A group of us Wycliffe Bible translators from different countries sat around the lunch table, enjoying our coffees and conversation at a speaker training seminar. Having recently completed our translation projects, we were taking turns around the table practicing telling anecdotes of our translation experiences. The next one to tell a story was a translator from Mexico or maybe some other Spanish speaking Latin American country. I am writing this story thirty years after I heard it, so I don’t remember his name, nor the name of the indigenous people among whom he worked, but his story impacted me. Here is his story as I remember hearing it:
My wife and I worked with a sizeable indigenous group that had been Christianized in Spanish many years earlier. One of their own people served as a pastor and preached from the Spanish Bible, explaining the meaning in their language. Although they had a building, the church was stagnant, showing no growth, and little evidence of the fruits of the Spirit among the churchgoers.
The local culture did not allow men and women to sit together at meetings, so even in the church service, the men sat on one side of the aisle and the women on the other side. Another cultural distinctive was all the adult men wore white western hats—no matter where they were, at home, at work, or in public. I sometimes wondered if they slept wearing them. Even in church, all the men wore their white cowboy hats and removed them only when the pastor said, “Let us pray to God,” Having shown respect for conversation with God, after the Amen, the hats went back on.
After my wife and I had been there for a year and had learned quite a bit of the language, we did some experimental Bible translation. The pastor told us he would be preaching from 1 John 3 the following Sunday, so we worked all week with some men who were known as good storytellers to translate as much as we could. We completed 1 John 3:1-11, I typed it up and gave it to the pastor on Sunday morning to use for the Scripture reading.
“Let’s surprise the congregation,” I said, “Just announce the Scripture reading reference, open your Spanish Bible and start reading from the typewritten translation.”
That morning, as usual, the church filled up with the white-hatted men on one side and the women on the other. After the singing, when the pastor announced the Scripture reading, the attendees opened their Spanish Bibles, the pastor opened his and began reading the typed passage in their indigenous language.
He hadn’t even finished the first verse when, suddenly, like a great white wave, every man took off his hat. For the first time in their lives, they heard God’s voice talking to them. The hats stayed off as they heard about God’s love, how He wants to treat them as sons, and how they should love each other.
In the same language in which they scolded their kids, argued among themselves or told their spouses ‘I love you,’ they now heard God speaking to them. As the pastor finished reading, the women were teary-eyed, and many of the men wiped their eyes as they replaced their hats.
The pastor never again read God’s Word from the Spanish Bible. That Sunday marked a turning point in the life of the church. People crowded into the church to hear God speaking to them in their language. Some years later, even before my wife and I had finished translating the New Testament, the believers had tripled in number and built several more churches in other villages.