Beginning Challenges of Cross-Cultural Ministry

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[Editor’s Note: A young couple with two young children (one 2 years old and one just 6 months old) began their first term as missionaries in East Africa in June of last year. After their first four months on the field, the wife wrote an article in their newsletter that speaks of the challenges she faced and why she continues to be willing to face them.]

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My Life as a Big Baby

People learn to bloom where they are planted. I grew up in America, so I learned most of the important skills for living there. I can boil spaghetti as well as the next person. I can drive in Dallas rush-hour traffic while eating a cheeseburger. I have learned how to write a good term paper, how to find a bargain on quality children’s clothing, and how to use the internet to expedite nearly every facet of my life.

But now I live in East Africa, and the three-year-old next door knows more about how to survive here than I do. I scorch the beans and let the milk boil over. I don’t know how to wash my clothes when the electricity goes out. I can’t drive myself to the grocery store.

I don’t know the names of the trees in my own yard, and I had no idea that coriander and cilantro come from the same plant. I’m reminded of the little farm girl in the movie version of Love Comes Softly, who asks her citified stepmother, “How’d you get to be so old without knowin’ how to do nothin’?”

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I speak like a toddler, with halts and mistakes and frustration at not being able to explain myself or ask a simple question. Many times I want to tell a story from my childhood or make a joke or just explain that the reason I’m cranky is because I miss my family. But like a child in the throes of the terrible twos, I don’t have the words to say what I mean, and I’m reduced to awkward silence in order to avoid bursting into culturally inappropriate tears.

It is a humbling experience to find myself in a world different from the one I have always known. I grew up in a charmed place where clean water flows from every faucet, public restrooms exist, we have entire retail chains devoted to pet supplies and baby care gadgets, and the amount of food that we throw away is more than enough to feed every hungry person in the world.

I have thrown away half a casserole before just because I had so many other things to eat that it lost its appeal before I had a chance to eat it. That thought actually brings tears to my eyes now. I have been padded and protected from the realities of life. I have learned to bloom in a greenhouse, but I know nothing about how to sink my roots deep to find water, push my way up through the weeds, and stretch my leaves high for my share of sunlight.

(And lest you feel sorry for me in my exotic plight, I confess that even here I am still sheltered from the hardships of life. I live in relative luxury, and I stand in awe of the strength and grace of the people around me.)

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But Christ did the same for me. He left his blissful home and the perfectly comfortable relationship with the Father that he had known for all of eternity. He came to live in a sweaty, thirsty, unsafe place. His new friends didn’t “get” him, no one appreciated what he was giving up, and the demands placed on him were overwhelming. He was willing to look awkward, to be misunderstood and even victimized in order to reach his long-term goal.

We aspire to have a small piece in that same work. Whether or not we succeed in our translation endeavors, I hope our willingness to be overgrown babies in this culture will show our neighbors that we are here because the love of Christ – both his love for us and his love for them – compels us.

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This story reminds us that we who have grown up in highly developed countries are rich beyond comparison to most of the rest of the world.  But our greatest treasure is not some material object or privileged status in the world.  No, our greatest treasure is the knowledge and the faith we hold that Jesus crossed the greatest cultural barrier by leaving His place in Heaven and coming to live among mankind.

This is a treasure that is available to every man, woman and child on the earth, because the love of God is no respecter of person, He loves every person on earth equally.  But to get this message of hope and love to people, some of us may have to go like this young couple and cross geographical and linguistic boundaries to share this message.

It’s not easy to live and work cross-culturally.  It can be downright frustrating and often times humiliating as was shown in the story above.  And yet it is all worth it.  When we do find the right words, in a language that the people do understand, so many times their faces light up to know that God has not forgotten them.  Knowing that Jesus came to die for them and grant them God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life is life steams of living water bursting forth in the middle of a great desert.  What a privilege and an honor it is to serve people in this way as an ambassador of God.

