It happened during an Easter Sunday service, fifteen ago, but it made such a powerful impact on me I still remember it with awe.
While I served as executive director of Wycliffe Caribbean, I was away from home most weekends and preaching in churches. One Easter Sunday in Trinidad, however, I had no speaking engagement, and walked to a nearby church.
Since I had visited a few times and preached there once, the usher recognized me and seated me in the front pew, next to the pastor and his wife. After a rousing time of musical worship and celebration, the pastor introduced the special visiting speaker, the president of the denomination.
“But before our president brings the message,” he said, “I’d like to welcome our brother Jack Popjes from Wycliffe. Jack, please come up and bring a few words of greeting from Wycliffe.”
Inviting visiting pastors or missionaries to say a few words is customary in many Caribbean churches, so I was not surprised. I took the microphone, knowing I was expected to speak for at least five to ten minutes. I gave a two-minute update on Wycliffe Caribbean and the world of Bible translation, and continued, “This Easter morning I am remembering what happened the first time we spent Easter in the Canela village of Brazil.”
In he next two minutes I told about sitting near the Canela old men’s council and listening to them arguing over how someone had died. Some insisted he had been executed. Others disagreed saying he had died in a fight, “How else did he get holes in his hands and feet if he wasn’t grabbing and kicking at the spears?” Hey! They were talking about Jesus, His crucifixion and death!
I prayed for an opportunity to speak. Suddenly the chief called on me to sit with them, and said, “Our Portuguese speaking Brazilian neighbours told us that this week everyone is remembering the death of a really important man. But we don’t understand what happened. Do you know anything about this?”
“Yes, I do!” I said and ran home to get the freshly translated story.
That was the first time I publicly read the Passion and Easter story in Canela. Even though it was only a first draft translation, hearing the clear facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection made a huge impact on the Canelas. (Read the full story in chapter 4 of my latest book, The Why & How of Bible Translation, available on Amazon.)
“Hundreds of millions of people,” I told the congregation, “speak over 4,000 languages in which none of the Bible has yet been translated. It breaks my heart that right now, today, this very Easter Sunday morning, they are still just as confused about Easter as the Canelas were back in the early 1970s.”
The President’s Response
I sat down, and the denominational president entered the pulpit. He opened his Bible, arranged his notes, looked over the congregation and said,
“I sense some of you need to respond to what you have just heard. Do you feel God wants you to commit to personally do something to bring His Word to those Bible-less people groups? Maybe you are willing to work overseas. Or you may want to commit to pray or give as you have never prayed or given before. If you want to make such a commitment, come forward right now, and I’ll pray for you.”
That’s when we saw God’s Holy Spirit at work.
One by one, men, women, young people and older folks got up and walked to the front and stood with bowed heads. As more people kept coming, the pastor whispered to me, “I’ve never seen this before. Come with me.” He organized lines for people to be prayed for by the visiting speaker, by himself, and by me.
As the people kept coming, we laid our hands on them and prayed. After over half the congregation had come, received prayer, and had returned to their seats, nearly an hour had passed. The visiting speaker never did preach his sermon. He stood with tears in his eyes, asked everyone to rise, and gave the benediction.
Some months later, a Wycliffe team led a well-attended, in-depth workshop in that church on how to get involved in Bible translation. Later that year, Wycliffe Caribbean signed a ministry partnership agreement with that major denomination.
God is still at work!
In the fifteen years since I told that two-minute story in Trinidad, people groups speaking hundreds of different languages have received God’s Word in their language for the first time. Currently, Bible translation projects are ongoing in nearly 2,000 other languages!
He is alive! Happy Easter!
But remember that 1,600 people groups are still as confused about Jesus as the Canelas were. They still wait for someone to translate God’s Word in their language.