How far would you walk for a New Testament in your language?
At the recent historic dedication of the Tlachichilco Tepehua New Testament in eastern Mexico, many walked an hour or more. It was a scorching hot, tropical day, but despite the heat, about 600 people gathered in the small Tepehua town of Coyol to celebrate the arrival of this important book in their language. It was the largest gathering ever known of these Tepehuas.
One small group came from ‘over the river’: a four hour journey down one mountain, three river crossings along a valley, then over another mountain to the village of Coyol. Three men, two women and two babies made that trip. Cornelio described the river crossing: “It was deep, up to here,” indicating his chest. “Others wanted to come but they were afraid to cross the river.” Still, these five adults came (bringing the babies because they were too young to leave behind).
How far would you walk to give someone a New Testament in their own language?
My husband Jim and I chose to work with the Tepehua people partly because we were interested in a place ‘hard to get to’. A place where other colleagues might not be able to go. In the beginning, it was a long day’s trip by bus or car from Mexico City to the end of the road. The road ended 25 miles from Tepehua country—an all day hike, after first crossing a major river. We carried our infant son with us and lived among the Tepehuas. Over the years, we came and went, bringing more children: a daughter, a second son and then a third. We came on foot or riding on mules or horses. We came crowded in the back of a pickup truck or a dump truck or a cargo truck. Later, we came in our own vehicle and on rural buses. We crossed the river by boat, on foot, on horseback, and finally over a bridge. How many times did we travel that road, in sun or rain? One thing was sure, travel to Tepehua country was always an adventure and every trip different.
Over a period of 26 years, around other assignments and responsibilities, Jim and I worked with many different Tepehua men and women, finally completing the translation of the New Testament into their language. Was it worth it? At a church service recently, Tepehuas laid their hands on us and prayed, thanking God for bringing us to Tepehua country to help them get God’s Word in their language. They lined up to give us hugs, thanking us tearfully for our part in the translation efforts.
Was it worth it? Grandpa Santiago was one of the first believers. He was persecuted for his declaration of faith. Now newly literate at 65, he read Matthew 5:12-13 aloud and unhindered at the New Testament dedication ceremony.
Was it worth it? Apolinar, a blind man, smiled radiantly as he sang beautiful songs of praise in his own language to the God he has come to know through audio recordings of the scriptures in Tepehua.
Was it worth it? Vlina, a young widow and friend, the first to speak to me after the dedication ceremony, told me eagerly, “I too have entered in with God’s Word.” Later she described the peace she and her daughter have in their home, now that she is walking with God.
When we first set out to begin our work, to live with the Tepehuas, to learn their language and prepare written materials in it, we had no assurances that these Tepehuas would ever be interested in God’s Word. There was no guarantee that they would even put up with us and permit us to live among them for so many years. Our only guarantee was God’s daily presence and blessing as we obeyed his command to share this most important gift of all, his Good News.
We went not knowing what the outcome would be, but believing that whatever the result, God would receive glory and honor from our obedience to his calling to go.
Our experience is not unique. In many other far-off places around the world, men and women trek for days or weeks to reach those who still don’t have God’s Word in their own language. They are willing to go the last mile necessary. Sometimes the cost has been very high. Some have lost their lives, or witnessed the untimely death of loved ones. Is it worth the walk? How far would you walk to share God’s Word with someone in their own language?
(Note: Jim and Juanita’s work is sponsored by SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators. The Tlachichilco Tepehua New Testament was published by The Bible League.)
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, and no Bible?