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God’s Plans Are Bigger Than Ours

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Our Tour of Churches in Illinois

Two months ago, an idea came to me that it would be good to visit one of our supporting churches in Illinois.  What I mean by “supporting churches” is that the mission work that Jill and I do for Pioneer Bible Translators (PBT) is supported financially by the donations that come in from churches and individuals who believe in the importance of the work we do.

The primary goal of PBT is to “transform lives through the translated Word of God”.  We believe that everyone has the right to read the Bible and learn about God and His Son, Jesus Christ in their own language.  But of the 6,900+ languages that exist in the world today, there are still over 2,200 languages that do not even have one verse of Scripture in their own language.

We strive then to make God’s Word available to these Bible-less people groups around the world.  In Papua New Guinea, where Jill and I have done most of our work, there are approximately 870 languages, and many of them do not have any portion of the Bible.  In fact, many of them do not even have a written alphabet.  It is up us as linguists to listen to their speech and create an alphabet based on what we hear.

Monolingual Approach

Above you can see me as I presented to a congregation in Pleasant Hill, Illinois, a demonstration that we call the “Monolingual Approach”.  What happens is that I will speak my village language that I learned in PNG, and an assistant will work with me who speaks another language besides English.  I have to draw out from my assistant words and phrases in their language by only using gestures or pointing at objects.

As my assistant speaks in the other language (and this time is was in Colombian Spanish), I write down everything I can in phonetic symbols.  After about twenty minutes of pantomiming and pointing at things, I have a chalk board full of words and phrases.  And from that, I can begin to construct a preliminary alphabet, and I begin to make some grammatical observations of  the language.

I have done this demonstration about 10 times now.  I’ve worked with assistants from various parts of Africa, as well as some who spoke Spanish or French.  And in 20 minutes, many people are quite amazed at how much information I have gathered and what I can say in repeating their language.  One time, after working with an African student, at the end of the seminary class he ran into the hallway and declared to a friend, “This man knows how to speak my language!”

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Now back to the story about me visiting a church in Illinois.  Two months ago, one small church in Illinois decided to send in a large donation.  Wow!  Praise God!  Now how could I adequately say “Thank you,” to them.  I realized that I would be down in Dallas for two months to do the preparation work for the upcoming trip to Papua New Guinea, and thought that it would not be too hard to jump on a plane and go visit this church in Chicago.

So I contacted the pastor of the church, and he thought it would be a great idea for me to come just after Thanksgiving and to preach about and present our work of Bible translation.  That sounds great, but then I wondered where I would stay for a few days after flying to Chicago and how I could get to the church, since my muscle condition prevents me from driving long distance.

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That’s when I remembered that I have a friend named Christian (what a fabulous name), who lives in a northwest suburb of Chicago.  I phoned him and asked if he thought it would be possible for him to help me with a place to stay and to be my driver.  Praise God, he was more than willing to help out.  He told me that he would do whatever I needed help with seeing as he is self-employed.

Then I asked him if it would be okay to visit more than one church, if they responded favorably to me coming to visit them.  Well, can you guess what happened?  That’s right, God had plans so much bigger than mine.  In eight days, I ended up speaking in three churches and in three small group gatherings.  They were all so eager to here more about this ministry of Bible translation.

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What is truly amazing is the interest in our work that came from a small country church all the way across the state, five hours drive from Chicago, that is near Hannibal, Missouri and is almost beside the Mississippi River.  They read one of my emails out loud to the whole congregation that I had sent to the church asking if I could come and preach and present our work.

When I heard back from the woman who is helping to do the admin work of the church, she said, “Everyone is so excited to hear that you are going to come.”  And then she prepared an article for the local newspaper to let the whole community around the church to know that I was going to come.  It was very cool to see it on their front page of the paper. Below is the copy of the newspaper article.  And all I can say is, “Thank you God for expanding the opportunities to speak for you.  And thank you to all who support this ministry work.”

Norm NewsPaper

* If you would like to know more about how you can pray for this work or to help support this work financially, please send me an email at norm.weatherhead@gmail.com .

* You could also follow me on Twitter or on Facebook.

