It happened one day after spending three months in the Canela village. We taught young men and women who were eager to learn to read. They were delighted with the self-teaching illustrated primers we used. They wanted to use them to teach others. Canelas who were sick sent for us nearly every day asking us to diagnose and treat their illnesses with the modern medicines we bought in town. We also translated quite a few chapters of Luke.
The First Story
At noon the STOL (Short Take-Off & Landing) plane arrived in the village, and now we were gassing up at the airport 70 kilometres from the village to fly us 600 kilometres back to Belem, where our three daughters were waiting for us in boarding school.
As Jo and I got out to stretch our legs, a jeep drove up. The driver hurried to the plane without saying a word to us and peered into the cabin and the cargo hold. I spoke to him, but he ignored me and kept examining the interior. When we started to reboard, he drove away.
The Brazilian friend who had brought our drum of aviation gas explained. “Locals can’t understand why a North American couple would come down here to live for months at a time in an Indian village. Some think you are illegally mining gold, hauling it out by plane.” Since the Rio Ourives (Goldsmith River) ran halfway between the town and the village, I could see where they might get that idea. “Ah,” I said, “I guess this guy was looking for mining equipment or sacks of ore.”
We had already heard the rumour that we dug up Canela corpses, cut off their heads and sold them at a high price to universities for anatomical studies. Indeed, we often were at open graves, not to rob them, but to mourn along with the Canelas at burials. It happened all too frequently, especially when tuberculosis ravaged the village.
Brazilian Christians knew that we wanted to translate a good part of the Bible into the Canela language. How else would they have the opportunity to read about their Creator from a Bible in their own language, the same right as billions of people around the world have had for many years?
Brazilians tend to be generous. Even poor people give to the beggars on the street. All Brazilians are helpful to their families and their employees, and others they know well. But in the 1970s, the idea of charity to strangers was unknown. No wonder they suspected the motivation of foreigners, seemingly well funded but living in primitive conditions out in the jungle. Ignorance produced these suspicions and slanders. Jo and I began to experience pressures, even from government officials, that hindered our work with the Canelas.
The Second Story
A far more vicious and effective attack came from the 43rd International Congress of Americanists in 1979. At their meeting in Vancouver, BC, they passed a resolution to move governments to “expel Wycliffe Bible Translators’ field organization the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) from all the indigenous locations in North and South American countries.” They falsely accused us of “practicing compulsory religious conversion and annihilating the expression of Indian life and culture.” I heard about some religious groups, not Bible translators, who forced conversions by allowing only baptized believers to attend their schools, receive medical treatment, or buy in their stores. This was 100% false when applied to SIL workers.
About 900 people attended this Congress, although only 124 people (14%) were present in the last hours of the final day when this resolution was presented. Nine delegates jumped to their feet to protest that this did not align with what they personally knew to be true about Wycliffe and SIL. Even the chairman spoke out in favour of SIL. The resolution, however, passed 65 to 59. Brazil’s anthropologists jumped at the chance to cancel the contracts SIL had signed with the government permitting us to work in the indigenous villages.
The First Result
All SIL personnel were expelled from the villages in the forty different language groups where we worked. It was devastating not only for us SIL translators but for the indigenous people among whom we worked. The Canelas cried when we left, and some got angry. But there was nothing we could do. It was a terrible time of distress and confusion for many of us.
We kept up our spirits by reminding each other that God was still in control, He always knows what He is doing, and His love for us and the people groups we served lasts forever. We encouraged each other with promises such as, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11)
Brazil’s SIL translators were “in exile” for nearly five years. Then, finally, the Canelas and other indigenous societies won their long battle with the government, insisting that they wanted the translators back. Jo and I returned joyfully to the Canela village, where the Canelas received us in a grand celebration. We took no more furloughs but pressed on until the end. We completed our translation ministry on August 10, 1990.
The Last Result
Now thirty years later, a whole generation of Canelas has grown up reading God’s Word in their own language. Jesus built His Church in the Canela village, and scores of Canela believers have already gone Home to Glory. Yes, they are our great and growing reward in heaven.