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Iowa Public Radio's Culture and Diversity reports go in-depth to examine what it is like to be a minority in Iowa. The reports look at the issues, history, cultural traditions, challenges and future of each diverse group of people that are part of Iowa. Correspondent Rob Dillard and other IPR reporters tell the stories by talking with the leaders and having intimate discussions with some members of each group, and taking listeners to the places that exemplify these communities.Iowa Public Radio's Culture and Diversity reporting is funded in part by The Principal Financial Group Foundation and The Dr. Richard Deming Foundation.

A Couple on a Mission to Papua New Guinea

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Rob Dillard

Dan and Diane Folkers gave up their middle-class lives to move to the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea more than two years ago.

Dan Folkers asks us to imagine the conversation that led him and his wife, Diane, to drop everything and head off to an island in the Pacific Ocean.

“Try to formulate a pillow-talk question to your wife that goes something like, ‘Hey, I was thinking we should sell all of our things and move to a third-world country," he says. "What do you think?”

Dan and Diane Folkers were leading conventional lives a few years ago. He was an aircraft mechanic at Des Moines International Airport, she taught in the Des Moines Public Schools. Then they heard the call from their church – Fellowship Community Church in Norwalk – whose leaders were beginning to take a more active approach to missionary work.

“Because of their vision to become more of a sending church than a supporting church,we were introduced to what world missions look like and our responsibilities as believers and followers of Christ to take a more world view," Dan says.

They spent time in Canada and Laos, and then landed in Papua New Guinea, a 3 ½ hour plane ride north of Australia.

“The country of Papua New Guinea is an active volcano," Dan says. "We also get earthquakes. They call them rollers. They're not like earthquakes you’d see on TV with all of the food flying off grocery store shelves. But they’re just kind of gentle rollers that come every six-to-eight weeks.”

They live in what they describe as a compound up the side of a mountain with about 800 other people far from their two children and three grandchildren.

“All of our family is here in the Des Moines area," Diane says. "That was the hardest thing for me to leave. Also, my father passed away before we left and my mother passed away before we could get back.”

Living conditions are primitive in the country where they serve. Drinking water is gathered in plastic containers from roof tops after rain storms. Clothes are washed and baths taken in the river.

“They have no sanitary system as we know it," Dan says. "They have no water treatment systems as we know them. They have very little electricity as we know electricity here in America.”

They can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. But the high cost of transporting goods keeps other necessities in short supply and expensive.

“We do have a very small trade store where we’re serving that provides salt and sugar and some spices and some oil and some flour and some canned goods,” Dan says.

But the outside world is beginning to intrude on Papua New Guinea, a nation about the size of California with seven million people.

“There’s a company trying to set up a cell phone system as basic as you can possibly get," Dan says. "Just a flip phone and maybe a few minutes of talk. They’re trying to get that established over there.”

The Folkers are providing support for a Dallas-based company called Wycliffe Bible Translators.  Its goal is to translate the Bible into every language in the world.

“There are more than 6,900 languages on earth," Diane says. "Twelve percent of that amount are in PNG.”

The Folkers have been in Papua New Guinea two-and-a-half years now – 56-year-old Dan keeping a fleet of aircraft running to ferry translators about the country, 57-year-old Diane teaching four-to-seven year olds. After a holiday break to see family and friends in Des Moines, they’ve returned to PNG for two more years.