Young Missionary Couple Start In East Africa

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The Importance Of Orientation On The Mission Field

Entering into an overseas missionary assignment is not as easy as just getting on a plane and moving into a cross-cultural setting and beginning to minister to the people there.  I suppose you could try doing that.  And I know there have been others that have done this, and perhaps have even done well.  But that is probably the exception, not the rule.

You see, there are so many cultural and linguistic barriers that separate us from other people, that one must carefully get trained and equipped to overcome these barriers before effective ministry can really begin to happen.  Below is an except of a newsletter from a young missionary couple who moved to East Africa back in 2010.  Take a look at what they said, being so newly arrived to Africa, and then read about some of our experiences after that.

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 “This month has flown by. We realized it has now been six months since we arrived here in East Africa. It definitely does not seem that long. Looking back, we can see how we have changed, grown and adapted to our new environment. We can also see the incredible amount of blessings God has showered on us. Here’s just a few of the big ones.

Our language learning time was such a blessing. We made many friends and learned so much about the people and culture. A fantastic house became available and the timing was so perfect that we were able to move into it right after language school. We survived our village living and were able to take away so many insights from that experience. And now, we are working full time and things are going well.”

“Another blessing has been our health. We have not had any sicknesses lately which helps us greatly in accomplishing our work. God has also blessed us in the area of friends. He must have known how much we needed good friends to hang out with and relate to while being in such a different culture, because he gave us an amazing team. It has been so wonderful getting to know them and I really feel like we have made some special bonds.

We are also building relationships with a few nationals. It is slow going because of the language barrier but it is most rewarding to be able to connect on common ground. I pray that God is working through us and our slowly improving Swahili to touch their lives.

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 From even just this short report, it is clear that this couple got off to a good start.  They talk about making good friends with others quickly, and how they developed relationships with the national people there.  It is vital that these things happen in order to be effective in Christian ministry, drawing strength from one’s colleagues, as well as building a common ground of friendship with the local people, using the local language as the bridge into their lives.

Unfortunately, things did not go as well for our family when we went over to East Africa in 2006-07.  There are a number of reasons which all added up against us at that time which I don’t need to go into right here.  But probably the greatest of all the mistakes we made, if we can call it that, was that we did not take the time to be properly oriented into the life, culture and language of that country.

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It had been planned from the beginning for us to attend language school to learn Swahili and learn about the culture of East Africa, just like this young couple mentioned above.  We had three choices of where we could do this: two locations were many hours distant from where our mission office was in a large town, or at a language school just outside that town.

We chose the school near our office, partly because we did not want to uproot our family with two teen sons again in a short period of time.  But also because we knew our office was very short handed at that time and we had come specifically to help relieve the workload and leadership responsibilities.  It had been a long time since the leaders had been back home in America and we came to carry the load while they took a break.

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What ended up happening then, is that we drastically cut short our language and culture learning.  I ended up having the most training with just one month at the language school and one month of informal tutoring.  I got to the point that I could greet people, and I knew enough Swahili to pay our guards who watched over our house and yard, but not a whole lot more.

That had great impact negatively on our ability to build relationships with the African people to whom we had come to minister.  We attended a Swahili church, but understood little and had great difficulty being able to worship God, not knowing what was being spoken.  We ended up falling back on speaking English, which limited who we could speak with.

We do know that God used us to help out our East Africa Branch at that time.  But the stress of language and culture barriers were more than we could handle at that time, and our ministry to nationals was minimal for sure.  So if anyone is reading this who wants to minister to people in a cross-cultural setting, please take the time to learn as much language as possible first.  Then see how God can bless you in that new environment, and use you to be a blessing to the people there.

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Heading Overseas To Be Missionaries – Pt. 3

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Our First Week in France – Pt. 2

This will be the final article of three which looks at what happens when a family moves to a new country for the first time and needs to learn quickly how to acculturate, to understand and be comfortable in a cross-cultural environment.  One of my fellow colleagues from Pioneer Bible Translators did this with her husband and children in 2010 when they moved to France to learn French in preparation of being missionaries in West Africa.

