We believe that language is one of God’s most important gifts to man, and of all human characteristics, language is the most distinctly human and the most basic. Without language, culture and civilization would be impossible. … Therefore, all languages deserve respect and careful study.
As the most uniquely human characteristic a person has, a person’s language is associated with his self-image. Interest in and appreciation of a person’s language is tantamount to interest in and appreciation of the person himself.
All languages are worthy of preservation in written form by means of grammars, dictionaries, and written texts. —Dr. Benjamin F. Elson, The Linguistic Creed, SIL International
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns! —Isaiah 52:7, NLT
But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” —Romans 10:14,15, NLT
I confess, I don’t think much about beautiful feet. I was joking recently with a couple of female friends, both of whom were admiring each others toes while commiserating about the high cost of a pedicure. I told them that I trim my nails with a chainsaw and offered to do theirs free of charge. They wisely declined.
When compared to my pedicured friends, Jim’s and Juanita’s feet are not beautiful by any normal standards. Sturdy, yes. Well-traveled, definitely. Isaiah’s poetic use of the word beautiful probably means something like “perfectly-suited.” It might be fair to paraphrase him thusly: “the feet of God’s messengers are right at home carrying the message of his goodness over the mountain trails.”
By that criterion, my friends have beautiful feet, indeed.
In 1978, Jim and Juanita decided to carry God’s good news to a group of tiny villages in the verdant mountains of Veracruz, Mexico, to a remote area where the 4,000 people known as the Tlachichilco Tepehuas live. The Tepehuas were a people with no alphabet, no dictionary and not a single book in their language—and, not a solitary translated verse of the Bible.
Under the sponsorship of SIL International, Jim and Juanita set out to learn the Tepehuas’ language, hoping one day to teach Tepehuas to read and write their mother tongue. And hoping, too, with God’s help, to interest the Tepehuas in translating God’s good news into their language.
Tlachichilco is one of those places that seems to lie beyond the rainbow. In those days, after a full day’s bus ride from Mexico City, you continued on foot, first fording a wide river, then hiking uphill a day further until reaching the cluster of villages just before dark. Their feet rarely looked beautiful at the end of the journey.
Their first home had two rooms, mud walls, a tin roof and no running water. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Rain came in through the roof. At night, rats scampered across the rafters, and sometimes across the bed. Drinking water had to be hauled by bucket up a steep trail. The physical challenges were many.
There were emotional challenges, too. Jim and Juanita are intelligent, college-educated people. Jim has his doctorate in linguistics. Juanita is a literacy specialist. Both are fluent in Spanish. But none of that counted for much among the Tepehuas. When they started, they knew only a few words in the language and virtually nothing of the grammatical rules. The cultural mores and community expectations were discovered by observing others and making mistakes. Trying to communicate, they often provoked laughter. Their presence in the village was misunderstood and their motives were sometimes questioned.
But they stuck with it.
And in the process, they earned the trust and respect of the Tepehuas. They made steady progress learning the language, and as they did so, they were able to interest more and more Tepehuas in reading and writing. The Tepehuas began to embrace these outsiders, and their vision, too. After many years of work, Jim and Juanita were able to recruit a group of people who wanted to translate God’s Word for their people.
The dream that burst from the ground as a tender shoot in 1978 matured, flowered and bore fruit. On August 7, 2004, in a public fiesta that attracted as many as 600 Tepehua men and women (and uncounted children), the New Testament was formally presented to the Tlachichilco Tepehuas. One by one, men and women came to the dais and took turns reading Scripture verses aloud or quoting from memory to the enthusiastic crowd. One by one they nodded, smiled, and pronounced the words good. For many Tepehuas, whose understanding of Spanish is extremely limited, it was the first time they had understood that God’s Word is meant for them, too.
We who have grown up in the industrialized nations take literacy and written communication for granted. Imagine what it might be like to speak a language that has no alphabet. Such people often feel that they are not quite human. They are often denigrated by members of the dominant culture, who wonder if a language that has no dictionary, no written grammar, no books, no alphabet, can have any intrinsic value? If God’s Word has never been written in your language, does God understand your prayers? Does God even know who you are?
The love of Christ takes many forms. Linguistics, literacy and anthropology, when applied in service to some of the world’s most marginalized people, can be beautiful things. Bible translation, especially when it brings the Word of God to a people who have never understood it, can communicate the love of God to a forgotten people living and dying at the edges of society.
How can they believe in him if they have never heard of him?
Where are the men and women with beautiful feet who will carry the news of God’s peace and salvation to the inner city soup kitchens and drug rehab centers, to the prisons, to the schools, to the centers of business and industry, to the hospitals, to the retirement homes, to the streets and highways, the villages and cities? Where are the men and women whose beautiful feet will carry justice to the oppressed, food to the starving and aid to the war-ravaged nations of the world? And where are the men and women whose beautiful feet will carry them to the 2,300 people groups around the world for whom there is still no translation of the Bible?
How beautiful are your feet?
(In Juanita’s own words. The story of Bible translation isn’t well known, even in the evangelical Christian community. I asked Juanita if she would write something in her own words about their experiences among the Tepehuas, and she has kindly agreed. Part two of this essay, then, is a challenge from Juanita that she has called How Far Would You Walk?)
Update: For more information on Mexican indigenous cultures and languages, visit the Virtual Museum of the Indigenous Languages of Mexico.