God wants all people to know Him, to become part of His Family.
A Bible translator’s main job is, therefore, to translate the Bible so God can introduce Himself to an indigenous people.
And what is God’s first job? To prepare the indigenous people to accept the introducer.
Forty-eight years ago, in the spring of 1968, the Canela people of Brazil took the second step in accepting my wife, Jo, and me as part of their native society. They adopted us as members of their families and full citizens of Canela society.
The Canela adoption/initiation ceremony involved lots of red ochre paint, plenty of tree-sap glue and white hawk down all over our bodies. Surrounded by crowds of Canelas, we listened to the chief’s long speech; then each of the sub-chiefs and elders made shorter speeches.
We couldn’t understand a word.
A month earlier, when I first met the Canela chief in town, the Canelas had taken the first step in accepting us. Although he knew only a little Portuguese, he understood that we were ready to live in the village, learn Canela, and help where we could. He pantomimed giving me an injection in my upper arm, and made writing motions. “Yes,” I said, “we will treat sick people and teach you to read and write.”
“You come,” he said.
A few days later, I stood in the centre of the Canela village plaza surrounded by a large group of sombre, silent, serious looking Canela men. I faced a village elder who, leaning on his spear, chanted loudly for long time.
I couldn’t understand a word.
Abruptly he stopped chanting, and shouted loudly, “Prejaka! Prejaka! Prejakaaaa!” at which all those silent men behind me suddenly shouted, “Yuhaaa!”
Major adrenaline rush!
Then they all broke into smiles, grabbed my hands and kept saying “Prejaka, Prejaka, Prejaka.” I finally got it! I had just been given a Canela name—the first step into being accepted into Canela culture.
Later on Jo, and each of our daughters, went through the same naming ceremony. It was a once and for all time event. But over the next few decades, we went through the adoption/re-initiation ceremony dozens of times—each time we returned to the village after an extended time away. And eventually we fully understood all those speeches.
“We have adopted you into our village and into our families. You are even more one of us now than when you first came to us. You now speak our language. You invented a way to write our language and taught us to read and write it, and to count and read numbers. “
“You are training teachers from among our young people. You help them make books for us. You have saved many lives with your medicine, especially our babies. You are family and belong here.”
“Join any festival. Go anywhere in the Canela lands. Take pictures of any of us, and of any of our ceremonies. When outsiders come in just to look and take pictures, we ask them for gifts, but we will never ask you.”
Seven years ago, after an absence of nineteen years, we re-visited the village. Yes, once again, glue, feathers, red body paint and a wide-open village welcome to our whole family—fifteen of us—including our eight grandchildren.
God arrived in the Canela village long before we came. He arrived to prepare the villagers so they would adopt us, and make us citizens of the Canela village. God stayed there with us for twenty-two years. When we left, He didn’t leave.
He stayed in the village. He is still there, adopting many Canelas into His Family and accepting them as citizens in His Kingdom.