My friend gave me permission to take excerpts from her journal that she kept for the first couple of weeks once they had arrived in France.  I found it very interesting that some of the cultural stresses that they faced while adjusting into a modern western-based culture are not extremely different from when we need to adjust to the cultural challenges we find in developing countries of the world.

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Let’s look now at some more areas of life that they had to face and overcome in their new location:

Food (Always the first challenge when you find yourself in a new environment.)

Day 1: “The kids are now (impatiently) waiting till 7pm.  That’s when dinner time is.  They have breakfast in the morning.  The kids go to school at 8am (well, ours won’t-they’ll restart their homeschooling next week).  They have lunch from noon till 2pm.  At 5ish comes the gouter (snack) usually some juice and bread with Nutella or Peanut Butter.  Then dinner at 8pm.  Since us American types would positively starve waiting that long, we’ve compromised at 7pm…at least for tonight.

Day 2: “Unfortunately we discovered that the eggs from the grocery store apparently come from free-range chickens because Sophia got grossed out after finding a blood spot in one helping with breakfast.  We’ll see if she eats breakfast this morning or not.

Day 3: “These were no Pizza Hut cardboard pizza’s but homemade dough rolled out very thin and baked right there in a very hot oven (in less than 15 minutes!) pizza’s!!   It was nice to have something that reminded of home.  And we felt proud that were dining at 8pm…the decent dinner hour in France!

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Language

[Note: Nothing is more mentally and emotionally challenging than landing in an environment where you cannot speak the language of the people around you.  Thankfully, this family had some experience learning French by living in Quebec, Canada for a while before going to France.]

Day 1: “Murrielle spoke English to me at the store and boy did heads turn!  We are glad to be in an area where English is rare.

Day 2: “I think it was the Pastor who called, and I think he wanted to come over, and I think I told him we were going shopping, and I think he was ok with that!  If I am brave (read “willing to be humiliated again today”), I will call him after dinner time (8:45pm) and ask him if he’d like to come over for a visit tomorrow.   I hope he’ll stick to the script I have in my brain.”

Day 5: “I think he was not impressed with our French and is wondering how we’ll survive in Africa but that’s ok.  We actually are feeling rather good about our communicating ability in the community at large and have no qualms about Africa where French is everyone’s second language anyway.

Later on Day 5: “There was a different librarian.  She wanted to show Sophia the books for 10 year olds but I explained that Sophia didn’t read French and I needed younger books as well.  I was looking for a basic (think 1st or 2nd grade) history of France but couldn’t find one.  I did find an older one and will try to wade through that.  When I read my library books, I try to write down every word I have to look up.  I began reading an easy general book on France.

[Note: What an encouragement to others.  The secret to learning a new language is to get out among the people and just keep trying to speak and learn new words as you go along.]

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Telecommunication (i.e. “the Internet”)

Day 2: “Perhaps we will finally get to McDonald’s where there is wifi (pronounced wee-fee :0).

Day 4: “The man who is helping us get settled into our home here is supposed to come today and help us get insurance on the car.  That way we can get to McDonald’s for the weefee :0)

Later on Day 4: “We likely won’t get internet at home so will try to get on Tuesdays and Fridays.  I’ll be sad not to keep up with all my Facebook friends’ lives but will email and post my notes to keep everyone in the loop.  And it will aid my French not to have it at home!

Day 5: “They went out to try and buy a “cle” that you can insert into a computer to make it hook up to the internet anywhere (thus making our computer our cell phone using Skype), but were told that while we may be able to buy the “cle”, we wouldn’t be able to use an American credit card to renew the hours.  So we were stymied again on getting internet at home.

Day 7: “We went to the neighbors across and down the street.  They had said we could use their land line to access email today.  After we were through, they offered a cup of coffee and we were able to talk some.

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From this article, and Part 1 last week, we can see that moving to live in a place where the language and culture is foreign to what you know from back home can be very challenging.  But look at how much progress this family made in just one week.  When we believe that there will always be people to help and trust in God to give us the strength and courage, we can all do what we thought was impossible.

