He sold me a large, fringed hammock, the color of goldenrod in a pasture under a September sky. When I mentioned that it needed to be a sleeping-sized hammock because I was going to live in a native village, the vendor, who appeared to be native himself, asked hesitantly if I was an anthropologist.
“No, I’m a missionary.” A grin quickly spread over the face of the man with the yellow hammock as he grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously and exclaiming his delight.
He kindly offered advice about winning the friendship of a tribal group. “Eat what they offer you. Eat it like we do, sitting on the ground, eating with your hands, everyone taking food out of the same pot.” He mentioned outsiders who acted like their customs are unacceptable, or slyly threw away pieces of food given to them. This was duly noted, and he warned me that such behavior guarantees that no one will listen to such a missionary.
He told me he belongs to the A ethnic group, numbering about 850. He is a smart man. He speaks Portuguese and Spanish, and a little French and English. His first language is the A language, spoken in their remote villages even today, although children learn Portuguese or Spanish in school. I asked if there were any missionaries among his people, or if they had the Bible. His answer was no, but he has already read parts of the Bible in Portuguese. And he seemed okay with that. But I’m not. I know what he’s missing out on.
You see, I too have read the Bible in my second language. Personal experiments and experience have proven that there really is a difference. I speak Portuguese fluently, and use it regularly to engage in deep, heart-to-heart conversations with friends. I love attending church services in Portuguese, and God teaches me as I read the Bible in Portuguese. Yet this was not the language of the lullabies of my babyhood. It was not the language that my parents used as they nurtured and taught me. It will never be the language that most quickly and effectively reaches my heart. And I am so thankful that my first exposure to the One True God and His living Word was in English, my heart language, my mother tongue.
So it pricks my heart and brings tears to my eyes to know that hundreds of ethnic groups do not have that privilege. A small percentage of these groups may have access to the Bible in a national language which they understand, to a point. But as I can attest, when reading in a second language, the brain is forced to work harder. Mentally, this is a good thing, yet it causes delay in understanding and feeling and experiencing the message of what is being read. And in that delay alone, even if the message is correctly understood, communication loses something. Does God still use His Word to reach hearts and transform lives, even if it is in a second language? Of course. However, it is not the ideal.
Jesus died and rose again for everyone in the whole world, so that anyone who believes can be part of God’s family, no matter what their nationality, language, heritage, or background. And He wants all people to have the chance to hear this Good News. Everyone should have access God’s Word, alive and powerful, in their own language, so that communication is as clear as possible. Communication involves not only the words that are used; it involves the comprehension of the hearer (or reader). God speaks to man through the Bible, so accuracy and clarity are of the utmost importance.
Accounts have been reported of people groups who thought that God was “the white man’s god” or “the god of the Spanish-speaking people” or “the foreigners’ god.” But when these groups finally heard the Bible read and taught in their own language, many of them immediately believed in Him and accepted Him as their God. I think it was either the Cakquichel or Quechua people of Guatemala Ecuador who were delighted to discover that “God speaks our language.” It is true. He is the God and Creator of the human race, including every ethnic group, not just privileged or literate societies. But without hearing God speaks to them in their language, many groups will remain marginalized, outsiders to the grace of God, feeling that He does not care about them. And they urgently need to know of His great salvation.
That is why I am here. That is why we are going to the Neno* village today. That is why our goal is becoming part of their community and living their language. That is why no sacrifice is too great. That is why I would not trade this life for anything.
Have you read the Bible today? If not, please pull it out and open it and be thankful that you have a copy in English. Then read, and ask God to speak to your heart, and make His Word come alive to you.
And please, if you would, pray for the man with the yellow hammock, and for the A people, to desire and someday receive the Bible in their heart language. Pray that God would send workers to clearly communicate His Word, so that they would understand that they too are invited to be His children.
*name changed for privacy reasons