IS IT REALLY FAIR?
‘Is it fair that some people should have heard the Gospel twice when others have never even heard it once?’
When Paul Briggs read these words in a book of missionary challenge* they struck a chord in his heart. He and his wife Marina had become increasingly convinced over a period of two years that they ought to be giving their lives to serving the Lord in a full-time capacity. This pointed question added a new impetus to their thinking.
‘Wouldn’t it be a tremendous thrill and privilege to explain the Gospel to people who had never heard it before?’ they reasoned.
Paul and Marina were members of Bethany Free Presbyterian Church in Portadown where one of the elders had been supporting the ministry of the New Tribes Mission for many years. On observing the young couple’s patent interest in evangelism and hearing them express an interest in missionary outreach, he was quite happy to give Paul a pile of back-numbers of the Mission magazine ‘Brown Gold’ to look through.
When he and Marina had read these, and heard from others that New Tribes Mission had a Bible School in Matlock, England, they decided after much prayer and spiritual consideration to apply to study there. They were accepted and began a four year course, commencing in 1981. As part of their missionary training they spent some time at a ‘Boot Camp’ near Pittsburgh, USA, and it was there in 1983 they felt led of God to volunteer for service in Ivory Coast, West Africa.
In fulfilment of this call they arrived, with their three young children, Peter who was six, Laura who was almost four and six-month old Kyle in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast in 1986.
They had to spend a year in the capital, studying French and acclimatising to the local culture with two other families, before moving north into a village to join some missionaries working among the hitherto unreached Loron tribe.
Living in an African village, where the standard of hygiene wasn’t quite what they had been used to in Portadown, presented the new missionaries, and mum Marina in particular, with specific challenges. Their fourth child, Leanne, had been born while they were in Yamoussoukro and was now about seven months old. Marina found it hard when the African women reached out to hold and carry her baby. Marina realised she had to let it happen and handed her precious little one over into outstretched caring, but not always spotlessly clean, hands. She had come to help reach these people with the Gospel of the love of God, so how could she withhold her child from them?
A pressing priority for the newcomers to the village was to learn the Loron tribal language and this was to prove more difficult than learning French in the capital. There were no language schools in the bush and very few of the locals could read or write so Paul and Marina relied on the aid of ‘language helpers.’ Having learnt basic phrases such as ‘What is this?’ and What is he doing?’ in Loron they were able to build up a basic vocabulary by pointing, asking, listening and remembering. It was a tedious process but they were keen students who wanted to become fluent enough to communicate effectively with the villagers as soon as possible and so they learnt quickly.
In October 1987 and just six weeks after they had moved into the village, Paul was to discover very forcibly how important it was that they persist diligently with their language studies. He was trying to make sense of a chart of Loron pronouns when two men appeared at the door of the mud hut which he was using as an office.
Paul recognised one of them. His name was Chavaray and he had helped Paul and Marina settle into village life. He introduced Paul to the newcomer, Hovaray, who had, his friend maintained, an interesting story to tell.
Chavaray understood a little French and Paul understood even less Loron, but between them they were able to make Paul understand what Hovaray had to say.
The Loron man in a Muslim robe had embarked on a quest for spiritual truth and had experienced an unusual dream. Although he had spoken to many people none of them could satisfy him because they could not tell him what his dream meant. Perhaps ‘the whites’ in the village could help.
In his dream Hovaray had seen a book, with writing on the front of it, within a walled enclosure. As Hovaray talked, Paul thought, and still struggling to understand what this intense man was trying to explain, showed him his English Bible.
“No,” Hovaray said. “That’s not the book.”
Paul then had another idea. What about a French Bible? No. That wasn’t it either.
The visitor was convinced this was the right place for the wall outside to keep the village cows and goats out was exactly like what he had seen in his dream, but where was Paul to go from here? Then suddenly it dawned on him. A year or two before, Swiss translators had produced a copy of the Gospel of John in the Loron language, but as few could read, it hadn’t been much used. Reaching up Paul took one of these little booklets from a shelf and handed it to Hovaray.
There was a sudden intake of breath and then an excited cry.
“This is the book!” he exclaimed. “This is it!”
Firmly convinced that he was well on his way to discovering the truth he had been seeking, Hovaray began attending the weekly Bible studies under a large mango tree at the edge of the village. He asked pertinent questions, showed a tremendous interest in what was being taught and within several months of that first encounter with Paul had trusted the Lord Jesus Christ.