Heading Overseas To Be Missionaries – Pt. 2

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Our First Week in France – Pt. 1

In last week’s article, we caught a glimpse of the heart of a missionary wife and mother, just before they headed overseas to France where they all would concentrate on learning French.  This was an important step for them to become much more proficient in French before they would go next to West Africa and minister there where most people are bilingual in French, the official language.

In the first two weeks that this missionary family spent in a small rural town in France, all of them had some interesting and often demanding experiences.  I’m sure that the leaders and experienced field personnel from our mission were careful to teach them what kind of things to expect when they would get to Africa, and to be prepared for the culture shock that would happen once they got there.

What they may not have been prepared for was the initial stages of being enamoured by the differences they found in France, followed by shock and frustration that comes when they realized that that was not their home.  Familiar activities that would normally be quite easy, could suddenly become very difficult and frustrating when they didn’t work the same way.  Then add to that the language barriers, which can get anyone discouraged and frustrated.

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Thankfully, God built most of us to be somewhat in awe, filled with excitement when we first get to our new environment.  This is called the “Honeymoon Stage”, where everything is just so fascinating because things are both different and interesting from what we are used to.  God also has designed us to be flexible and learn how to adapt quickly to new situations that occur in new environments.

That is what I would like to do now, in this article and one more, is to see the interesting differences of life in another country seen through the eyes of a new missionary family.  The wife kept a kind of journal, which she would then email back to her family and friends over here.  She has given me permission to put out excerpts from her notes.  I hope you will find some of the things she writes as interesting to you as they were to me when I first read it.

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Let’s get started, and I think the easiest way to do this is to focus in on some of the main topics which she wrote about:

Traveling & Jet Lag

Our flight was uneventful and we were actually able to get a little sleep in preparation for our 8am arrival in Paris.  Since we had 6 hrs between flight and train, we didn’t feel at all rushed even with the transportation strike.  And the luggage carts are free at Charles de Gaul!  We blessed our French professor many times yesterday!  The kids did great too!

[Note:  most missionaries now will tell you the best flight you can have is an “uneventful one”.]

Many, many trains were cancelled because of the strikes, but ours went right on!  Thanks for praying because it truly was a miracle – the folks in Mours St Eusebe (our town) were told it was supposed to be cancelled.

[Note:  when a missionary first arrives in a non-Western, developing country, we’ve heard enough stories to know to expect things not to go smoothly, especially in the area of transportation and logistics.  But note how this family arrived right in the middle of a transportation strike in France.  So no matter where we travel as missionaries, we always need to keep up our prayer support to cover us for whatever lies ahead.]

On Day 1, she wrote, “After a brief time up around 2:30 this morning, we slept until noon!  Jet lag must be gotten through. 

On Day 2, she wrote, “The whole family was up at inappropriate times last night from jet lag.  Tonight we will try Tylenol PM.  We did get up at 8am though.

And on Day 5, “Have had a rough couple of days/nights.  Jet lag isn’t our favorite.  We were up at seven-ish this morning though so hopefully we can make it through the whole day awake.

And for Day 6, “The girls are the first ones to sleep completely through the night!  Progress has been made!  Our son got up for some decongestant last night but was able to go right back to sleep.  The two of us are still struggling but will get there.

[Then, after Day 6, jet lag and poor sleep is not mentioned very much again.  One conclusion: tough times (like no sleep) can hit us hard, but they only last (usually) a short time.  Trust God to carry you through tough times, and know that better days lie ahead.]

Be Careful At First

We will plunge into our new community and language learning this afternoon.  One thing we were advised was to just tell our neighbors we are here to learn French and not to mention being missionaries right away.  He said people will put you in a category that might hinder the relationship if you tell them right away that you are an evangelical Christian. 

A few days later:

On the way to Bingo, a lady was parking her car near our house.  Since it was raining, I offered to share my umbrella.  We chatted about many things.  Of course, our work in Africa came up.  I tried real hard to dodge the “what will you do” question in accordance with the advice given to us.  But she wheedled it out of me.  She said she was Catholic when she was young but now she was nothing because (here she paused for a long while and I inserted, “La vie est difficile? (Life is difficult)” to which she nodded her head yes). 

