“You guys are so fortunate! You don’t even know how blessed you are!” Hearing our friends, fellow linguists and Bible translators in Brazil telling us this surprised and confused us. What are they talking about? we wondered.
We had just reported at a regional conference on our first year’s work with the Canela people. “The Canelas gave us Canela names and adopted us into their families,” we said. “They are happy to help us learn their language, and the chief keeps urging us to invent a way of writing Canela, so we can teach people to read their own language. We have more helpers than we know what to do with.”
It turned out that some of our friends struggled to be accepted by the people in their villages. Some complained that they couldn’t find anyone willing to pronounce words repeatedly, so they could learn the language. Others had made learn-to-read booklets but found no one who had any interest in learning to read.
Jo and I had no idea why God was blessing our work among the Canela in such a startlingly obvious way. It certainly wasn’t because we paid the villagers so well. Our income was well below where it should have been, and we simply couldn’t pay any more than the bare minimum.
Then, one day, we received a letter from an Irishman named Joe that explained it all:
“Dear Brother Jack and Sister Jo,
I just heard that you were assigned to translate the Word of God for the Canela people of Brazil and I am delighted. In the 1920s I was a young missionary traveling from one village to another evangelizing the Portuguese speaking Brazilians. One day my companions and I stumbled on a village we had not known was there. The people couldn’t understand Portuguese, and we couldn’t understand anything they said. Moreover, they were a fierce looking group, carrying clubs, spears and large bush knives. We did not want to stay the night there. So we traveled on and slept in the jungle.”
He went on to tell us that he later discovered this people group was called the Canela. Then he told us a little more about himself, and we were astonished to read that he started to pray for the Canela people ten years before my wife and I were even born!
He continued to pray, without ever receiving any further information about the Canela, for forty years until Jo and I arrived as thirty-year-old missionaries. That’s when he wrote his letter to us.
He then prayed faithfully for another twenty-two years until we published a partial Bible translated into Canela and Jesus built His Church among the Canela people. Then, after Joe the Irishman had prayed for sixty-two years, the Lord took him Home, no doubt, to his exceeding great reward.
The Prayer Project
After Jo and I left Brazil, we were involved in an intensive public speaking ministry throughout Canada and the United States. After two years, we spoke at a conference in Surinam, so we took the opportunity to cross the border into Brazil to visit the Canela. It was planting season, and about two-thirds of the people were away in their fields.
We walked from house to house greeting our Canela friends and renewing acquaintance with them. We also took pictures of individuals, groups, couples, and families. We kept a careful record of the names of each person on the picture and how they were related to the others.
When we returned home, we printed out the four-hundred pictures and the names. Then during the next speaking tour, I told the story of Joe the Irishman and his sixty-two years of praying. I then said, “If any of you here would like to pray every day for a Canela man, woman or child by name and picture, come and see us after the meeting.”
When volunteers came to ask for a picture and a name, I warned them that they would be praying “in the dark” with no updated information, just as the Irishman had prayed. Even so, after a few months, four-hundred individual prayer warriors across North America volunteered to pray for the Canelas on the pictures.
The Rest of the Story
I still receive notes from people telling me they continue to pray. One lady wrote, “I signed up to pray for a little three-year-old girl over twenty years ago. I have been praying for her every day and updating her age. I am now praying for her as a twenty-five-year-old wife and mother of children.”
God continues to bless the work of the missionaries currently in the village who promote the reading and studying of His Word. As a result, the Church among the Canela continues to grow.
This is God’s work, but He invites His people to be involved. The Irishman was involved in prayer for most of his life. God invited Jo and me to spend thirty years of our lives in training, linguistics, teaching, and translation. Others are involved in giving and prayer.
Some of us, like Jo and I, have seen the results of our work. Others, like those praying “in the dark” will only see the results, and receive God’s reward, in eternity.