Although they had planned initially to stay just one year in the village assisting the other missionaries, Paul and Marina realised that God had a work for them to do there in helping translate the New Testament into the Loron language. They also began systematic teaching of the scriptures beginning with the creation story in Genesis 1 and leading through the Old Testament and on into the New, from which they were able to speak of the love of God and the provision of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This proved an effective mode of witness for by 1992 there were three separate groups operating in different villages with a number of the villagers being saved. When the couple were more proficient in Loron, Marina had a dual role to perform. As a mother she home-schooled their four children, and as a missionary she joined another missionary wife going through the Bible study programme with the women in the villages. From that point on, and with a number of believers growing, Paul and Marina taught them the importance of witnessing to their faith. With the motto of ‘each one reach one’ the Gospel was spread and others came to trust the Lord.
With almost all of the people being illiterate the missionary couple then recognised if the new believers were to grow in their spiritual lives they would need to be able to read the scriptures which they were helping to translate. To help address this issue Marina started literacy classes for any who wished to attend and these proved very popular with some of the younger people especially.
Paul and Marina returned to Northern Ireland in 2000 for two years to see the two older children settled in further education before returning to the Ivory Coast, and their home in the village in July 2002. They were only back in the country and had barely time to unpack and resume their normal routine before the country was ravaged by civil war. Paul, Marina and all the other foreign missionaries in the region were advised to leave everything and flee to either the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso or southwards towards the capital.
The road to Burkina Faso was blocked by the rebel forces so their evacuating convoy had no choice but to travel south. God miraculously opened the way for them to pass through all military checkpoints unhindered and unharmed but when they approached Yamoussoukro it was considered too dangerous to enter the city. Marina found this upsetting for Kyle and Leanne were at boarding school there. Her only consolation was to talk to them by phone and learn that they were also being evacuated to join the escaping party. On meeting up they returned to Northern Ireland, much to the relief of Peter and Laura who had been very concerned as they hadn’t heard from their parents for some time.
Instability of government in the northern part of Ivory Coast made it inadvisable for Paul and Marina to return to the country and so they continued working on Bible translation, literacy and Bible teaching materials in Northern Ireland. In 2006 they moved out to live in Burkina Faso and from there, and with the permission of the rebel soldiers, they made numerous cross-border trips into northern Ivory Coast.
Their first return visit to their village over the Easter weekend proved both heart-wrenching and heart-warming all at once. They were sickened to witness the state of their former home which had been looted and used as the local rebel headquarters and then a prison at various stages in the course of the war. Seeing 200 eager believers packed into the small church on Easter Sunday to welcome them back more than compensated their disappointment about the house, which they vowed to restore, little by little on later visits.
As they look back on more than 20 years working with the Loron people of Ivory Coast, Paul and Marina have much for which to praise God. They have seen 9 churches established in which around 400 Loron believers meet to worship. Twelve Bible teachers have been trained to continue the programme of evangelism and church planting in other villages. A radio ministry has been established in Burkina Faso and around 40% of the New Testament has been translated into the tribal language. Marina has worked tirelessly on the adult literacy programme and now 25 literacy teachers have been trained and they hold classes in 11 villages with a total of 200 students enrolled for courses.
This they feel, however, is only the start, merely a tiny ‘tip of the iceberg.’ Paul and Marina plan to return to Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in 2010. There is so much more they would like to see done in the will, and with the help of God. They aim to complete the translation of the New Testament, develop the literacy programme even further and tell more people who still haven’t heard it yet, the wonderful news of the Gospel.
They will be glad to return to West Africa and continue the work into which they felt led of God more than a quarter of a century ago. Their work is making a difference to one small tribe in one small country, but the challenge that pricked their hearts can still apply to the evangelical Christian church in the present day. Around 20% of the world’s population in more than 2,300 people groups have never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel in their own language.
‘Is it fair that some people should have heard the Gospel twice when others have never even heard it once?’
‘Well, is it?’ they ask.
If the instinctive response to that challenge is ‘No,’ then we need to consider a second question which comes directly from the Heavenly Missionary Questionnaire.
It is, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
Can any of us answer honestly, ‘Here am I! Send me?’
NOEL DAVIDSON (LifeTimes, 2009)
* Oswald J Smith, 'The Cry of the World'