It was September 1917, and the world was falling apart. But a young Californian was about to embark on a journey that would change his life forever, and that of millions of people scattered across the globe. William Cameron Townsend, having recently celebrated his 21st birthday, was heading for Guatemala in Central America. As a student, he had been gripped by a passion to share the truth of the Scriptures with the people of this area. Now he was on his way, loaded with Spanish Bibles and a burning desire to make his God known among the people he would encounter.
And so he walked the hills and valleys, sharing with the Cakchiquel people about the great God who loved them and sent His son to bring them back into relationship with Himself. As he sought to communicate the greatness of this God, he was met by blank faces and puzzled expressions. "Huh? What is he talking about?" Eventually one of the old men who could understand a little Spanish, looked Cam in the eye, and with unswerving directness, asked him: "If your god is so great, how come he doesnít speak OUR language?"
That question continued to reverberate in Camís thinking. Of course God speaks Cakchiquel! And indeed, He would want to speak to them in their own heart-language, the vernacular of the soul. Could it be right for any people group to be denied an opportunity to hear the Truth because of a circumstance of geography?
And so Cam and his wife decided to settle among this people, and to give themselves whole-heartedly to learning their unwritten language.
Cam would sit under a tree with a native speaker, and through gesticulations and a little shared Spanish, he would seek to break down the flood of unfamiliar sounds into word units, and then try to ascertain the meaning of each part. After ten years working with gifted local men, he was able to create an alphabet, decipher the complicated verb system, analyze the grammar, develop a basic dictionary, and translate the New Testament into Cakchiquel.
Even more, as those helping him with the language began to hear the truth about this amazing God, their "huh?" became an affirmative "uh-huh!" Yes, indeed, we want to follow such a God! And so across the length and breadth of Cakchiquel-land, hundreds of little churches sprang up. The society became transformed! Now there was meaning to life! And there could be freedom from oppressive spirits!
But having the Scriptures in oneís own language is of no value unless one can read! And so Cam tackled this next challenge: to develop a system by which illiterate peasants could learn to make sense of "squiggles on a scrap of banana-leaf". Thus began another facet to this extraordinary ministry. Literacy classes were established for both adults and children, to teach them not only to read and write, but also basic arithmetic and other skills that would equip them for the wider world.
Moreover, this was only the start of what was to come. Cam soon became aware that the Cakchiquel were only one of countless groups cut off from hearing the Gospel because of a linguistic barrier. He began sharing with others the skills he had developed, and they too began to reach out. Thus many previously-despised and forgotten groups were given the chance not only to hear the Gospel, but also to have their dignity restored. The straightening of the shoulders and the lifting of the head could not be denied!
In 1935 the door opened for Cam to begin work in Mexico, with its hundreds of unwritten languages. While living in an impoverished Aztec village, he was visited by the President of Mexico, who had heard news of what was happening. And thus the Lord continued to extend the tent-pegs for this humble man.
To date, the organization founded by Cam, Wycliffe Bible Translators, works in over 3000 distinct languages. That still leaves another 3000 people-groups waiting for the Scriptures to be made available to them. But what began with Cam responding to a searching "huh?" has resulted in millions coming into the Kingdom. What a legacy to leave!
And although it began with a simple "huh?", someone less sensitive than Cam might have missed the Lordís prod. But Cam was wide-open to how the Spirit might direct him. Are we?
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