students, and the wider community in the country.25
Contribution and Legacy
Aaron Lopa is remembered as an outstanding teacher, a gospel-centred preacher, an inspirational speaker, and committed Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Many politicians and civic leaders sought his advice on social and cultural issues. Church administrators often invited him to assist in important decision-making. Church members visited the Lopa home and found acceptance and assurance. Lopa was a respected Christian role model.
Baird, Raymond H. “Ordinations in PNG.” Australasian Record, November 30, 1985.
Currie, A. S. “Sonoma’s First Graduates.” Australasian Record, January 20, 1969.
Drinkall, George W. W. “Inaugural Camp at Stuart’s Point.” Record, December 5, 1992.
“First Pacific Grads.” Record, August 17, 1996.
“Further Studies for PAC Lecturer.” Record, July 24, 1993.
Hawken, Wayne. “PAU Graduates Make His Mission Their Business.” Record, January 30, 2010. “Kambubu Technical School Graduation.” Australasian Record, February 18, 1974.
Liversidge, W. “Sonoma Graduation, 1973.” Australasian Record, February 18, 1974.
Lopa, Aaron. “The Isolated Western Islands of PNG—the Seventh-day Adventist Church Reaches the ‘Tiger People.’ ” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 9, no. 1 (December 2010): 27–32.
———. “The Role of the Pastor in Lay Development in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Papua New Guinea.” DMin project, Andrews University, 1996.
Oliver, Barry D. “It’s All About God.” Record, March 8, 2008.
Parkinson, Richard. Thirty Years in the South Seas. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House, 1999.
“SPD Committee.” Record, September 22, 1990.
Tausere, Nemani. “A Devil Priest’s Son Became a Priest of the Lord.” Australasian Record, October 13, 1980.
———. “Pacific Islanders at P. U. C. Say ‘Thank You, Australasia.’” Australasian Record, July 30, 1979.
Thiele, David. “Building a House.” Record, March 31, 2012.
Thiele, Jillian. “Dr. Aaron Lopa.” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 12, no. 1 (2018): 2–30.
Vele, Vagi. “PAU Professor Awarded ‘Officer of the Order of Logohu.’ ” Record, December 13, 2008.
Much of the information in this biography comes from the personal knowledge of the author as a work colleague of Aaron Lopa for more than 25 years, at both Sonoma College and Pacific Adventist University.↩
Aaron Lopa, “The Isolated Western Islands of PNG—the Seventh-day Adventist Church Reaches the ‘Tiger People,’ ” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 9, no. 1 (December 2010): 27–32.↩
Nemani Tausere, “A Devil Priest’s Son Became a Priest of the Lord,” Australasian Record, October 13, 1980, 8; David Thiele, “Building a House,” Record, March 31, 2012, 21.↩
Lopa., “The isolated Western Islands of PNG- the Seventh-day Adventist Church Reaches the ‘Tiger People,’” Journal of Pacific Adventist History, 9/1 (December 2010): 27-32.↩
Richard Parkinson, Thirty Years in the South Seas (Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House, 1999), 183, 184.↩
Jillian Thiele, “Dr. Aaron Lopa,” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 12, no, 1 (2018): 29.↩
A. S. Currie, “Sonoma’s First Graduates,” Australasian Record, January 20, 1969, 12.↩
W. Liversidge, “Sonoma Graduation, 1973,” Australasian Record, February 18, 1974, 2; “Kambubu Technical School Graduation,” Australasian Record, February 18, 1974, 12.↩
Nemani Tausere, “Pacific Islanders at P. U. C. Say ‘Thank You, Australasia,’ ” Australasian Record, July 30, 1979, 7; Tausere, “A Devil Priest’s Son Became a Priest of the Lord.”↩
Tausere, “A Devil Priest’s Son Became a Priest of the Lord.”↩
Raymond H. Baird, “Ordinations in PNG,” Australasian Record, November 30, 1985, 2.↩
“SPD Committee,” Record, September 22, 1990, 4.↩
George W. W. Drinkall, “Inaugural Camp at Stuart’s Point,” Record, December 5, 1992, 10.↩
“Further Studies for PAC Lecturer,” Record, July 24, 1993, 4.↩
“First Pacific Grads,” Record, August 17, 1996, 4.↩
Aaron Lopa, “The Role of the Pastor in Lay Development in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Papua New Guinea” (DMin project, Andrews University, 1996).↩
Barry D. Oliver, “It’s All About God,” Record, March 8, 2008, 2.↩
J. Thiele, “Dr Aaron Lopa,” Journal of Pacific Adventist History, 12/1 (2018), 29.↩
Wayne Hawken, “PAU Graduates Make His Mission Their Business,” Record, January 30, 2010, 5.↩
Vagi Vele, “PAU Professor Awarded ‘Officer of the Order of Logohu,’ ” Record, December 13, 2008, 4.↩
J. Thiele, “Dr Aaron Lopa,” Journal of Pacific Adventist History, 12/1 (2018), 29.↩
Jamie Lopa, email message to author, August 21, 2017.↩