[I would agree that we should be cautious at first in new situations with new people.  But we must also be sensitive to the hurts and needs of others so that at any time we might be there to offer words of hope and encouragement.]

Tune in next week for Part 3.

Thanking God For Language Tutors

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Language Tutors Teach Us More Than Just Language

One of the first things that missionaries will need to do once they arrive on the mission field is to do language learning.  It is rather obvious that if one is going to hope to minister to people of a different culture that learning the language of those people is necessary to be able to communicate with them and so be able to minister to them.

There are a number of ways in which a person can go about learning another language.  In our western culture, it is quite common for us to attend lectures and have a professor teach a large class of students who are all learning this new language.  On the other hand, some people prefer to learn the language on their own at home and listen to audio lessons and study a book.

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On the mission field though, it is much more common to have a native speaker work closely with one person, or perhaps as many as five people.  The students/missionaries will need to memorize new vocabulary and important grammar rules, just like in our classroom model, but much more time is usually spent on practical language production.

We have found over the years that this tutor/learner model has helped greatly to equip missionaries to become actively engaged in the new language faster than the traditional classroom teacher/student model.  And as a side benefit, the missionaries have also often become good friends with their tutors.  Listen to the story of one missionary as he tells us about his language learning experience.

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Jeffrey…He was the meek and ever smiling teacher/tutor.  He was so kind and patient with us in our drills.  Patient to try to answer our questions and patient to wait for us to catch up on our lessons after being out with sick children.  His favorite saying was “Bwana anaweza” (God is able).  He said it and meant it. 

As we got to know Jeffrey, he began to share more about his life.  His dad died when he was young so he was raised by his older brothers who were very harsh with him.  He had worked hard to be educated through form 4 (equivalent of about high school sophomores) and was desiring to go back for more school to become a teacher. 

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Jeffrey seemed to reflect the light and love of Jesus.  He invited us to his church.  He felt a little ashamed because they didn’t have a building.  When we went, we found a building made of sticks for walls but a full tin roof.  The words of the sermon and songs were Swahili, but the passion for the word and praising God reached beyond Swahili.  Jeffrey led most of the songs from his seat and he sang amazingly well.

Jeffrey was blessed to have a bicycle.  He lived a couple of miles from campus.  Every day the students had a 2 and a half hour break for lunch but our teachers had preparation sessions during that time.  So many days he didn’t have the time to go home for food or the money to get something on campus so he would just wait until afternoon tea break and eat as much as possible then.  He didn’t complain, he was just thankful for the snack. 

Jeffrey did a great job of teaching us the language.  But we believe that the most important lesson that he taught us was this, “Bwana anaweza.”  God is able to do more than we could ask or think.  He is able to take us frail humans and take care of us and use us for His glory.  He does it every day with Jeffrey. 

In this young man, of about 20 years, God exhibits that He is able to salvage the life of a boy raised in poverty within a hateful environment, in a country that is not the “land of opportunity”.  Yet each day Jeffrey shares the love of Jesus with others through his patience, kindness, smiles, songs and words about the Lord.  We pray that God will continue to bless Jeffrey with hope and someday the education and career that he desires.

                                

This story brings back many memories for me of the early years that our family spent in our village in Papua New Guinea.  There were a few men living there who were truly gifted in their language, not only just as native speakers, but as someone who had a natural gift to be able to help us to learn to speak their language.

We did not have any textbooks as we learned the village language, since their language had never been written down before.  Instead, we would carefully write down on paper the words that we heard, and then we would practice over and over again with our language helper until we would get it right.

Our language tutors were also so loving and patient with us.  And many of them became our best friends in the village during the time that we lived there.  They knew that we had come to learn their language in order to translate the Bible into their language.  And they so wanted this to happen, that they patiently helped us so that we could communicate with them, but not just our words, God’s Words.  What a joy to live among and to serve these wonderful people.