Captain Keith and Norma the Nurturer

13 Jun 2016

Keith started life in 1939 in Papua New Guinea where his parents were missionaries. From age 3, he grew up in Melbourne and then in Tahlee (near Port Stephens NSW) where his Dad was on staff at the bible college there. During these years he was greatly influenced by his parent’s missions involvement and the steady stream of missionaries that were guests at the family dinner table. After completing high school, Keith established his own oyster farming business.

Keith was invited to go to PNG when he was just 19, with the same mission his parents served with, but he knew he first needed more training and experience. Keith stepped out in faith and sold his business. After 2 years at Bible College, Keith worked as chaplain at a military base outside of Sydney. This provided excellent experience and had a big impact for the gospel in the lives of many young men. He also completed a diesel mechanics course by correspondence.  Now 26, Keith was ready to go to PNG.

Keith’s first role in PNG was to skipper a boat between supply stations and communities along the rivers. He had a crew of local Gogodala men and in the confines of the boat during the long hours, he learned the language very well.

One of the riverside locations Keith visited was Awaba, where there was a high school. Norma Skerman from Queensland’s Darling Downs was one of the teachers there and Keith thought she was a real ‘darling’. They were married in 1968 and lived first amongst the Gogodala people at Awaba, before moving into the Southern Highlands of PNG. Norma had significant impact in the lives of hundreds of young PNG men and women during her time teaching at Awaba.

Keith and Norma spent the major period of their lives and ministry in Bosavi in the Southern Highlands, Keith becoming fluent in 4 languages. They initially lived very simply, but eventually built a house, improved the small airstrip, worked with the community to build and staff a school, build and work in a small medical aid post, while all the time seeking to demonstrate and speak of a God who loves the Bosavi people. A small group of believers developed and met for fellowship, teaching and encouragement. When Keith and Norma finished their time at Bosavi there was a thriving local church.

Keith and Norma moved back amongst the Gogodalas for 10 more years. This was a strategic time as a serious cult was impacting the church. After 38 years in PNG, Keith and Norma returned and settled in Queensland, having no idea what lay ahead for them.  Retirement did not cross their minds.

They accepted the invitation to a pastoral role on Christmas Island, where they lived during 2012 and 2013. This role opened the door to the most amazing period of ministry in their lives. As pastor, they had free access to the asylum seekers in the Detention Centres. What they saw caused them deep heartache and anguish, yet from what seemed like utter despair and hopelessness they saw hundreds of people come to faith in Jesus. Sometimes people were processed off the boats and one of the first things they asked was to be shown where they go to find out about Christianity. God had already been at work in their hearts. Groups attended Bible studies. People received Scriptures and study notes in their own languages. Many of these people are now scattered across Australia, some leading study groups using those very study notes and Scriptures.

Keith and Norma continue to have close and regular contact with large numbers of the asylum seekers they met on Christmas Island. They recently travelled across Australia to personally visit many of their contacts.

Their impact in PNG, where they are still dearly loved and respected, is immeasurable.  They touched the lives of boat crewmen, high school students, young church leaders, and so many ordinary village folk, introducing and discipling them in the way of Jesus.  Their two sons, each with lovely families, are both aircraft engineers. And Norma currently connects on Facebook with over 300 asylum seekers and friends from PNG.

By Russell Briggs

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